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Collecting Vintage Melmac Dinnerware: History and Information

Updated on February 14, 2017

Mix and Match for Fun

My cup collection from my instagram @retrochalet
My cup collection from my instagram @retrochalet | Source

Melmac: Colorful and Design Worthy

Meladur, a line produced by Russel Wright and GATX.
Meladur, a line produced by Russel Wright and GATX. | Source

History of Melmac Dinnerware

Plastic dinnerware was found in many homes in the 1940s through the 1970s and is highly collectible now. During the 1930s the raw material "melamine" hit an all time low price. With heightening wartime threats and soon to be monetary constraints, American industrialists jumped on the bandwagon to make melamine into functional products for both commercial and households.

Melamine, a thermoset plastic material was used in many factories and in much dinnerware production by the late 1940s. American Cyanamid was one of the leading manufacturers and distributors of melamine powder to plastics molders. They name-branded their version "Melmac".

One of the benefits of molders purchasing from American Cyanamid, was the advertising campaign for Melmac. Just look in any old Life magazines from the early 1950s and you will see how heavily Melmac the wonder plastic was marketed by American Cyanamid There were other manufacturers whom would offer melamine powders for molding (Allied Chemical and PMC Manufacturing to name a few), if a molder were to purchase from a non-Cyanamid distributor they could not refer to their melamine dishes "melmac". This may be why some old ads for plastic dinnerware specifically say "Made of Melmac" and others may say Plaskon, or perhaps just melamine.

American Cyanamid constantly improved their formulas, and did extensive consumer product testing and research (even hiring Russel Wright to do a long survey and compile reports in the mid 1940s.) Additionally, American Cyanamid (pre 1960) would send inspectors to certain factories to make sure that melmac dishes were meeting certain specifications and highest quality standards.

Watertown Woodbine Pattern

Watertown's Woodbine
Watertown's Woodbine | Source

Why Melamine? Early Plastics Dinnerware Manufacturing

The actual material "melamine" was dirt cheap in the mid to late 1930s and there was a push to use this new material for all kinds of things. Entering wartime constraints, plastic was soon to be the wave of the future. Housewares made of early plastics, resins and Bakelite did not hold up well or withstand regular washings or heat, but when melamine began in dinnerware production for the military, it proved that this new "improved plastic" could indeed hold up well.

Early melamine manufacturers experimenting with melamine operated 24/7 just to keep up with plastics demands. Most of their workload was industrial plastics. Some early factories included:

Northern Industrial Chemical Company of South Boston - This company founded in 1904 would later take up residence on Elkins Street in South Boston. The company made all kinds of plastics including telephone handsets and electrical components. This company also turned out some of the early Pioneers in Plastics History including Hans Wanders and F. Reed Estabrook. By the 1940s, they were making airline melamine and working on post war production of molded dinnerware. They were perhaps best known for working with Russel Wright, to produce Residential which made it's place into the Modern Museum of Art's collection. Later they would produce his Home Decorators and Flair lines also. By 1962, this company was in serious financial ruin and would later vanish without much trace.

Watertown Manufacturing Company of Watertown, Connecticut. This company has ties back to 1915, and made early industrial plastics. Jon Hedu, then-designer worked with the Navy to make military wares. Watertown's best selling Lifetime Ware line would make the Modern Museum of Art's permanent collection (which is cited as being dated to 1940 according to them.) Earliest evidence of this line being available to consumers was 1946 according to Plastic Living. Ironically, this company would sell out the dinnerware division to Northern Chemical Company (above) circa 1960.

Hemco Plastics - Became A Division of Bryant Electric Company Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1928. Electrical components, industrial parts for washing machines (Westinghouse), and early Hemcoware kid's dishes were some of the staples produced here. Ironically having ties to Westinghouse made it convenient for molding everything from plastic stove knobs, to later branded Melmac Dishes. Examples of this line is in in Modern Museum of Art's permanent collection.

By the late 1940s there were many molders making melamine dishes including Boonton Molding of Boonton, New Jersey (Boontonware) and PMC Manufacturing Company of Dallas, Texas (Texasware).

Russel Wright's Residential is Museum Worthy

Russel Wright Residential Melmac Dinnerware made the MOMA Good Design award in 1953 and 1954!
Russel Wright Residential Melmac Dinnerware made the MOMA Good Design award in 1953 and 1954! | Source

Finding Vintage Melmac

Vintage melmac is still plentiful to find at thrift stores, estate sales, online auction sites, and sites like Etsy. Cleaning melmac, even the scratched or dirty pieces can be easy if you follow a few rules. There's a great article I wrote about it on Squidoo which I have linked below.

