The Story on the Table and the Collections They Inspire

There are sibling rivalries, legendary love affairs, epic business successes and terrible company failures. There are cross-continent travelers, centenarians who never age and homebodies who would never think of leaving. There are the everlasting partiers,  the quiet dignifieds, and the rebel-rousers with battle scars to show. Forget all the drama that’s occurring on your tv screen or on your phone. Compelling, real-life adventures are happening right in front of you, right on your kitchen table. Welcome to the dramatics of the age-old dishes. They carry the stories of what we’ve eaten across our imaginations and over time.

Today we are highlighting some of the stories that make table settings more interesting and conversations more memorable. When we stock plates and curate collections in the shop we are looking for unusual designs and elegant patterns that can easily be incorporated into your everyday routine for a splashy bit of decadence in both the thought and feel department. We like old china to look old because that’s what ignites the imagination. To us, there is nothing more disappointing then standing in front of a dish trying to decide if it’s new-to-look-old or old but so brand-new looking that you just know it’s never ventured out of the china cabinet.  In the Vintage Kitchen, we like dishes that bring some story to the table with an extra added dose of depth and charisma to enhance the food that we prepare.

A few weeks ago on Instagram, we did a before and after photoshoot of a simple yogurt and coffee breakfast to demonstrate the difference and the impact of ordinary vs. extraordinary.  On the left is plain, modern, basic American-made dishware.  On the right is colorful vintage handpainted dishware that is more than 60 years old and comes from another country. Don’t you think the mood of the morning changes dramatically just with a hint of some old time interest?

The dishware on the left are all modern pieces in basic white. The dishware on the left features a 70 year old handpainted saucer and a 60 year old gold rimmed monogrammed teacup.

A plate is a plate, you might say. But it’s really so much more than that too. It’s someone’s artwork. It’s a town’s business and a country’s export. It’s an owner’s style expression and a collector’s pride and joy. It’s a plate but it’s also a passion.

Take this one for example… a 9.25″ inch white ironstone plate with a 10- sided polygon shape. It’s hefty, weighing close to one pound, and its speckled with age spots that resemble the shadowy craters of the moon. There is a long delicate crack that measures almost 7″ inches right across the middle and I fear that any day now, it will split the plate in two. When it touches down on another surface, no matter how gently, it broadcasts a two beat thump like a hollow footstep.  I think that’s the history of the plate trying to talk. A spirit wanting to tell some secrets. This plate carries a lot of those. It’s 183 years old.

If it was used once a day, every day, for 183 years it would have served a total of more than 60,000 meals throughout its life so far. A remarkable feat for any piece of kitchen equipment, let alone one of a fragile, easy-to-break nature. How many times over the course of its life has this plate been set down and picked up? Whose hands touched it and where did they carry it?

Made in England by  C & WK Harvey between 1835-1853, it tells the story of the hustle-bustle days of English pottery making. The Harveys were a father/son team made up of the Charles’ (Sr. & Jr.) and William K.  Their pottery plant was located at the Stafford Street Works in the town of  Longton, Stoke-on Trent, England – a section of town that Charles Sr. built in 1799 to house factories for a number of different pottery makers.

Stafford Street Works then and now.

In the early 1800’s, Stoke-on- Trent was the hub of pottery manufacturing for the entire country of England and employed hundreds of thousands of workers.  Parts of the Works are still there today, although now it is a mixed-use commercial neighborhood, primarily consisting of retail storefronts. Almost all of the potteries once associated with it are now gone.

For things like salads, and cheese and crackers, fruit, scrambled eggs and dessert, the old Harvey plate gets used all the time.  It’s shiny and smooth and substantial under the touch of fingertips. It’s bright white and pale tea and watery grey in color. It’s got so much crazing, you barely even notice all those zillion fine lines running every which way. It’s simple and it’s extraordinary all in one. It appears often in the Vintage Kitchen photo shoots.

Photos clockwise from top-left: The prop behind the pineapple; serving Carrot Risotto, breakfast time with Jessie Hartland’s Crepes, holding onto the frozen figs and behind the stacks of sugar cookies.

Now so rare in availability pieces from this pottery maker are mostly seen only in museum collections.  It’s moved with me four times since I found it more than 10 years ago. With each move, it gets wrapped in a thick sweater and then an even thicker blanket and then transported in the clothes boxes (the best place to pack your most treasured dishes!) to ensure a safe arrival.  The crack hasn’t gotten the best of it yet.  Fingers crossed, that it never does.

