Collecting Vintage Restaurant Dishes
The Stories on the Shelf
by Katherine Stolz Barber
There is a secret society of stories that live inside the kitchens of vintage restaurant ware collectors.
At first glance, you might never know they were there.
It can be difficult to see beyond the initial function these dishes represent – all those plates, cups, saucers, bowls, glassware, platters, trays. All those utilitarian workers of the serving world. But spend a few minutes with a vintage restaurant ware aficionado and they will happily point out the details.
This one sat in the same room as Louis Armstrong. That one, a hundred years ago, cooled down hotel guests during the sultry days of summer. That cluster over there crossed the country on board a sleeper train in the 1940s. That one with the scalloped rim served sandwiches to the Ivy League in the 1960s. And that big one with the green trim held court with some of the country’s most influential business minds in the 1920s.
In our typical course of modern everyday eating, we are most often concerned with the food that appears on top of a plate, rather than the appearance of the actual plate itself. With this in mind, our everyday dishware can easily become invisible to our three meal a day appetites. We grab a cereal bowl from the shelf, a dinner plate from the stack, a mug from the cupboard and we fill them with food that is interesting. Meanwhile, the dishes that transported all those delicious conglomerations become an afterthought. Necessary but not always noticeable.
The same can be said for how we buy our dishes today too. Generally, we tend to purchase a set in bulk. Plates, bowls, cups, and saucers all come in matching quantity. A pack of four. A table setting for eight. A plethora of pieces all packed tidy in a box. We buy them in the most convenient of places… the grocery store, the department, store, the discount store, the online store. They are pulled from shelves. Grabbed from lineups. Picked from dozens of similar boxes, of similar shapes, of similar colors. Most of them are white. White is reliable and effortless and makes all meals look good. If one slips off the counter and breaks in two, or gets chipped in the dishwasher, or loaned to a friend and never returned, no worries. We just go out and buy another box. After all, a plate is a plate is a plate. Or is it?
In 1862, a club was established in New York City to lend support to the Union Army’s fight to end slavery. In 1924, a newly erected million-dollar hotel added glamour to the Florida skyline. In 1936, a German immigrant opened up one of the first nightclubs in New Orleans. Sometime between the 1930s and the 1950s, Albert Einstein carved his initials into the wooden tabletop of a college-town pub in Princeton, NJ. In the first half of the 20th century, a woman with cinematic style and a flair for the dramatic burst onto the American interior design scene with an entirely one-of-a-kind aesthetic. What do all these snippets of history have in common? They each represent a unique story learned, not from a book, or a movie, or a museum, but from a vintage dish. A vintage piece of restaurant ware to be precise.
If you are unfamiliar with the restaurant ware world, these are serving pieces that were once a part of the hospitality industry in one form or another. They come from cafeterias, restaurants, hotels, and any type of commercial enterprise where food was served including hospitals, military bases, schools, airlines, corporate dining rooms, government buildings, and entertainment venues. Unlike delicate porcelain or ceramic dishes, vintage restaurant ware is heavy in weight and bulkier in shape, making it naturally more resistant to chips and cracks.
Available in every sort of size and shape, these pieces of the past come with manufacturing names and place markers stamped on back that sound frontier-ish (Buffalo, Beaver Falls, Shenango) and also simple and straightforward (Carr, Mayer, Jackson). Sometimes pieces come marked with additional info in the form of date codes, distributor marks, and logos. Favored pieces contain monograms, stylized typography, and artistic designs.
Collected, appreciated and adored for all sorts of different reasons, vintage restaurant ware appeals to dish lovers on many different levels – for the history each piece contains; the location where it was manufactured; the maker who designed it, the aesthetic it offers; or the age that it represents. Local historians, travel buffs, restaurant enthusiasts, antique collectors, and vintage interior design lovers make up a small handful of fans. But for all the varied reasons why someone would fall in love with a certain dish, one thing almost all collectors have in common is an appreciation for this type of dishware’s ability to tell a good story.
Unlike our modern-day boxed sets of matching white dishes who haven’t lived in the world long enough to produce such character, vintage restaurant ware offers unique glimpses into specific areas of the past. Each piece reads like a mystery novel dropping clues as to where it’s been and whom it’s served. A Depression-era diner in Poughkeepsie. A Victorian-era boardinghouse in Ohio. A Hemingway-frequented cafe in Paris. A cruise liner in the Pacific. A military base in Hawaii. There they are. Stories of real-life lived long ago now here, in our hands.
Entertaining and enthralling us with tales of American business, hospitality, tourism, and innovation, these vintage restaurant ware pieces highlight art, culture, optimism, and entrepreneurial spirit. They tell stories of food and family. Of architecture and design. Of etiquette and social graces. They are more than just plates and bowls, and cups and saucers. They are more than just platters and side dishes and glassware. They are instigators and teachers. They inspire our creativity and indulge our curiosity. And most importantly they encourage us to design a meal for them instead of on them.
