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How to Collect Mid Century Modern Vintage Melamine Dinnerware of the 1940s-1970s

Updated on October 4, 2014
mactavers profile image

I've lived in Arizona for 67 years (Tucson, Glendale, and Sedona). I love writing about Arizona history, antiques, books and travel.

Beautiful Mid Century Plastic Dinnerware

Dinnerware produced between the 1940s-1970s
Dinnerware produced between the 1940s-1970s | Source

History of Plastic Dinnerware

I saw my first plastic dinnerware in 1953 or 54, when one of my favorite aunts amazed all of our family by throwing her dishes on the floor after dinner. "Look, unbreakable" she screamed. What a surprise. Dishes that would not break. My second personal experience with plastic dinnerware was as a young bride in 1966, my mother offered to give us her original set of Fiestaware, and I turned her down because we were going to buy a set of Melmac. In retrospect, that was not a good decision, but I've always liked the colors and shapes of the fabulous plastic dinnerware of the 1940s-1970s.

The plastic craze began with Melamine, a formaldehyde chemical found in the form of white crystals in Nitrogen. When Melamine is in a powder form, it can easily be molded into colorful durable shapes. During the WW Two years in the 1930s and 1940s metals were scarce and plastic was used in all types of products including military airplane parts and helmets. Melamine is still used today to mold plastics, adhesives and counter tops.

The American Cyanamid Company trademarked the Melamine plastic powder that they sold and called it Melmac. Unless the manufacture purchased Melmac powder to mold their dinnerware, they could not label their dinnerware Melmac. However, the generic term Melmac to describe all the plastic dinnerware produced in the Mid Century is still widely used. The biggest selling point for the molded plastic dinnerware was that the dishes were indeed unbreakable. During the mid-1940s the leading producers of plastic dinnerware were Lifetimeware, Boontonware and Texas Ware, but by the 1950s, hundreds of companies were producing the popular dinnerware.

It is still debated whether the Residential line by Russell Wright, or the Branchell Color-Flyte line sold and produced the most popular set. My favorite hands down is the Russell Wright which after 50 plus years retains its hard durable shine and is heavier that Color-Flyte. A starter set of dinnerware service for four, retailed on average for $15.00 to $20.00 in the 1950s and 1960s, and completion sets with serving dishes averaged $20.

Holiday by Kenro Made in Fredonia Wisconsin

Holiday by Kenro added a fleck to their colors and were one of the few companies to produce footed bowls.
Holiday by Kenro added a fleck to their colors and were one of the few companies to produce footed bowls. | Source

Companies, Colors, Pieces

Most companies had their logo molded into the bottom of the piece. A few of the better companies were: Arrowhead (Distinctive arrowhead logo and a number of square designs, Cleveland, Ohio) Boonton, Color-Flyte by Branchell, Holiday by Kenro (Fredonia, Wisconsin) Imperial, Laguna (Los Angels CA) Lifetime, Royalon, Spaulding, and Texas Ware (Dallas TX). By the end of the 1960s, pieces were thinner and not usually marked.

The range of colors produced include:Black, coral, confetti (a base color with flecks of various colors) gold, chartruse green, light green, dark green, grey, maroon, oatmeal, pink, tan, turquoise, white, and various shade of yellow. *** As a rule, earlier pieces were plain colored, or slightly mottled with a grey fleck, later pieces by the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s have "printed" designs.

Pieces include: Dinner plates, bread and butter plates, salad plates, divided grill plates (early pieces are much small than dinnerware produced today) Butter keeper, small bowls, cereal bowls, kitchenware mixing bowls, school cafeteria compartment serving trays, salt and pepper sets, sugar and creamer sets, serving platters, vegetable serving bowls (often divided) gravy boats.



Fantastic Deep Colors

Many of the serving dishes were divided and shapes in many pieces were elongated.
Many of the serving dishes were divided and shapes in many pieces were elongated. | Source

Color-Flyte by Branchell of St Louis

Color-Flyte set in mottled grey.  Designed by Kaye La Moyne.
Color-Flyte set in mottled grey. Designed by Kaye La Moyne. | Source

Advantages and Disadvantages of Melamine

Advantages: Fantastic Mid-Century colors and designs, unbreakable, pieces can be collected as a set or mixed for a custom look. still relatively inexpensive.****If pieces are purchased on line, often the shipping is more than the selling price.

Disadvantages: While unbreakable, they are not scratch resistant if sharp utensils are used such as a steak knife, after some use, some lines were not as stain resistant, such as coffee cups in the lighter colors. Not microwave safe, and dishwashers destroy the hard shine.



Arrowhead Plates Russell Wright Creamer

Source

Did your family have a set of Melmac dishes?

Did your family have a set of Melmac dishes?

See results

Where to Buy Melamine Dishes

Twenty years ago, these dishes could be found at almost every garage sale, rummage sale or thrift shop, and the lighter weight printed pattern pieces of the later 1960s and 70s still pop up, but the chances of finding the earlier pieces in good to great condition are slim as collectors of Mid-Century Modern snap these pieces up.