Melmac can't be microwaved or it will shatter, and shouldn't be used on the stove or it will discolor and burn. It's great for picnics in the summer, and looks great in your vintage kitchen for dinner. Avoid heavy steak knife usage though to avoid deep scratches.

It's fun to collect it and due to it's long production easy to make a whole set. Some melmac is worth more in value than others. Full sets in pretty colors such as pinks or blues are generally priced higher. Rare makers like Lucent, Fostoria (both glass companies that dabbled in melmac), Russel Wright and Raymond Loewy designs are highly sought after.

Vintage melamine is in itself, a form of good design. Many pieces of these dishes made it into the Modern Museum of Art, and other museums for their shapely forms and great design!

My Melmac Room

Melmac collecting makes a fun and interesting hobby.
Melmac collecting makes a fun and interesting hobby. | Source

Melmac is Waiting to Be Found!

Melmac is lurking in people's basements, in attics, just waiting to be found.
Melmac is lurking in people's basements, in attics, just waiting to be found. | Source

What Should You Collect and How To Find Melmac

Collect what you like. Full sets are sometimes hard to find, but you can start inexpensively piecing sets together that you think are cool or fun! There are so many makers, lines, patterns and colors that you could easily start whatever moves you. One can easily start a pink set, but even after twenty pieces realize that if comprised of many manufacturers each may be off a slight hue off in color. Decide what lines you like best, and go from there.

Boontonware, Brookpark's Modern Design, Texasware, Branchell's Colorflyte and Watertown are still plentiful and turn up often, even their earliest designs. I assume this was due to the sheer amount and popularity produced. You will also find a lot of later 70's melmac and early 80's Allied, Lenox/Lenoxware, Dallasware, TexasWare, and Oneida are still floating around.

Look at local thrift stores, church bazaar's, on auction sites like Ebay and vintage sites like Etsy. Be aware with so many makers and manufacturers that assembling collections may be hard to do, and no two pinks seem to be alike! The hunt is fun!


Molding of Dishes Today

Russel Wright Melamine: What is Old is New Again

The melmac I collect, Russel Wright's Residential Line of Melmac has recently been reproduced by designer Michele Yeeles, owner of "Bob's Your Uncle" in conjunction with Russel Wright Studios, and is newly being distributed out of Boston, Massachusetts.

Ironically, their headquarters is very close to the original location of where Northerns' factory was in South Boston, that the original dishes were made over 60 years ago. New molds were made to reproduce the original shapes, and colors very similar. This goes to prove this melamine is design worthy and will withstand the test of time.

Colors are very close to the old, and this gives new collectors of today an opportunity to assemble a set.

Where Russel Wright Melmac Was Originally Produced

A markerElkins Street Boston, Massachusetts -
Elkins Street, Boston, MA 02127, USA
get directions

Russel Wright's Melmac was molded at Northern back in the 50s~

Melmac is a Fun Hobby

My Melmac room
My Melmac room | Source

Please leave me some comments or tell me about your melmac collection!

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    • profile image

      Heidi Trieu 3 weeks ago

      I love mid century modern and in the last few years I have fallen in love with melmac. I mostly have picked up odds and ends for very little money. Recently though I got this set. I bought it to sell but I really like it so we'll see☺. I wish I could send some pics! I've never seen this pattern before. I got it in the original box. It's duraware and the pattern is Indian song cocoa. I got 28 pcs of it.

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      Lori Winge 3 weeks ago

      I inherited from my Aunt two large boxes, with 12 small, unopend boxes from the 50's of melmac. Sun-Valley Melmac by stetson. One place setting in each box, golden wheat. I have a lady that wants to buy them, not sure what they are worth. Anybody that could help me? Thanks!

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      Jeanette Bennett 4 weeks ago

      Does anyone know anything about Gothamware? I was cleaning out my mom's shed and ran across a small yellow mug that says "Gothamware Made in USA" on the bottom. From the size I think it might have been from a children's play set. It's plastic and I'm guessing it's Melmac, since it's sturdy, although I could be wrong.

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      Steve Canterbury 7 weeks ago

      I just bumped into your amazing, well-researched, and charming site. You really know your stuff.

