Collecting Antique and Vintage Plates and Dishware
Why do people collect plates? Let's face it, most of us do in one way or another. We use plates every day, for simple family meals, or for special occasions, and holidays. But some of us have a few more plates than necessary or practical.
The true allure of collecting dishware is that some people just love it. We love the design, the color, or the pattern. Old plates have a secret history, a silent backstory of conversations over tea; plates hauled across oceans, or bought when a family moved up the socioeconomic ladder and were suddenly able to afford pretty instead of merely useful.
We've picked up dishware at flea markets or yard sales, eyes caught by the simple beauty of an every day article made remarkable by color or shape.
Sure, some folks purchased collector plates from, say, the Franklin Mint or other sources that once presented plates as an investment. Sadly, for those folks, the "investment" did not hold its value. Few of these types of plates hold any value at all unless you own the complete set.
The History of Porcelain
While pottery is a very old craft, fine porcelain was first produced in China sometime between 960 - 1127 CE (AD). The discovery of kaolin clay made it possible to fire dishware at high temperatures (2200 - 2600 degrees Fahrenheit) creating a brilliant white product.
When Marco Polo returned from the Far East in 1295, he brought ceramic dishes he called "porcella," comparing them to delicate sea shells. The word "porcelain" is derived from "porcella." Eventually, dishes were called "china" based on the country of origin.
Europeans embraced the beautiful dishes with cobalt blue decorations against a bright, white background. Only royalty and the very wealthy could afford fine china. The pagodas, dragons, storks, peonies, lotus flowers, and chrysanthemums of old Chinese porcelain designs remain popular to this day.
Tin-glazed earthenware created in Italy during the Renaissance also became popular. Dark earthenware pottery covered with a tin glaze created a dazzling white surface. (Delftware and Majolica were originally tin-glazed earthenware)
By the 17th century, Chinese porcelain poured into Europe and people began collecting colorful patterns and blue on white dishware with a sort of mania. But Europeans had not been able to reproduce the formula to create their own porcelain.
18th-Century European Porcelain
18th Century European Porcelain
It wasn't until the early 18th century that Europe was able to make true porcelain. In 1709, the process for the creation of hard paste pocelain was discovered in Germany. Augustus the Strong founded Meissen in 1710, creating luxury china with sophisticated patterns. Old Meissen is highly collectible today, very expensive, and often identified as museum pieces.
King Louis XV of France took a great interest in the production of porcelain. In 1738, he founded a factory at Chateau de Vincennes, then moved production to Sevres in 1758, He presented his soft-paste porcelain at annual sales that he held in his private dining room. Nobles curried the favor of the king by buying up his china.
When kaolinite, the mineral in clay that is a major component of porcelain, was discovered in Limoges, France, the area became synonymous with elegant French tableware.
Wedgewood was founded in the 18th century by Josiah Wedgewood. A genius at marketing, Wedgewood offered his product in catalogs. He set up a London showroom, solicited endorsements from high-society customers, and commissioned designs from prominent artists.
After an apprenticeship, Josiah Spode opened a factory in Stoke-on-Trent in 1770. He refined the process for the production of transfer printing of engraved designs and improved the formula for fine bone china. In 1833, the Spode heirs sold the business to William Taylor Copeland and Thomas Garrett, who renamed the company Copeland and Garrett. But the name Spode lives on.
How to Identify and Value Dishware
Perfectly lovely vintage style dishes can be found quite cheaply at flea markets, thrift stores, and yard sales. Old designs are often reproduced, and manufacturers like Johnsonville and Spode offer new versions of old favorites.
Identifying old plates demands a lot of research and education. You cannot always rely on online sellers. An antique dish ought to be at least 100 years old, but items on, say, eBay are often listed as "antique" or "rare" without being so. A true antique or other valuable item will be offered with a detailed product description including manufacturer, date, pattern, country of origin and condition. A real expert will tell you why the item is rare or valuable.
Very old or unique pieces can be very expensive. British Antique Roadshow once featured a large platter that was valued at 100,000 pounds. Face it, plates break. If a high end or special commission piece has lasted 200 years, it's going to be valuable for that reason alone. The chances of finding such a treasure at a yard sale are extremely low.
If a current producer suggests that a "collectible" plate will increase in value, do not believe it. No one can predict the future.
The easiest way to learn the value of any antique is to take it to an appraiser. If you take it to a dealer, remember that they will offer you less than an item's appraised value, because a dealer must consider overhead, marketability, and profit.
If you want to research the item yourself, you can attempt to describe the pattern and backstamp on Google Images, or find information online at sites like Replacements LTD or Kovels.
- Backstamps appear on the bottom of a plate. In general, they were pressed into the surface of pieces made before 1899, so printed stamps mean the dish was made after 1900.
- A date may indicate when a pattern was introduced, not when the specific item was manufactured.
- The word "trademark" on an English dish indicates it was made from 1855 on. "LTD" was added to English company names beginning in 1886.
