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Over Thanksgiving while looking for a serving bowl I found a stray cup, the sort of thing most would rightly discard. Even in a second hand store how much value is found in one old cup? I’d say very little, close to none.
But, I’m going to describe in detail because I believe it is in the small elements of an article we come to understand it better, but more importantly we get a glimpse into the values of those who made and used the object. Because I recognized the cup I can place it in a certain time and place. Originally part of service for six, the cup was bought in The Mart, hardware and house wares store in the Hoyt Lakes shopping center. The year was 1958, Minnesota’s Centennial year, though that has nothing to do with my story.
As china goes the cup was not great, but it wasn’t bad either. For certain it was better service than ironstone or that awful stuff called Melamine. Those two were popular because, compared to china, they were durable. Melamine was touted as unbreakable. Frankly I never cared enough to test the claim though destroying all of it would have been fine with me because Melamine had the ugly habit of staining dirtily, especially coffee cups. For a growing family, however, even if it turned gruesome within a year wise ware was durable. At roughly this same time stainless steel flat ware was replacing Rogers Silver Plate, once-upon-a-time THE standard. Rogers was heavy compared to stainless. The weight came from the solid brass core which was electrically silver plated. Rogers would look good for some time before the brass began showing. It wasn’t good to leave one in the pickle tray for long unless doing a chemistry experiment.
See what I mean about slight details? They add up to a bigger picture, don’t they? I bet there are readers here who cannot remember the last time they ate with silver plate utensils as there are those reading who have never done so. I’m tempted to call the later the stainless generation, but as they are unaware of this distinction I think it safe to save that title for a more worthy group.
Some of you will recall that in the fifties we Americans took a very dim view of Japanese products. We gave them credit (not that such credit had much worth) for making “plastic junk.” Any metal objects they produced were reputed to be made from OUR melted down beer cans. Again, not much credit was given there. In one area the Japanese excelled. That was in porcelain. (There were other areas of Japanese mastery, but the American consumer was not aware of lacquer artistry or the intricacies of high quality silk weaving) Japanese porcelain (aka china ware) was often more than acceptable in both quality and price. It took Japan some time to figure out American tastes in style and decoration. By the time my mother bought her service from The Mart the Japanese produced a product both appealing and affordable to a woman in northern Minnesota.
Pause here to assess details again. It seems to me somewhat remarkable and noteworthy in itself that a former enemy would in little more than a decade have become a trading partner accepted by their former adversary. That says something worth remembering. I think it is a good and inspiring thing when people rise above their past limits.
Now, back to the china cup I found over the holiday weekend. The bottom of the cup was neatly printed under-glaze to say Made in Japan --- Apple Blossom. Apple Blossom was a good name for a pattern consisting of twigs and apple blossoms transfer printed around the cup in delicate pastel colors favoring light pink flowers against a graying blue background. Personally, I’d never have bought such a pattern, especially not at age thirteen when my tastes ran basic. I didn’t like anything pastel. I hated checks and stripes. Give me a solid color and I was OK. These dishes put a strain on my manly equilibrium because though I had absolutely NO say in the matter, it seemed to me our old Blue Willow dishes were less frilly feminine than the Apple Blossom bowl staring at me with a serving of mom’s homemade (including the thick noodles) chicken noodle soup.
The Apple Blossom dishes made a sharp impression because they were the first of a series of changes occurring during my growing up that mother announced with new table ware. Dad had been through this before, as had I. But as a child new I didn’t see the signal in new dishes. At thirteen I saw it clearly. Dad said nothing about the bowl before him I thought that a good cue to follow. Right that was. When she sat mother took her spoon and said it was time we turned a new leaf. Mom’s new leaf speeches always put much import on being a family, which I thought we were sitting there politely saying nothing negative about her fussy new bowls. Apparently mom expected something more. Dad didn’t know what it was either. He sat silent. Silent, we were safe. Remaining so was a challenge when mom’s other favored new leaf uncurled. “We’re going to church more.” It was hard for me not to groan. I thought “not that again” all the while sure it wouldn’t last any more than past times. In two months they’d be packing ME to Mass with the donation envelope as proof we were there. I learned to shortcut my duty by arriving early to pre-load the collection basket with our envelope. With that done, I was free until I had to return home roughly in time with church letting out. My mission, so-to-speak, was accomplished.
I’ll say this. Mom’s leaf turning was a boon to the china industry. Our North Shore guest cabin was the recipient of each cast off set. By the time I graduated the U in the mid 60’s our two bedroom cabin had what was left of service for 72. Our table sat six. The others would have to stand.