Collecting Mania: Cake Stands

Three hundred years after they first appeared on American tables, footed serving plates show no sign of stepping out of the spotlight.

In 18th-century America, dining á la française was all the rage, and accomplished hostesses were expected to present their guests with a feast for the eye as well as the palate. During the dessert course - envisioned as the sweet finale to a lengthy, multiple-course meal - tables were laden with lavish spreads of fresh, dried, and candied fruits, nuts and sweetmeats, cakes and tarts, puddings and trifles, and syllabub and jewel-toned fruit jellies. Footed servers, known as salvers, would frequently be stacked into pyramids at the center of the table and topped with an array of delicacies and decorations.

While dining in America has evolved into a much more casual affair, the practice of placing desserts on salvers - better known today as cake stands - has passed from generation to generation. From the ironstone and pressed-glass stands churned out by Victorian factories to the "Elegant Glass" serving pieces marketed by companies like Fostoria and Heisey during the Depression era, cake stands remain appreciated as much for their graceful form as for their utility.

Not so long ago antique-glass dealers showed little interest in acquiring cake stands. Now everybody wants them, as over the last decade, the demand has increased significantly. While late-19th-century pattern glass has long been considered collectible (particularly favorite designs like Bleeding Heart and Lily of the Valley), simple unpatterned pieces from the same period are currently in vogue. What places them in demand, Evans says, is that they come in a range of sizes that make for easy stacking.

Square cake stands made in America by Fostoria Glass are also popular with current collectors. Certain patterns have been reproduced in recent years, so buyers should be wary of new pieces being passed off as old.

Nineteenth-century ironstone cakestands are another prize. Early ironstone bore transfer-printed designs, but the later unembellished pieces now hold the greatest appeal for collectors. Details to look for include a ring on the pedestal and roping along the scalloped edge of the apron (the band which surrounds the top rim).

Ironstone was patented by Charles Mason in 1813 and copied by hundreds of imitators in the following decades. It's one of the most popular tablewares ever produced in England. Raised lips on vintage cut-glass and pressed-glass stands assured that sweets would not slide off. Antique cake stands are still available through glass and ceramics dealers. Prices vary widely, with many pieces selling for less than $200.

Cake stands are truly a nostalgic throw back to that Golden Age of American life when the family dinner was not so much a chore as a tribal ritual, where the whole family would get together around a dinner table to enjoy the superlative cooking and presentation skills of the family mom, while they engaged in conversation and light hearted banter. When we consider the sweetness and glory of this lost tradition, it certainly makes the fast food gulped down from a Styrofoam container taste very bitter indeed.

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