- If there is no country of origin stated, the plate was probably made before 1891, when the McKinley Tariff Act mandated such information on commercially imported dishware. But this rule of thumb would not apply if your great-grandmother brought a plate to the US from the old country, wrapped up in a quilt.
From the 16th to the 18th century, the custom of dining grew more and more elaborate. While 16th century diners shared plates, the French court introduced the concept of separate plates. By the mid 19th century, dining à la russe came into vogue: the Russian style where individual plated foods were delivered to each guest.
A wide variety of plates emerged to fit the consumption-oriented Victorians including special plates for lunch, tea, fish, bread, salads, cheeses, and desserts. You can generally identify the type of plate by size. Fish plates usually feature a picture of a fish. Oyster plates have a circle of indentations to hold oysters.
A charger, or service plate, is a decorative placeholder and is 11 - 14 inches in diameter.
Dinner plate: 10 - 11"
Luncheon plate: 9 - 9 1/2"
Salad plate: 8 - 8 1/2"
Bread plate: 6 - 7"
Fish plate: 8 - 9"
Dessert plate: 7 1/4 - 8 1/2"
Cheese plate: 7 1/4"
Tea plates: 7 - 7 1/2"
Transferware: China for the Middle Class
Transferware was introduced in the mid 1700s and increased in popularity during the Victoria era. Ink transferred from a copper plate onto damp tissue paper was applied to fired china. The piece was fired again at a relatively low temperature to fix the design, then fired a third time at a higher temperature. The inexpensive mass-produced china became popular with the growing middle class.
Designs were often copies of etchings, and included romantic scenes from the English countryside, quaint town scenes, or views of Italy, India, or China.
Other design motifs included portraits of historical figures, exotic animals, flowers, and scenes from stories or literature. After the War of 1812, English dishware makers began to produce items for the US market that included scenes from well-known American places, natural landmarks, significant buildings, and rail roads.
As scenic designs grew in popularity, many souvenirs were offered to tourists. In the days before everyone had a camera, people would purchase images from their travels on plates. World's Fair plates have been highly collectible ever since London's Great Exhibition in 1856. Souvenir plates can be pretty transferware, or cheaply produced so-ugly-they're-cute.
Popular Modern Dishware
Fiesta was introduced by Homer Laughlin China Company in 1936 in red, blue, light green, canary yellow, and ivory. Other colors were added in subsequent years, including turquoise, rose, gray, antique gold, and several other shades of green. The line was discontinued in 1973. The plain, brightly colored dishware became hugely collectible and was reintroduced in 1986.
Depression Glass was a type of glass dishware that gained popularity in the 1920s. New manufacturing techniques and materials allowed the production of clear glass plates, bowls, etc. Popular colors included pink green, and gold.
Corelle was introduced in 1970. The light, thin plates, bowls, and cups stored well and stood up to heavy use. Bu laminating three layers of tempered glass, Corning was able to offer a family-friendly product.
Noritake was opened in 1904 by the Morimura Brothers producing products to appeal to Americans in both high-end and budget markets. After World War II , they marketed under the name "Rose China" to avoid negative feelings toward Japan in the postwar years. By 1953, the name Noritake was back, with a new backstamp (the letter "N" inside a wreath), and is today one of the largest producers of dinnerware in the world.
Flow Blue is a highly collectible china that was first produced by accident. When the cobalt color ran during firing, it created a smudged appearance. At first deemed a failure, the china was shipped to the United States where it caught on in a big way. The production of Flow Blue ceased during World War I due to shortages of the materials needed.
Blue Willow has been a popular transferware design since the late 1700s, being reproduced with variations ever since. Blue Willow is the quintessential story plate, illustrating the tragic tale of two lovers. Elements of the design include a slanted tree, a pagoda, a boat, and two doves at the top. The same design produced in other colors (cranberry or brown) is commonly known as Willow Ware.
Satisfaction When You Can't Afford the Best
Falling in love with an expensive brand of dishware may make you swoon in secret, but you can duplicate the style for less. Royal Copenhagen's Blue Fluted dishware has been produced since 1775. Its clean, classic look has been copied ever since. Above you can see the real thing on display. Below, you can see Lipper and Man's Blue Fjord, which can be found at one third the price of the original.
Care and Storage of Vintage Dishware
- If your favorite plates are recent reproductions of favorite vintage dishware, you can clean them in the dishwasher, but if your dishware is old it's best to avoid using the dishwasher.
- Clean old dishware in warm water using a mild detergent and a soft cloth. Line the sink with a dishtowel to avoid breakage. Rinse with warm water. Sudden changes in water temperature can lead to crazing (a lot of tiny cracks).
- Dry with a soft cloth.
- Store older dishware that is not on display in padded containers. Place cushioning material between plates.
Do not use very old dishes, or dishware that is crazed, chipped, or cracked. Lead may have been used in the production and the damaged surface can allow lead to leach out onto foods.