Do you remember Lewis Carrol's poem, "The Walrus and the Carpenter" in Alice in Wonderland?
"O oysters," said the carpenter, "You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?" But
answer came there was none
And this was scarcely odd, because
they'd eaten every one.
Victorians devoured raw oysters by the bushel full. And 19th century hostesses required appropriate tableware on which to serve the luscious bivalves.
Today, while raw oyster eating is not quite the fad it once was, the colorful and varied plates produced in European and American factories during the mid to late 19th century continue to attract collectors.
In the Pacific Northwest, oysters are still a popular seafood choice; however, even if you shudder to think of eating such a slimy creature you can still create a lovely display of oyster plates from such famous makers as Haviland/Limoges, Wedgwood and Minton. In fact, the collecting of oyster plates seems to be escalating as their use diminishes. The amazing variety of shapes, colors, and decoration makes for a spectacular wall or cabinet display.
Plates produced by most factories were of three basic styles: deep welled plates to provide for oysters on the half shell in a bed of ice; plates for oysters on the half shell without ice; and the ones we see most frequently today, plates for oysters without shells. Five or six depressions for oysters are most common; however plates can contain as few as 2 or 3 wells and platters as many as 2 dozen.
Majolica oyster plates, probably because of their bright colors and unique styling, remain a prime collector's choice. Many designs featured shell patterns, sometimes including other sea creatures. One Minton majolica plate features sardines reposing between bright turquoise oyster wells; another displays blossoms and leaves. Be warned that they are also the most costly. Examples by Minton, Wedgwood, and George Jones- all famous English producers of majolica- run into several hundreds. Examples of French faience from Quimper are equally pricey.
Many lesser known factories produced unusual examples in majolica as well as porcelain and even glass plates. Haviland designs are numerous and quite collectable as are many from German and French factories. Unmarked plates tend to be less expensive as are the relatively rare 20th century examples.
As in nearly every collecting field, condition and rarity determine the price of these colorful plates. Not surprisingly, you are more likely to find better variety on either coast.
For a look at the variety of oyster plates produced, check Jim & Vivian Karsnitz's book, Oyster Plates, published by Schiffer Publishing Ltd. available from the Collector's Book Store in four of our malls. -Barbara Sackett.
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