Somewhere along the timeline of its long life, the Harvey plate crossed the ocean from England to America and eventually found its way into an antique shop in the rural South where I found it. Exactly how it got from the U.K. to the U.S.A. is where imagination takes off and the topic of conversation begins.  Perhaps it came by boat, packed in someone’s steamer trunk in the late 1800’s. Maybe along with a matching set of dishes destined for a new home in a new country. Or perhaps it embarked on a lengthy 1930’s journey through the mail and then via train where it chugged through cities and states, time zones and territories.  Maybe it sat on a festive dinner table celebrating the end of slavery or the rise of the civil rights movement.  Or maybe it arrived in America much later – in the 1980’s via  airplane – a treasured find from a jet-set vacationer who fell in love with the antique history of England.

We’ll never know the exact story but it is fun to speculate on all the possibilities. Many a dinner party have been enjoyed discussing this very plate’s past. Often times, the more wine poured the better the story gets. Since it is an active worker in the Vintage Kitchen you’ll never see it available in the shop but we do offer many others with equally interesting stories to tell.

Clarice Cliff and her pretty floral plates were designed in the 1930’s for Royal Staffordshire. Clarice was a legend in the English ceramics world from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, designing hundreds of eclectic pieces that were admired by collectors the world over.

Clarice Cliff (1899-1972)

Considered one of the most remarkable ceramic artists of the 20th century, Clarice is revered not only for her artistic merit but also her devotion to finding beauty in unusual shapes, colors and designs that were considered very unorthodox in relation to other kitchenwares produced during her lifetime. She was also a brilliant businesswoman – savvy not in an aggressive sales-driven sense, but intrinsically smart, using her own intuition and infectious love of her craft to guide her career, thus attracting a devoted fan base. Her Dimity pattern plates burst with the bright colors of spring. We paired them in two different mix and match collections combining similar colors and unique shapes to compliment the bright and fun-loving personality of Clarice herself.

The Springtime Bouquet collection on the left and the Gold Meadow Collection on the right.

There is the story of the Willow pattern that has been captivating romantics since the 1850’s. The tale is English in origin but it was based on the original Blue Willow porcelain pattern that was made in China during the 1700’s. The tale involves a wealthy girl who falls in love with her father’s accountant. Her father, who does not approve, forbids the romance and arranges his daughter’s marriage to another man more suited to the family’s prominent social standing. The night before her arranged marriage, as the Willow tree starts shedding its blossoms, romance wins and the accountant and the girl run away together living happily for many years. One day the other suitor finds out where the couple is living and kills them. After death, the young lovers are reunited in the form of birds flying high above the landscape.

All the elements of the story are drawn out on the plate. You’ll notice the palace where the girl grew up, the bridge that takes her and her lover away, the island where they live happily together and the birds they eventually become overhead. Lots of china companies caught onto the fact that this was a popular pattern and an even more popular story and began producing their own versions in different colors. This red willow plate was made by famous American pottery company Homer Laughlin in the 1940’s.  We combined it with two other Asian inspired plates to create our own fabled love story collection…

A three-piece set containing Asian themed dinner plate, bread plate and mini dish.

Similiar to the story of the Harvey plate, the Meakin brothers, Alfred, George and James, ran several potteries in Stoke-on-Trent and Tunstall, England. Alfred,  produced this stunner, the Medway Blue under his own pottery label Alfred Meakin England in 1897. Exquisitely detailed, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could or would part with this beautiful plate, but like the Harvey, it somehow migrated over to America. Its journey wasn’t without fault or flaw – there’s a sign of adventure lurking in a small very old pencil point sized chip near one side of the rim.

Celebrating over 120 years of life, this plate holds all the dinnertime stories. 44,000 of them. When we look at it, we see the pretty pattern but we also see faces. People through history who stared down at its contents. Their hair-dos and their makeup, their tuxedoed bow-ties and their evening gowns, their earrings and their mustaches. We imagine the conversations while they ate their chicken and fish and game meats. Would we be discussing the same dramas of the day if we served a slice of pizza on top of the same plate?

Other patterns on other dishes ignite similar questions and thought process. When we look at this golden-edged Pope-Gosser plate made in Ohio in the 1920’s we see Jay Gatsby written all over it. Funny enough, it’s pottery founder I . Bentley Pope, an English transplant to America,  was a swashbuckler of a salesman and a charming wordsmith. Perhaps he had a bit of the Gatsby or the F. Scott in him too.

