Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Depression-Era Dinnerware: Revived for a New Depression

Most people know that I have collected Fiesta dinnerware (plus other vintage dinnerware lines) for several decades. It took a while for me to admit that I was a "collector" as opposed to somebody who was just putting together a set of 1930s dinnerware to use (one plate, one pre-dawn wakeup, one flea market at a time). I was reluctant to call myself a collector because I didn't want to be identified with the world of dish collectors. Not that I'm not every bit as eccentric as every last one of them, and I'm probably more compulsive than most of them, but I didn't want to lose sight of what appealed to me about this stuff in the first place: The era-specific look, the fun sense of recreating a piece of the past that was not meant to be "collected", the imbuing of everyday items with an aura of specialness -- that sort of thing. My experience was that the "serious" collectors did not talk about design or cultural trends, but rather about value and rarity. Exclusively. The major author of depression glass books, Gene Florence, feeds right into this: His book discusses only value, and he will go so far as to reprint pages from old catalogs and advertisements without revealing what year they were originally published. If you don't understand why I find that so appalling, you don't understand why I collect old dinnerware.

A lot of my understanding of this phenomenon came early in my collecting life, when I overheard one of the major Depression-glass dealers in New Jersey discuss what she herself collected and used on her table: Medium Green Fiestaware with cobalt Royal Lace depression glass. Some backgrond:

When Fiestaware was designed in 1935, color was its original key design component -- the bright colors gaining popularity at the time. That coupled with its circle-and-sphere-based design was what gave it an appeal that lasts to this day. When the original colors lost favor as decorating elements, the Homer Laughlin Company continued to make the dinnerware, but in the more muted colors popular in the 50s (grey, dark green, rose, chartreuse). This stuff is still nice, but without the bright color it loses the Depression-era deco component that appeals to me about the dishes. Then, for the last few years of its original manufacture, the line included a 1960s-popular green color collectors dubbed "medium green" -- a sort of tic-tac green, from the harvest gold and avocado era. It's the rarest Fiesta color, because by the 60s the dinnerware was out of date and not selling very well. Being the rarest, it's the most "valuable" of the Fiesta colors -- despite it not quite suiting the dinnerware shape and despite being ugly -- and some rare pieces go for thousands of dollars (pieces that were discontinued shortly after they introduced the color).

Royal Lace was a typical Depression glass pattern in that it displayed a busy acid-etched design that hid the imperfections of the cheap glass. It was very much a downscale version of expensive etched glassware. But it was cheap and colorful and kind of fun, especially if you found it for nickels and dimes (as the original collectors did) . There are several other Depression glass patterns that display beautiful deco lines, which I tend to prefer, but that's a matter of taste. Some Royal Lace was made in cobalt blue, which is somewhat rare and therefore expensive in Depression Glass circles. Extremely expensive.

And so this dealer proudly collected and used together two lines of dinnerware that in absolutely no way belong on the same table and which show a somewhat questionable understanding of the design elements that make the dinnerware so appealing. BUT they are the two most expensive lines to collect! So that makes them the most beautiful! I vowed I would never become a dealer of old dinnerware then and there, because I never want to look over items at a yard sale and see only what they could be resold for at the cost of completely missing what makes them interesting.

When other collectors I met at the time would talk to me about what something was worth, I would say that while I understood what they meant (and I certainly did not shy from paying real money for some of my things), the notion of "worth" here was bizarre to me. This stuff was manufactured and distributed and paid for decades ago. There was no longer any cost associated with its production. It had no "worth" -- it was just old junk. I didn't mean this as an insult, just as a viewpoint that helped me figure out what I was collecting and why and what I was willing to pay for something. I learned pretty quickly, though, that I should never -- not even in complete jest and light speech -- bring up this viewpoint with a dish dealer, and even most collectors took some offense to the merest mention of this.

Then came eBay, which changed the "worth" equation a bit, or at least complicated things. For example, Fiesta vases had always been touted in the collector books as being rare rare rare and worth hundreds and thousands of dollars. And yet any day on eBay, any random day, at least a dozen of them are for sale. The occasional rare piece still goes for a lot of money on eBay, but the basic Fiesta pieces (even allowing for the fact that most of what you find is not in the condition serious collectors prefer) sell for significantly less than they did 20 years ago. Oh, lots of folks look up the "book price" and put minimum bids accordingly, but their stuff does not sell. I pretty much stopped getting any new Fiestaware a long time ago (and moved on to other lines), but over the last couple of years I have occasionally left a very very low bid on something I've long coveted and about one time out of five I win the auction. For perhaps 25% of the price these things would have gone for just before eBay appeared.

Then a few months ago I paid $19 for something that would have cost $250 20 years ago. I knew something was up. So I've been following the Fiesta auctions a little more carefully again. And I've found exactly what you would have expected: I was right all along -- none of this stuff is actually "worth" anything. It took a second depression to recreate the first.

Oh, sure, the rare pieces still have bidders. They don't go for free, although they certainly don't go for "book" price. But cups and saucers (which still "book for as much as $35) go for $10 (or less if you find an auction with several). What really goes for cheap are pieces with slight damage. Collectors never paid full price for damaged pieces, and "serious" collectors were very snooty about this. But if I could get something cheap enough -- really cheap enough -- and the damage was slight I would buy the rarer pieces with some damage. Because, after all, I'm not a dealer; this is not to resell, this is to enjoy. Last week I paid $9.99 (plus postage) for a mint condition creamer ("book value" $27 four years ago) AND a large teapot with a mint condition base and a lid with some damage -- but it's still fun and usable. Mint condition that teapot booked for $250 a few years ago.

I don't know if this is a silver lining or not -- it's certainly not good for the "collectibles" section of the economy. But for me we're back to the old garage sale days of yore, where I get to look for old interesting fun stuff and pay a few bucks for it. Last week I was the only bidder on a set of four nested Oxford Ware 1940s colored mixing bowls, bowls so rare that the one reference that mentions them doesn't even give a price, just a notice that they were made. I wouldn't pay real money for that set, but $12? Sure.

As Eddie Cantor sang in 1931: Tomatoes are cheaper, potatoes are cheaper: Now's the time to fall in love!
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