Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning about the plastics of vintage kitchenware and dinnerware…

I’ve seen more and more “plastic” kitchenware and dinnerware lately. It reminds me of the olive green Melmac my paternal grandma had while I was growing up. I didn’t really care for it, probably because of the color. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I prefer bright colors, and green (other than chartreuse) is my least favorite color.

There are several types of plastic that were used in kitchenware and dinnerware. Here’s what I found out about each type…

The first one produced was Bakelite. It was developed in 1907. It is a molded phenolic resin. It’s best attribute is that is very heat resistant. The biggest downfall is that its base resin was dark amber and couldn’t be made into any of the bright, popular colors that households of that time were looking for.
Catalin was a step up from Bakelite. It is a cast phenolic resin with a clear resin base and it could be produced in a wide variety of colors. A lot of people get Bakelite and Catalin confused because they don’t know that Bakelite was limited to just the dark amber resin base. One big drawback to Catalin is that its colors tend to fade very quickly when exposed to light.

Acrylic was developed round 1927 as a substitute for window glass. One huge disadvantage of acrylic is that it tends to scratch easily, yellow and become brittle with age. A wide variety of serving pieces were produced in acrylic.

Cellulose Acetate was also developed in the 1920’s. It wasn’t heatproof and warped easily and because of this trait, they are hard to find.

Urea-Formaldehyde was developed by the British in 1924. In the 1930’s the Cyanamid Company in the United States bought the rights to produce it, and the improvements they made to the product were huge. Both Britain and the US produced and sold a line they called Beetleware. They are probably most well known for their line of children’s items. Urea items are also rare and hard to find because they swelled and cracked when placed in water.

Melamine was first developed in Germany in 1834. It wasn’t until 1937 that the powder substance was formulated it into the dinnerware and kitchenware that we know today. It tough, durable nature made it the perfect material to use for helmet linings, machine casings and dinner and kitchenware. One famous brand of melamine is “Melmac” which was produced by Cyanamid. It can be produced in a wide variety of colors, including speckled, mottled and clear.

Polyethylene was called the “new and revolutionary” plastic in ads dating back to the early 1940’s. Some of the products made from polyethylene are very popular and in just about every America home today.  I bet you even have some in your home…I know I have some, and I just recently purchased a new product by this company that is still in existence and still producing products today. Wondering what this company is called??  Tupperware!  The Tupperware Company was started in 1938 by Earl S. Tupper and is still going strong. Since a lot of their pieces are made using the same original molds with little modification, it is hard to tell an old or vintage piece from a new one. Sometimes you can make a pretty good guess by looking at the color.

Polystyrene, similar to polyethylene was dominant in the kitchen/dinnerware field until the mid 50’s when polyethylene surpassed it. Most “plastic” kitchen items are still being made with it today.

I’m pretty sure I won’t become a collector of plastic ware…I’ve bought some for the booth, and I remember my grandma’s from when I was growing up…and for some reason it just doesn’t make my heart go pitter patter like pottery or glass does. I would like to get a big Texasware confetti bowl a #125 (I think) because when I was growing up, my mom had one and we used it for everything from popcorn on Friday night, to mixing up a batch of cookies to a big old bowl of potato salad. Other than that, I can't think of any other plastic ware that I would want.  What about you? Do you collect plastic ware? Do you use it or just display it??


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  2. I just LOVE Melmac (and Bakelite)! There are few retro finds as pretty as a speckled Melmac serving piece, especially red or turquoise ones. Thanks for the lesson on the history of plastics.