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Dishin’ About Dinnerware | Antiques & History |

Dishin’ About Dinnerware | Antiques & History

GRANTVILLE, Pa. — “If you like a style of (dinnerware), collect it. Don’t worry about its value, just use it,” advised Wade Seibert during the recent “Dinner Is Served” program.

He and his wife, Jean Seibert, gave the presentation about antique dinnerware to the East Hanover Township Historical Society in Dauphin County in March.

The Seiberts are residents of Hummelstown and members of the neighboring Hummelstown Area Historical Society. Wade is a retired university professor, while Jean is a practicing attorney. At the East Hanover program, the couple exhibited an assortment of the Hummelstown Historical Society’s dinnerware from the early 1800s to the latter part of the 20th century. Attendees at the event were also encouraged to bring along dinnerware from their own collections to display and discuss. Many types of china, stoneware, redware, graniteware, pewter, tin and Depression glass were exhibited, along with paper cups, paper plates, melamine, plasticware and Corelle dinnerware.

Jean Seibert explained that hundreds of years ago a Chinese emperor created pottery dishes, or “china,” which then became the general term used for dinnerware made from various types of clay. By 1400 A.D., the making of pottery dishes had spread westward from China to Europe, where pottery compositions varied according to the types of clays found in different regions. Even modern-day china plants in the United States are located close to good sources of clay, she said, with Ohio and West Virginia historically having numerous dinnerware manufacturers.

Much of the early dinnerware in America came from Europe, with England, Germany and France being the leading suppliers. Limoges, France, became known for its milky looking china. Germany’s Bavarian china was very thin, while Dresden china often featured cut-out designs around the dish borders.

In England, Josiah Wedgwood founded his china company in 1759. Blue was one of the first pigments used to color china. However, Wade Seibert explained that the British disliked the early dark blue tones, desiring more delicate shades for their fine china. Since blue was a favorite color in the American colonies, many of these early blue pieces were shipped to America.

In East Hanover, a display of blue-patterned tableware by British manufacturers included a small Staffordshireware tureen from about 1810. It had a missing top piece that exposed the coarseness of this china’s texture. Jean Seibert pointed out that Staffordshire didn’t have a fine clay to work with for its pieces.

Flow Blue china is another example of early Americans’ love for this English-produced color. The original pieces were actually the result of a mistake, with their blue designs becoming indistinct during the firing process. The British eventually discovered that adding lye to the cobalt oxide pigment resulted in less blurring.

By 1830, transferware became popular, using a complicated system of inking engraved metal plates, applying the inked engravings to tissue paper, placing the tissue paper over a blank plate, and then glazing and firing the piece. Blue became only one of many colors, including red, green, black, mulberry and brown. There would come to be thousands of patterns.

Jean Seibert called attention to a circa-1830s English “ABC plate,” with raised letters of the alphabet inscribed around its border and a storybook picture and caption in the center of the plate. These plates were used as learning tools to help children with their letters.

Imported china was expensive, so it was only a matter of time until America began making its own dinnerware. Companies often started out making functional items like match safes, tureens and chamber pots, then switched to dinnerware. Most imported china bears a “back stamp” with the name and country of the manufacturer; however, American pottery companies would disguise their efforts by not including a back stamp, or would give misleading names like “Royal” to their wares to make them seem imported.

The formal Victorian era was a heyday for dinnerware. The Victorians “had a plate for everything” according to Wade Seibert. There were oyster plates, artichoke plates, bone dishes and butter bowls, among others. Old dinner plates were relatively small, because Americans ate considerably less in times past

Commercial china made for institutions, restaurants and the military was introduced in the early 1900s. It was heavier and plainer in design, to withstand daily use, and replacement pieces remained available for 10 to 15 years. Railroads and hotels often had distinctive china bearing their logos.

Hard economic times in the 1930s led to Depression glass in various pastel shades. Molded to look like expensive cut glass, these pieces were affordable “luxuries.” Five and ten stores like Kresge’s carried pretty plates at reasonable prices. Attractive promotional dinnerware was “free,” and used as an incentive inside boxes of laundry soap, given away at filling stations or offered during “dish nights” at movie theaters.

Introduced in 1936, Homer Laughlin Co.’s Fiestaware is the most collected brand of American dinnerware. Marigold and turquoise were the two earliest colors; green remains the rarest of the 47 Fiestaware hues.

The 20th century brought unbreakable melamine and Corelle plates, as well as plastic picnic sets. Paper plates originated in 1904, while three years later, paper “health cups” got their start after a little girl was seen drinking from a shared cup which had just been used by a man with tuberculosis.

For those desiring to get rich selling their antique dinnerware, Wade Seibert brought bad news. Market values have fallen for most dishes, in part because the younger generation, or millennials, have little interest in them, preferring microwavable and dishwasher-proof wares. Regarding vintage dinnerware, he advises that, “Value is how it resonates with you. If you’ve got it, use it, and if you know someone who wants it, give it to them.”

Seibert added, “If you have china in your cupboard and you know its history, write it down for future generations.”

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