Now good pieces are most often found at antique stores and flea markets, stores that have "Retro" in their name, on line dinnerware sites, Etsy and Ebay.

A trend always stops when something else replaces it. I found out during my research for this hub, that the Lenox Company that produced china sets, purchased the Branchell Compay that produced the Color Flyte line from 1953-1973 until Lenox/Branchell introduced the latest dish crazy. Corelle!

Unmarked Early 1970s

Unmarked later Melamine sugar and creamer.  Modern style in medium tan, lighter weight than earlier pieces.
Unmarked later Melamine sugar and creamer. Modern style in medium tan, lighter weight than earlier pieces. | Source

Comments

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    • profile image

      Annie 

      2 years ago

      Thanks this is a interesting article.

      I remember growing up with Melmac /Melamine..It was the new thing.

      But now I wonder why anyone would want to eat off if it , knowing what we know now about the nasty chemicals that are in this type of dinnerware!!!!

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR

      mactavers 

      2 years ago

      Thanks for your comment. Looking for other pieces at antique stores and flea markets is so much fun.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I have one piece. The off-white sugar bowl. I'd love to have more. Thanks!

    • thumbi7 profile image

      JR Krishna 

      2 years ago from India

      My child hood memories are about porcelain plates and bowls.

      Now I see lot of melamine ware around. Beautiful designs

      Very informative hub

      Thanks for sharing

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      3 years ago from New York

      Not only informative and well written, but nostalgic. You couldn't live through the melamine/melmac era without owning a set. My mother's set was multicolored meaning, it was comprised of different colors. There were plates in green and pink and blue and maybe more as I've aged more than they have and don't remember exactly.

      Great research and your pictures show your beautiful collection!

      Voted up, useful, and interesting. CONGRATULATIONS on your HOTD, well deserved.

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR

      mactavers 

      3 years ago

      Maybe look up the piece or other pieces in the same pattern on Ebay or other collectibles site.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      3 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      It was so good to read this. I have the sugar bowl handed down to me by by Mom in the mottled gray. I wonder what it is worth. You have left me curious. Congrats on HOTD!

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR

      mactavers 

      3 years ago

      Why don't you try crushing a piece and let me know. Funny.

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia 

      3 years ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      Dear Mactavers... a very interesting hub. My mother hated her melmac dishes and they "went away" after a couple of years. They do not break, but I think they can crush if you drive a heavy vehicle over them? Congrats on the HOTD honour! Voted up and shared!

    • mactavers profile imageAUTHOR

      mactavers 

      3 years ago

      I've been away from my computer and was so pleased to see this Hub as a Hub of the Day and all of your interesting comments. Thanks so much.

    • Jane Maarpell profile image

      Jane Maarpell 

      3 years ago from Smalltown USA

      These dishes are still very popular in the Amish community. You can find entire sets in their general stores. Usually they have a floral pattern on them out here. Since they really do not have to worry about microwave safe or dishwasher safe dishes these hold up well. They are also light enough and stack compactly which is important with the large groups of people they can feed.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Oh yes, what fantastic dinnerware this was. And how I regret selling my melmac dishes at a flea market in the seventies. That gray divided bowl brought back memories from my childhood dish set owned by my Mom. Ours was in orange. Congratulations on Hub of the Day. Very enjoyable read.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      3 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Congrats on HOTD! Most interesting.

      Yes, both my mother and I had the printed design type of dinnerware.

      However, it was not 100% "unbreakable." One morning, I served my (now ex) husband a fried egg, and when the hot egg hit the plate, it suddenly and neatly split right in two down the middle! We were both stunned. The whole works went in the trash, as we were not sure if there might be plastic slivers in the egg.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • LotusLandry profile image

      LotusLandry 

      3 years ago from Southern California

      I remember these dishes. I wish I had more room in my kitchen cupboard for a set

    • Charlino99 profile image

      Tonie Cook 

      3 years ago from USA

      Marvelous article about these fine dishes! In the late 70s, a dog food product called "Mainstay" by Purina used to include melamine dishes with every large bag purchase. My husband loved the dishes so much, we still have them and use them - two types of cups, plus bowls and plates. Our first dog grew to be a big 150 lb. big boy, and he ate a lot of chow. We miss the dog, but his legacy still lives on.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      3 years ago from Chicago Area

      Oh my! I remember Melmac dinnerware at our house when I was growing up. Hard to believe they're now collectibles. Fabulous photos which showcase a common item in an artful way. Well deserved Hub of the Day!

    • Ann Hinds profile image

      Ann Hinds 

      3 years ago from So Cal

      I have several sets of Melmac. I have vintage trailers and each trailer has its own set. The pink ones are in my 1959 and the brown ones are in my 1973. Right now my cat has two of the pink bowls for her food and water. This is great because I did not know the history. Thanks!

    • Robin Marie profile image

      Robin 

      3 years ago from USA

      Interesting read. Congratulations on HotD.

    • mySuccess8 profile image

      mySuccess8 

      3 years ago

      Congrats HOD! Interesting information, thanks!

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