I have long loved old china and glassware. Over the years, the older members of my family have learned that I am a willing and grateful repository of any and all mismatched china and glassware. Like many things, you can trace china and glassware to traditions and regions—places where production took root and wove itself into the local culture, spanning generations.
Like many crafts, modern day production has stripped much of the history and continuity out of American china and glass production and shipped it overseas. I read somewhere that you can no longer find flatware made in the United States—which is a shame in a country that has a great story like that of Oneida, which ceased United States-based production of flatware many years ago. The shift away from a historical region of production is not just an American story; my flatware by J.A. Henckels, a German brand since the 1700s, was made in China.
Most people probably don’t care where their dishes are made. Aside from the fact that I think in-country manufacturing provides a self-sufficiency necessary for any nation (when the hordes are at the gates, wouldn’t you feel better knowing your country can still set your table?), I think a little something is lost when a place loses its ties to some of the most intimate of households objects—the plates that hold your food and the glassware from which you drink.
Food is imbued with ritual and significance, something that is being rediscovered today through regional food systems and the locavore movement. The vessels that are used to serve food and drink can also have meaning and connect people to place, history, and tradition. Luckily, if you want, you can still set an American table. Here are three examples, each in business for more than 100 years:
Libbey Glass—Founded in Massachusetts in 1818, Libbey moved to Toledo, Ohio in 1888 (because Ohio had lots of natural gas and great sand). Libbey does manufacture outside of the United States, but some of its best known products, like the instantly recognizable Milan Irish Coffee Glass, are still U.S. made. Libbey made the news last year when it dusted off its 6 oz. iconic Georgian Irish Coffee glass and put it back into production, saving the city of San Francisco from a near tragedy—the loss of its famed Irish coffee. This tale of duplicity and glass-greed, and the aw-shucks Midwestern company that rode in to save the day, was entertainingly told in the San Francisco Chronicle, here and here. You can buy the original made-again-in-the USA Georgian Irish Coffee glass online and the Milan Irish Coffee glass pretty much everywhere.
Fiesta Dinnerware—When I moved into an art deco community, I dumped my sophisticated white casual dinnerware for the period-appropriate Fiesta Dinnerware and never looked back. Fiesta Dinnerware is made by the Homer Laughlin China Company (HLC), started by Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin in the late 1800s, in Ohio (again), where there were rich deposits of yellow clay. Shakespeare sold out to Homer, who, upon his retirement, sold to William Wells and Louis Aaron. The Wells family still runs the company today, and its factory and headquarters have been in Newell, W. Va., since 1903. A union shop, HLC’s Fiesta has a dedicated following of collectors. As much as I like china and glassware, I didn’t expect mere dishes could make me happy, but my cabinet is a bright jumble of Fiesta, from Sea Mist Green to Scarlet, and the colors never fail to cheer me up. I don’t need Persimmon, but I want it.
L.E. Smith Glass—My family has deep roots in Westmoreland County, Penn., which at one point had a large and thriving glass industry, including Westmoreland Glass, Jeanneatte Glass, Lenox Crystal, and Fort Pitt Glass. After almost losing the last of its glass heritage, L.E. Smith Glass of Mt. Pleasant, Westmoreland County, was saved in 2005 when William Kelman bought it at a sheriff’s sale. Today, it continues the tradition begun in 1907 of producing beautiful handmade American glass. The green milk glass is one of my favorites.
Have a local dish or glass maker in your region? I'd love to hear about it in the comments.