Porcelain china sets finding new homes

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Packed away in a box in the corner of a Winnipeg basement – carefully covered, wrapped in paper, steeped in memories – are gold-trimmed, hand-painted treasures.

Michelle Watson’s fine bone china set has been in her family for generations.

The story of this porcelain set starts on a farm in southern Indiana in the late 1800s.

Lena Midkiff, a woman in her 20s and just recently married, had always wanted her own set of fine porcelain dishes, but money was scarce. So Lena would faithfully save the dollars she made from selling eggs on the farm and tuck them away in a can in her cupboard.

Every few months she would place an order for a single piece of O & E.G. Royal Austria fine bone china – gold-trimmed hand-painted with elegant flowers weaving an outline around the nearly translucent dishes.

It took Lena Midkiff more than a decade to collect the full set of O & E.G. Royal Austria fine bone china. (Submitted)

Lena cherished those dishes, though it would take her more than a decade to collect the full set. Now, more than 100 years and three generations later, Lena’s china set is sitting in storage in Watson’s basement, Lena’s great-great-niece.

“My mother always used it for special occasions, like Easter and Christmas and that type of thing, but it’s fairly fragile and I hardly ever get it out,” Watson says.

For many, once-cherished porcelain sets are now collecting dust.

It’s a shift being felt around the world, from a home in Winnipeg to one of the oldest porcelain manufacturers in the world.

While those elegant dinner sets may have lost some of the popularity they once enjoyed, just a glance can evoke wistful memories of dinners at grandma and grandpa’s place, lazy Sunday afternoons or special occasions with loved ones spent around the table.

‘They don’t seem to want to carry on the traditions anymore’

Lena’s china set is one of two sets Watson inherited – the other a well-worn and well-loved set her grandmother had bought in the 1920s for her wedding.

“I remember we used that china every Sunday for dinner, because every Sunday for dinner we would go to my grandparents’ house,” she said, thinking back to afternoons spent playing yard games at her grandparent’s farm and swimming in the creek.

Watson says those memories all revolve around family gathering around a table set carefully with the fine china.

“It was just so much fun – so much fun, and so many great memories.”

Deb Rowinski lives just outside Warren, Man. She too inherited her grandmother’s porcelain set.

“I remember whenever she would have dinners, those were the dishes actually she would pull out,” she said. “It was just for special occasions.”

Deb Rowinski has memories of time spent around the dinner table set with her grandmother’s china set. (Submitted)

Despite the memories, both Watson and Rowinski are selling their porcelain sets. It’s a difficult decision to part with them, but the sets are taking up space and Watson says her children have shown little interest in inheriting them.

“Kids just aren’t into the stuff anymore. You know, they are very happy to go buy… white plates,” she said. “They don’t seem to want to carry on the traditions anymore, which is fine it’s just a bit sad.”

Theirs are just a few of the countless sets of fine porcelain now up for sale on Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace across Canada as many people go through the same struggle – what do you do with something that was once treasured, but is now taking up space?

Since its creation in China during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, porcelain has been treasured. The highest quality porcelain was reserved for emperors and upper elites. It was relished by countries around the world that were enthralled by the beautiful white, nearly translucent ceramic, and fixated on replicating it.

Art historian Helen Delacretaz, the former chief curator at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, says in its prime porcelain was a sign of social class.

“They look at porcelain and they see these beautiful things, and they are. They’re luxurious, and that’s what it was all about. It was an idea of luxury in your house,” she said.

“If you were wealthy, your home was full of wonderful porcelains. If you were more middle class, you had on décor on your buffet… a really nice piece – you may not be able to afford the whole set, but there was a love there that spoke to the fact that you had the ability to afford it, and you had the knowledge that it was good.”

Delacretaz just recently sold her grandmother’s tea set which she had brought with her to Canada from England.

“I envisioned having tea with my kids and all that, but life took over and there never seemed the time to unpack it or I was scared by that point that it would get broken, so it just stayed in the box.”

Any gander through a thrift store or antique shop will uncover stacks vintage porcelain dinner wares – Old Country Roses or Silver Birch by Royal Albert, My Fair Lady by Coalport, American Ivy by Pope Gosser – the list goes on.

A stack of porcelain dishes in Mike’s General Store in Winnipeg. (Source: Danton Unger/ CTV News Winnipeg)

Antique appraiser Mike Huen, owner of Mike’s General Store in Winnipeg, says as more people look to sell their old porcelain dinner sets, the value has plummeted. He says 40 years ago, a single porcelain cup and saucer may have sold for $100 within a week – now the same set would be a difficult sell at $20.

“It’s a supply and demand factor – the supply is high because that generation is passing on and the demand is low because there’s not that many people looking for it anymore,” he said.

