Collecting Vintage Melmac Dinnerware: History and Information
History of Melmac Dinnerware
Plastic dinnerware was found in many homes from 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 impending 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 was incorporated into 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 who 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 as "Melmac." This may be why some old ads for plastic dinnerware specifically say "Made of Melmac" while others just say Plaskon or 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 the highest quality standards.
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. Due to wartime constraints, plastic was soon to be the manufacturing material 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 to be used 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 the high demand for plastics. Most of their workload was industrial plastics.
Early Melamine Factories
- 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 its 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 dates 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). The earliest evidence of this line being made available to consumers is from 1946 according to Plastic Living. Ironically, this company would sell out the dinnerware division to Northern Chemical Company (above) circa 1960.
- Hemco Plastics: This firm 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 are in the 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).
Finding Vintage Melmac: Condition and Issues
Vintage Melmac is still plentiful to find at thrift stores, estate sales, online auction sites, and sites like Etsy. Cleaning Melmac, however, is another task. I would not let a set of dirty Melmac deter you from buying; it can be cleaned for use or display purposes with a little effort.
Melmac can't be microwaved or it will shatter, and shouldn't be used on the stove or it will discolor and burn. This is why some will find sets with burnt edges, or the bottoms of the plates burnt.
It was originally advertised that it was "safe for dishwasher" and came with a one, three, five, or ten-year guarantee on stains or issues. (I surmise that they started with fives and tens but slowly downsized; as in some of my research I talked to a lady who worked for Lapcor in Manitowoc, and said she was full time replacing stained coffee cups.)
Unfortunately, over time the dishwashing harsh agents did remove some of the "sheen" or "shine" on old melamine dishes. If you are using vintage Melmac for a display, you can shine it back to life.
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 its long production easy to make a whole set. Some Melmac is worth more in value than others as some of it was made by top designers at the time.
Value and Color: What You Should Know
Full sets in pretty 1950s colors such as pinks or blues are generally priced higher and still sought after. Finding sets of pink grows harder anymore. As a rule of thumb, the Melmac from the 1940s to the 1950s seems to be more sought after; not only for the age of the item but for the pastel and bright colors, some with speckles, that they produced.
The Melmac of the 1960s to 1980s was set to mirror the design trends. You will see more brown, tans, olive green, and mustard yellows. This is not as sought after, but the orange of the same era seems to be hard to find.
White melamine is subjective, as most was badly stained or shows knife marks making it hard to find. Color-Flyte in white is highly collected, and depending on the style, it could be sought after by collectors. For instance, rare is finding pieces made by Lucent, or Russel Wright Residential in white speckles, which eludes even me.
Floral lines and prints are plentiful, and many various flowers and floral lines exist. Collecting a set could be fun, and inexpensive to do. There are examples to every rule, however, the set below was designed by Joan Luntz for Brookpark, and is part of the Fantasy line, and is rare. Even though it's brown, and otherwise would be considered undesirable, it's rarity makes it worth its weight in Melmac.
This Brookpark Fantasy Melmac Set Is Valuable
Rare makers like Lucent, Fostoria (both glass companies that dabbled in melmac), Russel Wright and Raymond Loewy (both mid century modern designers) are highly sought after. Women designers also were known for their creations, as Joan Luntz designed for International Molding Company who made the modern Brookpark melamine. Boontonware made in New Jersey seems to be a household favorite, and the flowing Boonton Belle line was designed by Belle Kogan, a woman designer, from Russia born in 1902.
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 '70s 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!
The Melmac I collect, Russel Wright's Residential Line of Melmac, had recently been reproduced by designer Michele Yeeles, owner of "Bob's Your Uncle" in conjunction with Russel Wright Studios, and was being distributed out of Boston, Massachusetts.
Ironically, their headquarters was very close to the original location of Northern's factory in South Boston where 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. Do your diligence to research if you have new or reproduced melamine.
Many commercial lines of melamine dinnerware are still being produced to this day, and are molded in the same shapes as vintage. The Prolon factory is still in business, and still makes shapes for restaurants and industry today.
How Melamine Dishes are Made Today
Links to Melmac Informational Sites
- Melmac Central Retro Chalet Mid Century Modern Plastics Melamine Dinnerware
A-Z List of Melmac manufacturers, identification information and Special Tribute to Russel Wright
Watertown Melmac History, Jon Hedu, and Early Airlines Plastic
This book, published in 1997, is the one that got me into collecting. It shows a lot of makers and a bit of history. If you desire paper books, a used one can be found on Amazon.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2011 Cindy Fahnestock-Schafer