Here are seven examples of vintage restaurant ware and the stories they tell…
1930’s Serving Dish: The Roosevelt Hotel, New Orleans
Since the late 1800s, there has been a sparkling jewel in the New Orleans skyline. A gem that epitomizes hospitality, elegance, and swanky entertainment. That bright beacon is The Roosevelt Hotel. Originally, known as The Grunewald, the hotel was founded by German immigrant Simon Grunewald in 1893.
By the 1930s, when this serving dish was made, it was operated by an enterprising up-and-comer named Seymour Weiss who started in the hotel’s barbershop. Always a lively food and lodging venue since its inception, Weiss took the hotel to a whole new luxury level when he began managing it.
On New Year’s Eve in 1936, the Blue Room opened inside the hotel, offering New Orleanians an unparalleled nightclub dining experience, hosting supper clubs, legendary bands, and the best performers of the day. Icons like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles and so many other 20th century greats performed inside the Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Made in the 1930s by Shenango China exclusively for the Roosevelt, this serving piece is in the classic oblong celery dish shape. It most likely graced tables as a side dish courier. I love how matches the colors of the room.
Vintage Serving Platter: The Union League Club (estimated 1920’s/1930s era, Chicago, IL clubhouse)
If ever there was a serving dish that promoted peace, understanding, and community, it would be this one – a handsome green and white monogrammed platter made especially for the Union League Club. Like so many vintage restaurant ware and hotel ware serving pieces, this vintage platter tells three stories in one – the history of the maker (Lamberton Works), the history of the distributor (Albert Pick & Company) and the history of the esteemed establishment for which it was made (The Union League Club).
The oldest story of the three stories this platter tells starts with the distributor, Albert Pick, an Austrian immigrant, who opened up a dish shop in Chicago in 1857. What started as a simple dream and a passionate love for dishes quickly involved into one of the largest and most comprehensive hospitality industry suppliers in the country. As it turned out Albert had a knack not only for selling high-quality dishes but also for listening. Attentive, resourceful, and deeply intuitive Albert understood the needs and stresses of his clients and set out to alleviate and problem-solve all the worries that befell them. In addition to selling all types of dishware, Albert Pick & Company became a go-to resource for all areas of the hospitality industry. Offering a diverse catalog of interior design collections ranging from curtains to tableware, dining furniture to kitchen stoves, the company even established a problem-solving department for hospitality industry woes, provided funding opportunities for new ventures and investments, and eventually got involved in buying and selling real estate to budding industry entrepreneurs.
Like Albert Pick, Lamberton Works based in Trenton, New Jersey was also focused on providing the best level of service they could. Founded in 1869, they created high-quality dishes that boasted beautiful designs and expert craftsmanship. Heavy, durable, and well constructed, Lamberton serving pieces were made for both domestic and commercial use but quickly became a brand favorite particularly in the hospitality industry. Lauded for both their form and function, Lamberton dishes could withstand constant use in the hustle-bustle environments of busy hotels and restaurants while still retaining a fresh, elegant appearance. That was just the sort of combination that would attract the discerning eye of Albert Pick and Company, especially when it came time to outfit their new client, The Union League Club.
The Union League Club was first established in New York City in 1862 by a few prominent and successful Manhattan businessmen who were upset by the pro-slavery sentiments that were dividing the country during the Civil War. Initially, they wanted to express support for the Union Army’s fight to end slavery in the United States and to promote peace, prosperity, and understanding for all citizens across the country. Using their own pool of financial resources, the Club focused on projects that would promote the betterment of the country for everyone, not just certain classes or ethnicities. Projects included funding the first Union Army African American regiment during the Civil War, offering a supportive role in the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, raising funds for the erection and permanent display of the Statue of Liberty and establishing the U.S Sanitary Commission (the precursor to the American Red Cross). Such noble deeds orchestrated amongst the country’s most philanthropic donors led the Union League to set up clubs in various cities around the United States – one being in Chicago, which opened in 1879.
Information on the dishware offered at the Union League Club is scarce, but most likely this platter came from the Club’s Chicago branch sometime around the 1920s or 1930s.
Dinner Plate designed by Dorothy Draper (Unknown date, unknown restaurant/hotel)
Dorothy Draper (1889-1969) was a dynamo in the interior design world of the 20th century. Known for her bright colors, bold patterns, and big beautiful floral aesthetic, Dorothy was the interior designer you called upon if you wanted to make a lavish, colorful impact in your home or your hotel or your restaurant. Here in the South, we know Dorothy best as the colorful interior designer behind the Greenbrier Hotel, but really she made an impact all over the country, especially in New York where she was involved in several hotel and restaurant projects. With a personality as big as her creative designs, Dorothy was all about bringing happiness and joy to personal places and spaces.