Last September, when we discussed the book A Taste of Paris, we learned from author David Downie that the original dinner plate was nothing more than a flattened loaf of bread on which food was piled high. Between that primitive time and now, it is amazing to think how far we have come since the days we ate our dishes. If you are interested in learning more about other plate histories, visit the shop and see which ones spark your heart. We’ve listed both collections and single plates in case you want to mix and match yourself. If you have a favorite from any featured above, share it in the comments section below. We’ll be excited to learn which ones appeal to you and why!

These are some of the other unique stories… feuding brothers, vanishing nature and celebratory statehood. Find them all in the shop here.

To celebrate all the ladies in your life that would appreciate a homemade dinner served on a lovely plate we are having a 20% off sale in the shop which runs now thru May 13th.  The discount is available for all items in the shop and will be applied to your entire order.  Use the coupon code MOTHERSDAY at checkout to receive the discount.

Cheers to all the adventurers out there who keep life interesting, both plates and people! May the stories continue and the memories bloom.

On This Day in 1930: A Behemoth Was Born

On this day – August 4th, 1930 –  a giant marvel of a masterpiece was unveiled on Jamaica Avenue in Queens, New York. It involved a big building, a big parking lot and a plethora of products that extended far beyond what anyone could have imagined before. Aptly named King Kullen, it was King Kong-ish in size and scope and quickly took over an industry in a way only a behemoth of a good idea could.  It was the birth of the super market – the very first large space grocery store that contained not only food items but also hardware, paint, automotive, cosmetics, shoe shine, kitchenware, confectionery and drug departments all under one roof.

Michael J. Cullen (1884-1936)

The brainchild of grocery store employee, Michael Cullen (who spent half of his adult career working at The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company and then grocery retailer, Kroger) imagined a better, larger, less expensive shopping experience that would cut grocery prices in half for the customer and allow more space for the store to sell bulk items in mass quantity. Essentially it is the same concept that our modern American grocery stores still follow to this day.

Before Michael and his big-brained idea came along, people grocery shopped in small pocket stores like this one photographed in the 1920s…

These independent stores definitely filled a need and were vital businesses to the community but they were also very limiting and not very private. Space was an issue for the store owners which meant that many items had to be special ordered for customers on a need-by-need basis,  extending the shopping transaction by days or sometimes even weeks.  Service was also an issue as items were frequently stored up high or behind counters making it necessary for grocery employees to gather specifically what was needed.

This one-on-one buying model may have helped develop customer relationships but it also created lengthy wait times for other shoppers while each order was filled.  Speculation and gossip seeped into the buying process too as the whole store could see (and hear!) what everyone was buying. Combined with the fact that meat was purchased from the butcher, bread from the baker, fish from the fish monger and specialty cans and shelf stable items from the grocery, meant that the whole shopping experience could take hours out of the day.

Refrigerators of the late 1920’s provided enough storage to stock foods for up to a week.

Michael took note of all these clunky patterns, accessed the growing rise of refrigerators popping up in American homes and started jotting down ideas for something easier and faster involving less commotion and less expense. While he flushed out his thoughts he was still working at Kroger. He brought up his ideas to his boss who didn’t give Michael’s thoughts any merit. So Michael left Kroger and opened King Kullen Grocery Company independently months later. Michael knew he had a great idea – the right concept at the right time. He had worked in the grocery business for 28 years at that point, long enough to see where the consumer experience needed improvement and how profits could be made.

By building a bigger store in a bigger space, King Kullen initiated the self-serve shopping concept where all products were in easy reach of the customer with a large quantity of the same item available. So you could zip in and out of the store much more quickly. No more waiting, no more special ordering, no more gossip.

King Kullen also eliminated the idea of credit registry systems, another time sucker, by only dealing with cash transactions. And they axed the local delivery system which for small, independent grocers meant additional employees and additional expense. Combining all these elements – bigger store, easy to reach items, large selection of product and a faster payment system was much more efficient and empowering to shoppers.  Independent groceries were old-fashioned and pokey where King Kullen, in 1930,  was up to the minute modern.

