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Salesman Samples Serve Up Collecting Value on a Platter

The fine art and collectibles featured in “Appraise It” are typically submitted for consideration. This month’s items are the result of a visit to the home of a collector of restaurant ware.

Upon seeing the vast assemblage of restaurant ware, from the plates and platters that adorned the walls to the mugs, creamers, and pots that lined the shelves, I was struck with a sentimental longing for the diners and restaurants that lined the highways of my youth and for that distinctive sound that this type of china would make, the clatter and clang of dishes being bused. It is little wonder that these simple utilitarian objects are collectible. These logo-branded commercial china pieces serve as visual reminders of parts of American culture that no longer exist in today’s paper and Styrofoam-to-go world.

Before 1900, restaurant china was originally imported from European sources. This changed in the early twentieth century as American hotels began to add meals to their services and the number of restaurants and cafés increased. As the demand increased, so did American production. About fifty companies made china for commercial use, including Syracuse, Buffalo, Seneca, and Hall China.

Restaurant china, also referred to as hotel ware and commercial china, is not limited to restaurants. This category of collectible is very broad and would include dishware used by hotels, corporations, institutions, government agencies, and hospitals, as well as forms of transportation such as airlines, railways, and ocean liners. There are even categories built around themes such as Western and nautical. The potentials are endless, but regardless of its origins, this china is typically dense and was designed to withstand heavy daily use.

The illustrated pieces are considered “salesman samples” and are highly prized finds. They were used by the companies’ salesmen to show the quality, detail, and variety of choices available to potential customers. The “logo” plate backstamps identify it as the work of Syracuse China, formerly known as Onondaga Pottery Company, established in 1871. The “sample plate” with approximately thirty logos dates to 1897 and has a fair market value of $250.

Wallace China of Huntington Park, California, is the maker of the circa 1950 color palette sample plate. Used to assist clients in choosing their color schemes, this rare find would have a fair market value of $200.

Since the 1800s, more than 200 manufacturers have produced thousands of commercial patterns. As in all areas of collecting, the market for restaurant china changes as old collectors drop out and new collectors enter the marketplace. So what is “in” now is restaurant china from the 1950s and ’60s.

Knowledge is the key if you are interested in starting a collection. There are reproductions and fakes in this market, and a little research can enhance your enjoyment of ownership and the hunt. Learn about backstamps, glazes, and date codes. Consider investing first in Barbara Conroy’s Restaurant China Identification & Value Guide for Restaurants, Airline, Ship & Railroad Dinnerware, Vol. I & II.

Linda Dyer serves as an appraiser, broker, and consultant in the field of antiques and fine art. She has appeared on the PBS production Antiques Roadshow since season one, which aired in 1997, as an appraiser of Tribal Arts. If you would like Linda to appraise one of your antiques, please send a clear, detailed image to info@nashvillearts.com. Or send photo to Antiques, Nashville Arts Magazine, 644 West Iris Dr., Nashville, TN 37204.

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