It all started in the tiny town of Mauchline ("Mawk lin"), Ayrshire, where practical items of everyday use were made of wood from the plane tree, known in America as the Sycamore. Innovations in snuff box design, and superior quality of craftsmanship advanced the Mauchlineware industry. Soon merchants began to sell Mauchlineware pieces decorated with scenes of their own towns or territory which became popular among tourists as souvenirs. Photographs were also used, as were pen and ink drawings. Mauchlineware products were being made and sold with illustrations of scenes from all over the world. It was entirely possible for a Scottish traveler in Australia, for example, to send home to Glasgow a Mauchline box with an Australian scene, which had originally been made a few miles down the road in Mauchline!
William and Andrew Smith were the largest Mauchlineware manufacturers and became most closely identified with the development of Tartanware. As the business evolved, the wooden items were being decorated by hand with tartan patterns - a very costly endeavor. In the early 1840s the brothers Smith invented an ingenious inking machine which replicated tartan patterns on paper, which in turn was glued onto the wooden objects. Paper joints were carefully masked by black paint and covered with wavy gold lines. Small gold letters designated the clan represented by the tartan, then many layers of shellac were applied.. Tartanware had been born.
Tartanware experienced explosive growth following Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne in 1837 and her subsequent popularizing of "all things Scottish". In addition to being wildly popular as souvenirs, Tartanware was also extensively used in the kitchens, sewing rooms, and offices of the time. The most popular items included thread dispensers and organizers, thimble holders, egg cups, napkin rings, letter openers, pen trays, stamp boxes, and whisky glass holders.
Tartanware was produced in quantity into the early 20th Century until all production stopped in 1933 when a fire destroyed the machinery used to print the tartan patterns.