And then there was the significant pricing system. Upon opening, King Kullen boasted that they could reduce your average grocery bill by 10-50% which during the Great Depression years was a major attraction for struggling wage-earners. By offering everything from house paint to ham (the “super” market concept)  under one roof, King Kullen became a one-stop shop. You can see the price difference between Kroger in the 1920’s and King Kullen in the 1930’s in these advertisements…

Late 1920’s Kroger grocery advertisement on the left, 1933 King Kullen Advertisement on the right

Some of the significant savings included:

  • Tea –   $0.29 per 1/2lb at Kroger vs. $0.39/per 1lb at King Kullen
  • Boiled Ham – $0.33/lb at Kroger vs. $0.21/lb at King Kullen
  • Catsup – $0.15/bottle at Kroger vs. $0.10/bottle at King Kullen
  • Whole Chicken – $0.33/lb vs. $0.19/lb at King Kullen
  • Beans – 4 cans for $0.23 at Kroger vs. 6 cans for $0.25 at King Kullen

Finally, by providing a large parking lot able to accommodate a vast amount of cars, King Cullen changed how people shopped. Families went together, some traveling up to 100 miles away from home so they could fill their car with foodstuffs and stock their shelves for a lengthier period of time. The super market also hosted all sorts of product events and giveaways making each shopping trip to King Kullen unexpected and engaging. It was a seamless, adventuresome outing, easy to navigate and fun to participate in.

King Kullen caught like wildfire in the hearts of the American public. Thousands flocked to the new Jamaica Avenue store on opening day, leading a trend that other grocery stores (like Michael’s previous employer, Kroger) noted and then soon replicated. Throughout the 1930’s store after store opened under the King Kullen brand. Unfortunately in 1936 tragedy struck when Michael died just six years after debuting his first Jamaica Avenue store from complications following an appendectomy.

With the help of his wife and his sons, Michael’s legacy and the King Kullen brand continued to thrive. Today there are 32 King Kullen grocery stores still in operation, proving that Michael was a true visionary. The motto of the brand from the beginning was “We are here to stay and to please the public.”  Eighty-seven years later and still going strong, they have definitely accomplished their mission and in doing so affected change across the entire grocery industry.

Just listed in the shop this week is a cookbook published in 1955 celebrating the 25th anniversary of the supermarket. Titled the Silver Jubilee, it contains over 500 pages of recipes utilizing ingredients easily found at King Kullen-sized stores.

It is hard to imagine this being a novelty cookbook now but if you think about having to stop at 5-7 different food stores to pick up ingredients for one recipe you can understand how enormous this concept really was between the 1930’s – 1950’s. We take so much for granted now in the form of food buying and what we expect from the process. The Silver Jubilee really helps us understand the marvel behind the modern just like Michael helped us experience the efficiency behind the industry.

Cheers to Michael and his revolutionary idea and a happy birthday to King Kullen!

Later this month we will be featuring a few recipes from the Silver Jubilee cookbook in our first ever cross country cook-a-thon. Stay tuned for that!  In the meantime, find the celebratory Super Market Cook Book in the shop here.

Three Cheers: The Vintage Kitchen Shop is Here!

It’s a very exciting day here in the Vintage Kitchen! We are happy to announce that the kitchen shop is now up and running! As an ever-evolving retail site, with new items added weekly, there will always be interesting things to see whenever you stop by and visit.

We are just getting started on this big adventure, so there is still lots more to add in terms of items and some quirks that still need to be sorted out but it’s really exciting to see this long-term goal come to fruition. We are also super happy to bring you a site full of history and interesting kitchen stories told through the time weathered patina of carefully curated vintage and antique items.

In the shop, you’ll find pieces that have gracefully withstood the test of time, classic beauties that never go out of style and rare, one-of-a-kind pieces that will give your cooking space unique personality. Tackling all the varied elements that make up the complete vintage kitchen you’ll find a wide assortment from cookbooks to cutlery, glasses to gadgets, pots to plates and everything in-between.

Besides a fun shopping experience, there is also a spot to sign up for our seasonal newsletter, a page to connect with us in regards to procurement for those hard to find items or bulk needs and a page to connect with us privately for any questions.

Access to the shop is offered in a few different places here on the blog – by clicking on the ad in the right-hand column, by clicking on the shop tab in the header, or by typing shopinthevintagekitchen.com into your web browser. The same goes for the shop side of things – there’s a blog tab on the storefront that sends you directly back here so you’ll never get lost between these two places!

Now that we have this major design project launched and underway we will be back to our weekly blogging schedule which, from time to time, will feature shop items with especially fascinating stories. Up next is a vintage Summer recipe that serves a crowd up to 18. Hope you are hungry!

Cheers to a wonderful weekend ahead and to new beginnings.

Happy shopping!