Collecting Vintage Melmac Dinnerware: History and Information
Mix and Match for Fun
Melmac: Colorful and Design Worthy
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
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
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 Is Waiting to Be Found!
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!
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
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
Russel Wright's Melmac was molded at Northern back in the 50s~