      I've been collecting Melmac since the mid-1970s, and have several boxes full of the usual: a wide-ranging group of miscellaneous pieces besides my focuses, which are pieces by R. Wright in his various patterns and companies (including some of his Japanese stuff); Florence Prolon; Arrowhead and its successor, Brookpark "a modern design"; and my favorite, Branchell, from Color-Flyte through Royale (and, ultimately, plain, old Branchell).

      I don't know of any other set besides Branchell that did it all -- two sizes of tumblers (that fit together perfectly for easy storage), serving pieces from small to huge, individual ashtrays, group ashtrays, handled bowls, salad serving sets, and flatware (really unique among the Melmac offerings, I think, although you may know of other companies that produced matching flatware for their Melmac dishes sets). The eight mottled colors are really a palette for the fifties.

      Finally, I can't help but noticed that you, too, are from West Virginia, a fellow traveler, although you're in the booming and refined eastern panhandle, and I'm way down in the southern part of the state, five or more hours away.

      I'd love to make contact, but I don't want to be pushy. I've recently been forced into retirement, and I'm going through boxes in storage, which is why I turned to the internet and there you are! (The Branchell dishes and flatware are part of my daily life; I've been using them for decades. My daughter was raised with them, though she wanted the squareware when she went off to college -- what a rebel!)

      Anyway, thanks for doing all you do and doing it so well.

      Steve

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      Suzanne McNaughton 8 weeks ago

      Fabulous to read all this information about Melmac. I have my mother's Btanchell Co. Melmac and my grandmother's Royalon Inc. Melmac. Great history!

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      Jeannine Linder 2 months ago

      I just found and received a FULL SET of Autumn Lily and they still had the original packaging (someone was a pack rat), but you can bet I will be saving those original boxes too. It is lightly used, but the condition is unbelievable. I feel like a kid at Christmas

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      shewa47@hotmail .com 15 months ago

      i have some that are lournay.please let me know? Thanks

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      Derrel Lyon 22 months ago

      My Story by Derrel Lyon

      I worked in the molding dept. at Plastics Mfg. Co. from 1972-1980. My dad Bill Lyon worked there starting in 1946 at the Trunk Ave. plant and ended up working there as a quality control supervisor until 1980 at the Westmoreland Rd. location. It was sometime in the late 1950s when the new plant was built on S. Westmoreland in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Tx. The compound finishing (melamine raw material) building was added in the 1960s. As a quality control supervisor, my dad was the one who looked over the rejected, pre-molded, melamine pills to be ground together to be used for the speckle ware mixing bowls. Some were solid color, but most were whatever he selected of several colors of rejected melamine material put into a grinder and reprocessed into pills to be molded. As a molder, I occasionally was assigned to work the steam heated, compression hydraulic press that molded the mixing bowls. Since the melamine pills for the mixing bowls were made from rejected materials, about a fifth of the bowls that were molded had big bubbled places where the plastic "popcorned" .These bowls were totally rejected on the spot, by knocking out the bottom of the bowl on the corner of the metal work table, and then thrown into a bin.

      Texas Ware was the heavier, more commercial use products ( mixing bowls, lunch trays etc.), while Dallas Ware was the lighter weight home dishware. The dinner plates with the varied designs were made in two steps. Eight (hockey puck shaped) melamine pills were heated in a (very early version) microwave oven, then each pill was placed in the center of double stacked molds. The press closed with a huge, powerful, hydraulic scissor jack. After closed the dishes cured in the mold for about a minute. When it opened, silk screened overlays (with the designs printed on them) were placed on top of each dish plate, and the mold closed again for about 30 seconds. The dishes were then removed from the mold using compressed air. The excess plastic (flashing) around the edges was knocked off, and at the end of the shift the stacked dishes were carted to the finishing room to grind and buff the edges. (my brother worked in that dept.) I know some machines and molds were already being shipped to Mexico by the early 1980s which was the beginning of the end for Plastic Mfg.

    • profile image

      Gary Joy 2 years ago

      My grandfather started Plastics Mfg. Co. in Dallas in the late 40s - my father ran the company until his death in 83. For many years it was the largest manufacturer of melamine dinnerware in the world, as well as the only plastic dinnerware sold at Neiman-Marcus! I worked in the outlet store while in college in the early 70s so I may be able to answer some TexasWare/DallasWare questions.

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      violet petricig 2 years ago

      I have a a watermelon color bowl, it was in December of 1954.number is

      511c 40 or 4Q is it worth any thing.

