Ask someone about collectors' plates and they'll likely mention recent depictions of Elvisor the Wizard of Oz from the Bradford Exchange.
Actually, plates intended for display rather than sheer function have been collected for centuries. Majolica chargers, Rowland Marsellius flow blue souvenir pieces and even B&G Christmas plates have adorned walls and filled china cabinets since our ancestor's times.
Depression-era economics and streamlined designs diminished America's collector plate market until Vernon Kilns opened on the edge of Los Angeles in 1931. The 1933 earthquake forced the firm to bring out new 'blanks' for dinnerware. The savvy firm quickly realized the potential their popular new shapes could have as collector plates with a simple change in the underglaze transfer design.
From the Arkansas traveler plate of 1936 until the firms absorption by Metlox in 1958, hundreds of Vernon collectors' plate designs were made. A huge variety of attractions, celebrities, events and localities were commemorated, making them interesting to collect today.
Designs often featured a strong central element, ie Seattle's Smith Tower, surrounded by related scenes, ie Mt. Rainier, the Floating Bridge and the University of Washington, to create an all over pattern. Most were maroon, blue or brown with a cream background; hand tinted color lines were added in 1953 at extra cost and these still cost more today.
Regional themes dominated, as tourist shops and department stores ordered special lines for local attractions and events. Washington State, for instance, boasts a state plate; a 1950 Olympia Centennial plate; Spokane and Tacoma plates; a Salmon Derby and Ellensburg Rodeo plate; and several others. Backstamps often describe the scene and credit the store which ordered ("Made for People's Department Store," "Designed for Frederic and Nelson," etc.) before adding the ubiquitous "Vernon Kilns USA"
Since the firm didn't chronicle special orders, hundreds of varieties have been discovered by collectors. FDR and Douglas MacArthur, religious and fraternal groups, Boeing and Chief Seattle represent a few of the dozens of themes Vernon made. A special rarity is the mid-50s plate depicting the Vernon factories through the years, offered exclusively to the employees and VIPs touring the plant.
Several artists created stock collector plate lines which were nationwide. The 'Bits' series featured seven plates with historic scenes from six different US regions; most also had a chop plate (such as the Old South levee plate). California Missions, Race Horses, Cocktail Hour Plates, Music Masters and a Christmas series were other popular lines.
Vernon used plate "blanks" (the bare piece before the designs and glaze were applied) which fans of the firm's dinnerware lines will readily recognize Vernon collector plates were mostly cast on the Ultra California Blank, with its distinctive raised flat rim, or the ruffle edged Melinda blank, developed by Royal Hickman and popularized in the Mayflower pattern. Fewer collector's are found in the San Fernando and Montecito styles.
While 8.5in collector plates comprise most of Vernon's collector series,
a few chop plates, and children's dishes bear 'souvenir' transfers. Spoon
holders, ashtrays, coasters, ewers, tea sets, and vases are occasionally
found with these themes as well. Striking and varied in design, Vernon
collectors' plates have gained a following in the secondary market over
the last decade or so. Prices range from $10-$25 for most lines, with multi
colored lines commanding a 10% premium. Rarities can cost up to $100; but
most are still a bargain compared to other collectors' plates. For more
information on pricing and collecting the book 'Collectable Vernon Kilns
by Maxine Nelson is available in our Collector's Bookstores. -George
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