e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


housewares that time forgot, part 1

When we lived in Southwest Ohio, Nicole and I frequented auctions, estate sales, and flea markets. Sometimes we hung out, people-watched, and "made a Saturday of it" without making any purchases. Sometimes we bought old things. Nicole got into 50s linens and fast-food character glasses. I acquired large numbers of records (rule #14 of every southwest Ohio flea market stocking old records: you MUST have at least two copies of Genesis' "Abacab"). We stocked our kitchen with Pyrex and other baby-boom products. Old stuff was cheap in Butler County. In Michigan, people use words like "vintage" and "antique" and prices skyrocket. Been to the Royal Oak Flea Market? Fun to browse, but the prices seem crazy to me.

Which brings me to my blog's new series: Housewares That Time Forgot. Let's return for just a moment to an era before paper towells and hand sanitizer existed and before salmonella and nut allergy entered the national discourse. I picture the kitchens both my grandmothers kept. Coffee percolates on a burner. On a counter sits a cookbook from a church or maybe the Eastern Stars (we'll have a separate entry on the wonders of d-i-y 1950s cookbooks) full of recipes advocating weird uses for mayonaise and jell-o and ground chuck.

My maternal grandma is preparing a roast. In the next room, a stack of Ellery Queen magazines sits on a coffee table. Across town, my paternal grandma slices an eggplant. In the next room, a stack of every issue of Look or Life that featured JFK on the cover.

What item from this world interests me today? The "luncheon set." Once upon a time, the luncheon set was a go-to present for wedding showers. Nicole and I call these sets "party plates" because usually they came in boxes with images of card parties on them. Each box contained perhaps four or six sets of oval or rectangular glass plates and small glass cups, suitable for coffee or punch. Luncheon plates had dividers to keep your macaroni salad from mingling with your green bean casserole. Functional, attractive, perfect for buffets or for standing and walking around whilst eating. Again, "party" plates.

Nicole and I have acquired several dozen sets and often use them when we have a crowd over to the house. I have come to hate paper plates: flimsy, bad for the environment, not at all festive. Luncheon sets are more than a fad of the past. The continue to be as utilitarian as they are aesthetically pleasing. Paper plates say: "I'm so glad you're coming over that I stopped at 7-11 last night." Luncheon sets say: "Let's break bread and then play 500. And by bread, I mean mini-marshmallow salad."

We got some of our sets at estate sales and the like--for a song--but some came from family. My mom's side of the family had a huge crate of party plates that they collectively owned. First cousins would pass the sets to whichever family member needed them. You could bet that whoever hosted the last graduation party or baby shower currently had the sets sitting in her basement or garage. How cool is that? Community property. That practice went out of vogue at some point, so now Nicole and I have the sets. We gladly lend them out.

One more odd thing about "party plates." Some sets have one divided section reserved for...wait for it...an ashtray. That's right. On our hand-me-down sets, for instance, one of the reservoirs includes that little indentation where you can secure a lit cigarette. Back in the day, my Grandpa D. could have kept his non-filtered Chesterfield blazing mere inches from his scoop of calico beans and his black, salted (!) coffee. As health hazards go, living among smoke from Youngstown's steel mills had nothing on ingesting stuff at a family party.

No comments: