Collecting Restaurant China 1920s-1970s From Antiques to Funky
History of Restaurant China
Today,Restaurants offer an incredible array of cuisines from many cultures, but since I'm a nut about antiques and collectibles, there is something I miss when dining out. There was a time when restaurants, hotel restaurants, private clubs, hospitals, railroad dining cars, shipping lines, airlines, department store restaurants and even the military had distinctive, colorful, durable restaurant china. To withstand countless washings and scratches and careless waiters, waitresses, patrons and dishwashers, restaurant china was produced to be extremely durable. To add a personal advertising touch to the establishment where the food was served, the logos, designs, lettering and colors on restaurant china were distinctive.
Lines of restaurant china were designed to have a number of serving pieces. A typical single place setting might have included: a dinner plate, a salad plate, a bread plate, a butter pat dish, a vegetable dish, a cup and saucer or a mug (cafes) a creamer, a sugar bowl or sugar packet holder, an individual gravy or sauce server, a small teapot, an egg cup, a "berry" size bowl, a soup bowl, and a salt and pepper shaker. Another design feature that makes restaurant china different from dinnerware produced now is that oval shaped plates were very popular as opposed to today's standard round plates.
Restaurant china was made in America as early as 1866 by the Onondaga Pottery (New York State) which later became Syracuse China. The process of creating a durable commerical grade china began by using a natural clay (kaolin) that was known for its hardness, and then the pieces were fired at a high temperature during the first firing. The pieces were glazed and fired a second time at a lower temperature. The end result of this process was the creation of a heavy, vitrified china which is able to withstand high temperatures, non-porous to liquids, and is durable enough to avoid cracking and chipping . The heavier pieces usually indicate older pieces, and the thinner pieces of restaurant china are usually the newer pieces.
A Cup of Joe
Used at Arizona Hotels
Collecting Restaurant China
Pottery Companies and Designs
As with most good inventions, vitrified china was soon produced by a number of pottery companies. It is reasonable to assume that anywhere dining took place, an opportunity to sell restaurant china existed. Many of America's hotels contained restaurants and some of the larger hotels contained a formal dining room and a coffee shop. Hotel owners often ordered one pattern of restaurant china for the dining room and one pattern for the coffee shop.
In the early days of railroad travel, passengers were forced to carry their own food, or to wait for a station stop to eat whatever was available. Picture horrible greasy pots of stew or beans that had been sitting for who knows how long! When Fred Harvey began serving excellent food to passengers in the first Harvey Houses, and later in the Harvey Hotels located next to the railroad stations a new standard was set. Businessmen like Fred Harvey developed an entire "dining experience" which included finding artists to design china for the railroad dining cars and his restaurants that would reflect specific railroad lines and the areas in which they offered service. For example The Great Northern Railroad china featured pine trees; whereas, The Santa Fe Railroad china often had Southwestern designs. Mary Jane Coulter, who designed some of the historic buildings on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, was one of the artists employed by the Harvey Company to design lines of restaurant china. Railroad china is one of the most sought after and high priced types of restaurant china.
Some readers won't remember real food being served on airlines, and which was included in the price of the fare, but some readers can remember a time when most airlines had their own line of restaurant china. Picture a tray of food, a linen napkin, a real glass for water and coffee served in a china cup and saucer, which was available to all passengers. (I do realize that on International flights, and in first class seating, some airlines do offer dining service today.) The designs for airline china tended to be simple, picture a line around the rim of the piece, with the name of the airline near the top of the piece. Airline china tends to be smaller in size and lighter in weight.
The type of food served often influenced the design that the restaurant owner chose. Early designs were almost always floral patterns, but as advertising agencies created interesting logos that reflected a particular restaurant, then the designs became very creative. Chain restaurants, think Hobo Joe's or Sambo's or Bob's Big Boy used restaurant china with their logo to imprint their image.
Green and White Restaurant China
How to Collect
I first started to collect restaurant china in the 1980s. It was plentiful and inexpensive. Most thrift shops had pieces under $2. While occasionally bargains are found, collectors have driven the prices higher. Most pieces have a back stamp indicating when they were made and the name of the pottery. Railroad, airline, and airbrushed lines are popular. Wallace Company's Western designs are sought after and while they have been reproduced, the original pieces and the reproductions have retained their values. Some collect all pieces connected to a certain hotel, restaurant or restaurant chain. Some collectors, limit their collections to certain pieces such as just mugs or individual creamers. Some collectors, like myself, collect within a color like green and white. There's so many ways to collect without spending a fortune. A wonderful source of information on restaurant china is Restaurant China Volumes 1, & 2 by Barbara J. Conroy.
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