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      LisaKeating 2 years ago

      I enjoyed this article. I was unaware of the history of the product. As a collector, I will start to keep an eye out for this. Thanks.

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      wNo 3 years ago

      Related to Kathy's question, if it's not too late! I just went looking for Pyrex and somehow came home with melamine, including 7 bowls -- all aqua and all shelved together. Two are matching Texasware. The rest I thought were a set unto themselves, 2 small, 2 a little larger and 1 a little larger than that. But I realize the largest is probably not the same as the others. It is marked with only a tiny "B." The other four, like Kathy's are marked simply with a small or superscript 10 and 7415, 7415 and a small 15, and two smallest are 7405.

      Thoroughly useless but I'm putting it out there in case anyone else stumbles on this page and comments as I did!

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      Reed 3 years ago

      Do you know where the Windsor line was manufactured?

    • profile image

      Faplana 3 years ago

      Take a look... I guess you will enjoy!

      http://www.vintagemelaminebyfaplana.blogspot.pt/20...

    • profile image

      Itwassuchagooddeal 3 years ago

      Please help - I am at a loss - I have a cocktail tray - the mark on the back is from the 7-up company - melamine - dining ware

      I found this in a box of estate sale items I purchased and it does not seem to exist -

      Dazed confused and looking for 7 up -

    • Ira Mency profile image
      Author

      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 3 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      That is funny. Lots of ferny-like patterns came out in the sixties. Keep looking on ebay and etsy and you may find out the pattern name. You can also do a search for Lenoxware ads and see if you can find it in an old advertisement!

    • Ira Mency profile image
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      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 3 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      Never heard of this!

    • Ira Mency profile image
      Author

      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 3 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      Those are mold markings, meaning the number of the dish as it was placed in the metal mold. Texas Ware, Boonton and most major factories used them. It may be hard to find a match but keep looking.

    • Ira Mency profile image
      Author

      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 3 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      Where are you? I need to talk to you! Look me up at http://www.MemacCentral.com and email me!

    • Ira Mency profile image
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      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 3 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      Pam, best thing to do is look up ebay and etsy, and find a happy medium, and you may even find the name of your set! If you can't find the exact set your mom may have a less produced item therefore more value. However, that's subjective if the set is used, chances are it may have scratching or dulling, and this will retract from the collectiblity value. Supply and demand is driving the prices now.

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      Kathy 3 years ago

      I have a single dessert/sauce bowl that measures about 5 inches across and 1 1/8 inch deep. There is no company name listed, just the number 7405. How can I find out who made this?

      I've been searching on eBay and Etsy. Lots of pink bowls but not like this one. I did find a single brown bowl but the person is unable to take questions about their product.

    • profile image

      Pam 3 years ago

      My Mom got a set of Melmac for Christmas in 1960 still has the set.Does anyone know how to find the value. Pam

    • profile image

      Chetjr 4 years ago

      I knew has wanders an reed estabrook

      My dad worked at northern industrial I now own a thermoset co an would love to find the old mold to run tks

    • Ira Mency profile image
      Author

      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 4 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      information can be found online compare at ebay, etsy, auctions, and collectible guides and of course, condition is very important.

    • Ira Mency profile image
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      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 4 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      Must have been all that formeldehyde they were huffing!

    • Ira Mency profile image
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      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 4 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      Yes!

    • Ira Mency profile image
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      Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer 4 years ago from Hedgesville, WV

      Allied Chemical did put out their own melamine for awhile, even though they did also make the melamine powers.

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      Sharon 4 years ago

      I have childware, I have no idea how much they are worth or how old. Any information is welcomed. thank you

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      swest77wv 5 years ago

      Just accidentally started to collect. Found a full set of LENOXWARE melamine in near perfect condition. Lovely avocado green from the 60/70s era. Wondering if anyone knows about a pattern that looks strangely to me like marijuana leaves. Someone in that era at Lenox may have had a sense of humor. :-)

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      diana 5 years ago

      i have a small white bowl,bottom:allied chemical,53, usa, has a green astronaut inside with rock formation and appears to have broken spaceship also, please help

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      Joan 5 years ago

      I love old melmac dishes, reminds me of the texasware my mom used to have. Thanks for writing this post!

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      John from NYC 6 years ago

      I love this information thanks for all you do for plastics.

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      W.S. 6 years ago

      I want to say I am a big fan of the http://RetroChalet.blogspot.com site and thank u for all the free information.

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      John 6 years ago

      Nice job, you melmac diva you.