C.H. read my mid-century modern column and has a question about mid-century ceramic dinner services, like her mom's "Golden Harvest" by Stangl, "Apple" by Franciscan and a set designed by Russel Wright.
Table ceramics were a huge part of family life in the 1950s. Matching sets of china are so commonplace that we seldom think of who thought of matched sets first. Early containers for food did not have to match — serving pieces were wooden bowls or trenchers for the common folk, and pewter or tin flats for the upper class of Europe and America until the late 18th century. The European world discovered China, literally. Merchants discovered the port of Canton and its chinaware. Porcelain, unique to the Orient, was shipped to Europe as profitable and rare ballast. Only the very wealthy requested special large orders of matching tableware. These services were years in design and firing in China (hence the name china) before they reached European nobility. Each piece of a service was emblazoned with the family crest. Prior to Chinese armorial porcelain, the concept of a matched service did not exist.
Matching china remained a touchstone of civilized dining for 200 years. By the time I was a suburban girl in Illinois, a dinner service was inexpensive, colorful and durable — and likely produced for everyday use by Stangl in Trenton, N.J.
Stangl is named after the German immigrant who pioneered a heavy-duty glaze on terracotta slip that sealed the pottery from moisture and oils. Since ceramics such as terracotta were so inexpensive, Stangl was the tableware of middle-class America for a generation. Firing porcelain, as opposed to stoneware or terracotta, was costly because porcelain requires intense temperatures; energy costs are high and breakage rates prohibitive. If a manufacturer could fire a low-heat clay and seal it for durability, everyone could afford a matched set of china. Note: Unless it is porcelain, the ceramic is not officially chinaware, although most matching tableware is casually referred to as china.
The Stangl in my household featured a terracotta-colored plate bottom and a yellow-and-white glaze top that boasted a rooster to the center. Later, we had a Stangl pattern with terracotta base, yellow glaze and a bunch of blueberries to the center. These designs were devoid of the more expensive gold or platinum glimmering accents of expensive porcelain. Numerous washings in the newfangled electric dishwasher didn't even fade the glaze.
In the 1960s, Stangl premiered a manufacturing revolution, pioneering the concept of a destination "wholesale" factory outlet shop in Trenton. Families might load up the imitation wood-sided station wagon and make a weekend of shopping for china at Stangl's outlet shop. Displays of many patterns on decorated tables filled the showroom. An outlet shop is nothing new today, but Stangl's was the first. C.H.'s "Golden Harvest" pattern was more than likely purchased there, and was one of the more expensive patterns because of the touch of gold, which made it "transitional" — it could be used for everyday service and more formal occasions.
Today, Stangl is a distant memory of mid-century Americana, but it's considered true Americana because most of the patterns were evidence of American myths: golden fall leaves, farmyards of chickens, fields of blueberries. One online vendor is selling a "Golden Harvest" service of eight for $45. Another is pricing it at under $10 per piece.
The matched, heavy-gauge, durable, kitschy china service is a thing of the past. The one set C.H. owns that is a true keeper is the Russel Wright. The great mid-century designer's dinner services were sold through Steubenville China. Depending on the color C.H. has (that mid-century green is perhaps the most valuable), she could sell her Russel Wright solid color biomorphic china service for $1,000.
C.H. also has Franciscanware, which is not considered as trendy today as Russel Wright (the value of a set is around $250).
There are two levels of mid-century modern china: the heavier Americana-designed sets by Stangl and Franciscan versus the streamlined, truly modern line and solid color of Russel Wright. With the growing hunger for mid-century design and the diminishing supply evidenced by the buying frenzy of the top end, like the Russel Wright, my advice is to hang on to the Stangl and the Franciscan.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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