“We’ve changed as a society, and I mean there’s still a percentage of people who still enjoy that style of dining. The only thing is that percentage of people shrink every year.”

Mike Huen has been running Mike’s General Store in Winnipeg for more than 40 years. (source: Danton Unger/ CTV News Winnipeg)

It is a shift felt by one of the world’s oldest porcelain manufacturers, Meissen. The world-renowned porcelain brand’s history goes back to 1708 when an alchemist under the employ of Augustus the Strong cracked the recipe for fine white porcelain in Europe.

The Meissen company is still manufacturing high-quality porcelain, but in 300 years lots has changed and the company has had to change with it.

“You know the days we would meet on a Sunday afternoon with grandfather and grandchildren and everyone in a big family – it doesn’t happen as much today as it used to happen 50 years ago or 30 years ago,” Dr. Tillmann Blaschke, CEO of the company, told CTV News in an interview from Meissen, Germany.

“What we are observing is a trend for a stronger liking for white porcelain over hand-painted colourful porcelain – you have to address that in your designs, even though we are in the business of hand painting.”

He says customers are looking for functionality over decoration – something durable that can go in the microwave or dishwasher. It’s a change Meissen has to adapt to.

EXTENDED INTERVIEW: DR. TILLMANN BLASCHKE TALKS CHANGING TIMES AT MEISSEN

“In terms of product development, you’ve got to make sure that you have products which fit into the times that we’re living in, that meet the needs of the people,” Blaschke said.

“You’re always tempted when you have a long history to look back because there’s always more to look back to, but we’ve got to continuously maintain focus on what’s ahead of us and thrive on what we have as history in our hands to make us even better as we go forward.”

Though the era of porcelain is changing – it is not over. As Hannah Nowack puts it, “china is definitely having a moment.”

The senior editor at the worldwide wedding website The Knot, based in New York City, told CTV News fine china is still a hit on wedding registries these days and the pandemic may be a contributing factor.

“We have seen actually that about 16 per cent of couples these days are putting fine china on their wedding registries – that is a pretty significant uptick,” Nowack told CTV News.

“As we’re slowly emerging from the pandemic and couples are eager to get back out there after kind of two years all alone, they’re just excited to entertain, and having the materials to do just that is an important thing.”

But the revival of porcelain is not just happening on wedding registries. Others are finding creative ways to give once-cherished sets a new life.

At Park Line Coffee in Winnipeg’s South Osborne neighbourhood, owner Janis Urniezius has been using porcelain plates since she opened the shop five years ago.

“We had a box of it at home and it needed to get put to use – it was just sitting in a box there,” she said. “So we grabbed a few pieces and they fit perfectly for the baking that we have.”

Janis Urniezius, owner of Park Line Coffee in Winnipeg, says the porcelain plates are a hit among customers. (Source: Danton Unger/CTV News Winnipeg)

She says the porcelains are a big hit with customers – many of whom have asked to donate their own sets to her store.

“It’s really hard to just dump it and it’s sad to see that happen too,” Urniezius said. “It’s nice to try and give it a second life.”

Stacey Shortt, the owner of ShorttCake Events Décor in Winnipeg, has also found ways to give new life to forgotten porcelains. She hunts through thrift stores collecting old china sets and rents them out for events.

“Vintage china on its own kind of has a soft and romantic feel to it,” she said.

“There’s all of these great pieces that are kind of going unused. So I think the generation that was used to using these pieces more in their everyday life is happy to pass that along and see it being really appreciated.”

She said streaming shows like Downton Abbey, Bridgerton or The Crown are also having an impact on the porcelain rentals, with more people looking to throw themed parties using vintage dinner sets.

Stacey Shortt, the owner of ShorttCake Events Décor in Winnipeg, rents vintage porcelain sets for weddings and parties. (Source: Danton Unger/ CTV News Winnipeg)

However, back in Watson’s basement, her two porcelain sets are still sitting awaiting a new home. She hopes they go to someone who will appreciate them and love them as she and her family have. Watson says there has been some interest from people looking to buy the sets – others have reached out to her simply to admire them.

Watson is planning to keep a piece or two – a cracked teacup and saucer from her great-great-aunt Lena’s set which she keeps on a windowsill with a little plant inside, and two gravy boats from her grandmother’s set she is using as centre pieces on her table.

“Then I’ll still have the memories that I had with them,” she said. “That’s why you want to keep it, because you think of it and you have these great memories of dinners together and the stories behind it.” 

Michelle Watson is keeping a cracked teacup and saucer from her great, great aunt Lena’s set which she keeps on a windowsill with a little plant inside. (Submitted)

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