Today, melamine plates and dinnerware remain a popular icon of the 40s and 50s. They were an important element of everyday living during the twentieth, making them desirable to many collectors today. Melamine dishes tend to bring on feelings of nostalgia, since either you had them in your home or perhaps a favorite aunt or grandmother had them. Melamine has been used to make plates, cups, bowls, cafeteria trays, serving utensils, coasters and more since the manufacturing of plastic household items began in the late 1930s. Melamine dinnerware can be seen as one of the many wonderful developments to come out of space-age inventions.
Although melamine is most often associated with the 40s and 50s, I was surprised to find out that the substance melamine was created much earlier. In 1834 Justus von Liebig, a German scientist, first isolated melamine as a colorless, crystalline compound in a lab. Not having a practical use for the substance at the time, the experiments didn’t progress to anything concrete. It wasn’t until the late 30s, when the cost of melamine in its raw form dropped to its lowest levels, that manufacturers began to consider practical applications for the material.
As an organic compound, melamine powder was combined with coloring compounds and polymers to make a synthetic resin that could be heated and molded and then cooled, creating a permanent shape that was resistant to cracking and breaking. Durable, affordable and available in a countless array of colors, melamine was something many manufacturers were eager to invest in.
When WWII began, resources from overseas were more difficult to acquire making melamine dinnerware the logical choice for the U.S. military. Working together, Watertown Manufacturing Company and the Navy developed a line of melamine dishes called “Watertown Ware.” Considered a “wonder plastic,” melamine could hold up under conditions where brittle Bakelite and water-soluble resins had failed.
American Cyanamid in Wayne, New Jersey was a leading manufacturer of raw melamine material. They provided molding powders to manufacturers with the brand name “Melmac,” who in turn produced products with the moldable plastic. In the mid-40s, American Cyanamid hired the industrial designer Russel Wright to design melamine dinnerware. Consumer testing and extensive research was done to determine if there was a sizable market for affordable, unbreakable, plastic tableware. Based on Wright’s design with minor changes, a new dishware line was released in 1944 called “Meladur.” Wright’s bestselling melamine dinnerware design was the Residential collection released in 1953. With sleek, modern lines and colors, this line was awarded the Good Design Award from the Modern Museum of Art.
Why was melamine dinnerware so successful? Post-WWII, Americans began to live more casual lifestyles. They dressed more casually and many families enjoyed greater prosperity, allowing them to indulge in leisure activities. Picnicking and poolside meals became the norm, and melamine was the perfect dinnerware for these activities. Melamine dishes will bounce, as opposed to breaking like traditional ceramic dinnerware, and so it continued to be popular into the 1970s.
Melamine, with its convenience and portability never fully went out of style which explains why melamine is making a comeback. Collecting vintage melamine dinnerware has become increasingly popular over the last 10 years and melamine dinnerware in fresh new designs is being produced to be used and enjoyed in homes again.