Fashion plates

Someone once said, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." (Obviously, that someone was French--specifically, it was epicure Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.) He could just as well have made the same proclamation on how we eat. Do we regularly dine off of ornate, specialized china placed on a formal dining table according to the latest etiquette manual? Eat on Melmac plates on TV trays during our favorite variety show? Use microwave-safe stoneware while standing around our kitchen island? Is our water pitcher crystal or Tupperware? Are our meals at a set time, or whenever we can fit them in? Is dinnertime family time, or do we eat alone?

The answers to these questions differ, of course, from person to person. Most likely, we vary our eating styles from day to day: We'll drag out the china, crystal, and manners for holidays and family get-togethers, get in some nice but casual sit-down meals whenever possible, and eat for convenience (or in restaurants) the rest of the time. But our choices haven't always been so plentiful.

In the 1880s, for example, home meal replacement didn't exist. Neither did the microwave or television or dishwasher. Nor did the working mom or Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. For these reasons, among others, dinner was rather involved and ceremonious and lent itself to the use of formal china and tableware. Now, of course, most of us don't have such rigid mealtime habits. The innovations mentioned above have changed the way we eat, and our dining accoutrements have changed accordingly.

A new exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art explores the way tableware has changed in the last 120 years and identifies the reasons for the changes. In addition to presenting us with a glimpse of our nation's social history, Tabletop to TV Tray: China and Glass in America, 1880-1980 allows the museum to showcase pieces of this often overlooked art form from its decorative arts collection.

The exhibition, curated and organized in Dallas, shows how dinnerware's form and function have changed since the Victorian era. Ornate silver-plated pickle castors, crystal celery boats, and porcelain oyster plates were not uncommon for the average homemaker to have in the 19th century, while sleek, streamlined covered stoneware casseroles were the norm in the 1940s and '50s. The freewheeling jazz age saw the popularity of just-for-fun snack sets in whimsical designs and the development of then-elegant and ever-popular Pyrex, while the Depression that followed gave way to the use of simple, durable, brightly colored glass and earthenware such as Fiesta.

Over the years, designs incorporated popular movements such as Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and modernism. Motifs appeared and disappeared and sometimes reappeared--Oriental detailing was popularized by Westerners' visits to Japan in the 19th century; astral designs followed advances in technology and the space race; the late '60s and '70s came back to earth with stylized flower and mushroom patterns.

The invention of the bridal registry in the 1930s allowed young couples to quickly accumulate fine china, which was more affordable because of its production in the newly competitive United States. As tableware became less expensive, it was marketed not as a one-time purchase that would last a lifetime, but as fashion--new playthings with which chic hostesses could impress their friends. Specialty pieces were created for foods such as corn and lobster. Trendy pieces and sets catered to such activities as bridge parties, ladies' luncheons, backyard barbecues, potluck dinners, and cocktail parties.

Of course, the objects we put on our tables and in our china cabinets are a reflection of how we eat and of personal or cultural tastes. But Tabletop to TV Tray shows us that these everyday objects are also a function of how we live and of who we are as a people. Pretty impressive for cups and saucers.

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Larra Ann Keel