The history behind Grandma’s “Good Dishes”

Fine china is something of a mystery to young people today. Most of us have only ever seen it in vintage shops or collecting dust in the back of a china cupboard in our elderly family member’s house. For most these sets are something that they could care less about and never see themselves using or appreciating. Like Keith Weiser who asked me once “who would want those old things, I can’t even run them in the dishwasher”. But for a select few, the values, history, and workmanship behind the pieces are something to behold. Fine china has been an art form created by masters in their fields for thousands of years. Each set and pattern have its origins and history all its own. And while most sets being just old and not antiques (due to a set having to be over a hundred years old to be an antique in the dish world) don’t have much of a value. Select brands and companies have values that might just surprise you. To best understand fine china lets as my great grandmother, Marie Welliver would say “begin at the beginning of its story”. Historically, fine china has been made out of something called porcelain. Porcelain is a mixture of clay and other minerals, that when fired at extreme levels of heat. Creates a thin white and almost sparkly finish. This technique was created by the ancient Chinese sometime between 960-170 AD and was honed and crafted over hundreds of years to be the earliest version of porcelain and fine china we know about. When Marco Polo first made his trip back from the far east in1295, he brought back pieces of porcelain or “porella” as it was referred to then. When the king of this country saw what porella for the first time. He was mesmerized by it colors and textures of the far east, along with its thin build, in which it was compared to sea shells. When it was first introduced to Europe, no one in Europe could produce it. So, the only way to get it was to have it imported into Europe from the China territories. This made porcelain very hard to come by and only available to kings and the super wealthy. Due to this, the color blue, and the typically use of designs like flowers became and are still popular in china today. Also, this time period is why China got its name. Most people found it easier and fancier to refer to it as fine china instead of porcelain, and the name has since just stuck. As time went, the craze for fine porcelain became more and more relevant in Europe. The problem was no one could reproduce it like the crafters in china could. Worst of all, no one would teach the Europeans how to do it either. During the renaissance, Italian companies like Delftware and Majolica came into popularity for there porcelain like products. But it still wasn’t porcelain. Europe would not see its first successful porcelain made in country till the turn of the 18th century. The first company to do so was in what is present day Germany, and they would become the company called Meissen. Once the art of creating porcelain was figured out. Many other companies were created in Europe to help supply porcelain. Some of these companies would include Sevres, Limoges, Wedgewood, and Spode.

These companies controlled the porcelain market in Europe for nearly a hundred years. This also led to the rose of porcelain place settings. Before this most Chinese based porcelain would only have one or two plate pieces to a set, but with the creation of European porcelain, the rise of six or seven plates for one person per meal became popular.

However, by the turn of the 19th century, the art of making porcelain was pretty well known in Europe. But, by this time, the craze for European porcelain had taken off in other places like Russia and the United States of America. By this point in history, the problem was less about how to make porcelain, but now it was about how to keep track of who made it and what country it was made in. This rose to the creation of back stamps. Which are the little informative things that are on the back of plates and dishes. Before this time, the creator of a piece was known by the emblem or signature they put on the piece. But as more and more companies were created. Keeping track of all the original stamps became impossible. Hence why back stamps were created, it became an easy way for the company to stamp their label on the back of their piece. During this century, the addition or country of origin and trademark were added to the back of porcelain. Also, by the 1900’s these stamps were done by printing instead of stamping.

As time went, the art of handcrafting porcelain went away. And the rise of factory produced porcelain came to be. This is typically why porcelain made after the 1800’s doesn’t hold the same value as that of pieces made before that time. However, each set has its own historically based significance along with reasoning behind things like its patterns, colors, shapes and sizes, mineral build, and stamps. And hopefully will raise the question: Should I appreciate that set in grandma’s cupboard just a little more? And should we maybe get them down and use them every once in a while, even though they need washed by hand? And who knows, maybe if you ask her, she’ll even be able to teach you a little about that set herself, and the personal history it has for her.

Works Cited:

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