Made by Mayer China in Beaver Falls, PA for the Boston Showcase Company, this Dorothy Draper designed dinner plate most likely was made for a restaurant or hotel project that she was involved in. With monogram initials in the center that read either (DEC , DH or DCC) and a pretty pink and brown rim, it has been the source of fun investigations through history trying to figure out what project it was attached to. Alas, no concrete details have emerged, even after contacting the Boston Showcase Company (a restaurant ware retailer) who wasn’t able to identify the project source either) so for the time being, we are left up to our own imaginations as to what fantastical ideas Dorothy had in mind when designing this unique, seemingly one-of-a-kind plate.
1920’s Side Dish: Hotel Mason, St. Petersburg, FL
It only lasted two years, but Hotel Mason, while it was in operation, was a beauty to behold. Built in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1924 by New York steel magnate, Franklin J. Mason, the hotel cost over a million dollars to erect. By 1926, just two years after opening, it went bankrupt and was picked up by new hoteliers who renamed it The Princess Martha and carried it through the 20th century as a luxury hotel property. Now, the building that was once the pride and joy of Franklin Mason houses senior citizens in a retirement community environment.
This plate, from the halcyon days of Hotel Mason, originally adorned tables in the dining room as a side dish plate. It’s a really fun piece for hotelware collectors since this overnight establishment only lasted a couple of years. Made by Lamberton China in Trenton New Jersey, who serviced many prominent hotel and retail clients (including the Waldorf Astoria in NYC and Macy’s Department Store), this plate is now a piece of travel nostalgia that tells a story not only of 1920’s decadence but also of a fleeting moment in Florida’s hospitality history.
Vintage Bouillion Cups – Union Pacific Railroad (Estimated 1930s era)
With routes carrying passengers between Omaha, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Chicago, from the 1930s to the 1970s, travel aboard the Union Pacific was a grand and glamorous way to experience the diverse topography of the West Coast in comfortable style. Dining cars served an assortment of gourmet foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and even provided special menus for babies and kids.
This set of five matching double-handled cups were made to serve bouillion and other similar soups aboard the train. Manufactured sometime around the 1930s, they feature the beloved Blue Harriman pattern made for Union Pacific Railroad by Scammell’s in Trenton, NJ.
As eating on trains could prove somewhat tricky, the two handles provided an elegant way to sip bouillon broth without sloshing it, especially as the train chugged along the tracks. This is a 1930s era photo taken aboard the Union Pacific. Note the dishes. They look to be an exact pattern match to the bouillon cups!
1960’s Dinner Plates – The Yankee Doodle Tap Room, Nassau Inn, Princeton NJ
The historic Nassau Inn located in Princeton, New Jersey is very cool for a number of different reasons. First and most importantly, it has been in business since 1756 (that’s 264 years). Members of the Continental Congress hung out there during the American Revolution. Albert Einstein carved his name into a wooden tabletop in the dining room that is still visible today. Norman Rockwell painted a giant 13-foot wall mural in the Inn’s restaurant called the Yankee Doodle Tap Room in the 1930s. It is the only mural Norman ever painted. Lucky for us, it still hangs there today.
Due to its proximity, within walking distance to Princeton University, the inn still remains a favorite hangout spot for students, faculty, and families – a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years.
An urban redevelopment plan in the 1930’s unfortunately called for the demolition of the original 18th and 19th-century buildings that first made up the Inn, but according to plan instructions, the inn was rebuilt in 1938. This is the version of Nassau Inn everyone knows and loves today – a treasured part of Princeton’s historic district, offering rooms and dining options to all who visit the area.
Made by Sterling China in East Liverpool, Ohio in 1961, these very rare dinner plates feature the Inn’s tavern-style logo along with Yankee Doodle and his horse as depicted by Norman Rockwell. Stylish and fun for collectors of vintage restaurant ware, vintage travel souvenir admirers, and Norman Rockwell enthusiasts, these plates also serve as lovely nostalgic keepsakes for University alumni and Princeton residents.
Antique Ice Water Pitcher (Made for the hotel Industry between 1890-1904)
Not all restaurant ware comes with easily sourced stories. This large antique ice water pitcher was made for the hotel industry sometime between 1890-1904 at Homer Laughlin’s East Liverpool, Ohio factory. A very rare piece of hotelware, this beauty doesn’t give up her secrets easily though.
With no references to a specific hotel marked on the bottom and no research explorations yielding an exact match, the details of where this pitcher lived and whom it served are left up to our imaginations. Sometimes this can be the best part, the fun part, of collecting vintage restaurant ware. You get to take a little trip back in time and invent some possibilities of your own design.
You can find vintage restaurant ware pieces in all the usual places that you like to hunt for antique treasures including In The Vintage Kitchen shop.
Katherine is the chief storyteller and curator of the culinary history blog and shop In The Vintage Kitchen. When she’s not busy digging through research archives or whipping up old recipes, you can find her scouting for vintage treasures and inspiring stories around the country with her husband, Bradley, and their insatiably hungry pup, Indie.