Saturday, February 2, 2019

China Patterns I Have Known

When I was in my early 20s, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, I was a thrift store junkie. I used to go on road trips all over Florida with friends, and whatever town we visited, we'd hit the Goodwill and Salvation Army. And if there was a flea market as well -- BONUS!

I used to search out groovy old '50s and '60s home furnishings, which at the time were easily available and inexpensive. I had a particular soft spot for casual American china in abstract patterns, the kind that would originally have been sold in grocery stores or given in exchange for S&H Green Stamps. For example, the pattern above -- "Cathay" by Taylor, Smith and Taylor -- was one of my favorites, and I put together a huge set made entirely of individual pieces I bought here and there all across the state.

I don't have any of this china anymore. It was a pain to store, care for and pack every time I moved, and in the case of Cathay, it wasn't even entirely functional. The coffee cups were tiny. By the mid-'90s I'd sold or given nearly all of it away in favor of a modern 16-piece set of plain white dishes from Pottery Barn. (Which Dave and I still use!)

But I got to thinking the other day about the incredible variety of patterns I used to find. Here are some examples. (Obviously none of these photos are mine -- they're all borrowed from the Interwebs.)

"Starburst," by Franciscan, was a collectible pattern even back then, featuring groovy atomic shapes on a pebbly background. It's even more collectible now. My friend Karl amassed a large assortment of it which, last I checked, he still has.

This was "California Mobile," a version of Metlox's "Poppy Trail" pottery. I used to have a gravy boat just like this one. Isn't it great? That specimen above is selling online right now for $33.

This was a pattern by Red Wing called "Pompeii." My friend Paul gave me a set of this stuff, which I always liked, but it lived in a box in my spare bedroom and I don't think I ever actually used it. I eventually gave it back to him when I downsized to a smaller apartment. Knowing Paul, he may still have it!

This was another Red Wing pattern, called "Smart Set." I had a casserole and pitcher in this pattern, and tragically, my cat Howard knocked the pitcher off the counter and broke its handle. I glued it back together, but in the world of collectible pottery, the breakage rendered it pretty much worthless. I eventually forgave Howard, but I never forgot.

This was a Salem pattern called "Mosaic." I had two cups in this pattern -- all that I ever found.

This is another Salem pattern called "North Star." It's very common, or it was at the time, and I amassed a gigantic 60-piece set which I used for my everyday dishes. I eventually tried to sell them all at a consignment shop, and when they didn't sell I wound up donating them back to Goodwill. Again, tiny cups.

I never knew what this was called, but I learned yesterday that it's Stetson pottery's "Hiawatha" pattern. I had just a few pieces. I remember sitting out on my balcony one afternoon, shortly after I'd moved to Winter Haven to take my first job after graduating from college, and drinking coffee from my Hiawatha cup. I felt so adult.

Isn't it weird what sticks in my head? I can't learn French but I'll remember that forever.

This was a Taylor, Smith and Taylor pattern called "Del Rey." I had a coffee pot, cup, creamer and sugar bowl that adorned my kitchen counter for years. In fact, here they are, in a tightly cropped picture of my kitchen in Tampa from 1988:

You can see my Cathay in the dish drainer.

Nowadays, with the Internet, finding this old china isn't hard. But back then, there was a real sense of discovery about it -- your haul depended solely on what any given thrift store or flea market happened to have in stock. And you never knew what all the pieces in a set would look like, or even which ones existed. Was there a Cathay coffee pot, for example? (Now, using the Web, I see that the answer is yes, but I never saw one in real life.)

To be fair, my fondness for china wasn't just about the dishes. It was also about the time I got to spend with Paul and Karl at early morning flea markets, or with Kevin and Suzanne on long road trips to distant thrift stores. Those activities cemented friendships with people I still care about, and made terrific memories. And there was the satisfaction that came with collecting.

I kind of miss all this old stuff! Maybe one of these days I'll pop onto eBay and pick up a piece or two of Cathay or North Star, just for old times' sake.


  1. This is a sweet post Steve. All of these patterns are fascinating! I love the shapes of the creamers, sugar bowls, gravy boat, pitchers. I am going to start keeping an eye out for these collections as I visit flea markets and such.

  2. I love this post! You know what I think would be cool? To have several plates and bowls of each of these patterns and use them to throw mod dinner parties. You could serve fun sixties dinner party foods. With martinis of course. Or sangria! The internet is FILLED with that stuff.
    But maybe not because your age group might be too young to enjoy that whole era of kodachrome colored shrimp cocktails and grape jelly meatballs. The nostalgia factor might be missing.
    I still think it's a fun idea though. And it would give you an excuse to play the Rolling Stones on your hi-fi!

  3. You've hit on my sweet spot with this post. I too love to collect different dinnerware and china although, I didn't have any of the groovy patterns you've shown us here. I still have more sets than one person needs. The set I recently took to the consignment store, I purchased almost entirely from eBay or However, I think the first few pieces I found at a either a thrift store or an antique store. These are all great patterns. Very retro....almost Jetsons-like. I've posted about my dishes several times. I should do a post with examples of each of the sets I still have. Great fun!

  4. I used to collect tea cups and sugar bowls, and I too had Cathay and Starburst. I still have them, but I don't actively collect any more.

    Yes, I remember what a joy it used to be to go thrift shopping before eBay. I used to collect those cashmere sweaters from the 1930s - 1950s, with gorgeous fur collars and stunning rhinestone clasps. They would cost $4.00 and were usually too small for me (I'm taller than average) but I loved them as objects. In 2004 I donated them to FIT in NYC. I won't go near fur anymore. You were smart to stick with tableware. You have a good eye, as they say.

    Those designs evoke such nostalgia for me, not just for my thrifting past but for the time that I lived through, when the future was going to be so very cool and a certain shade of turquoise, and we'd all be driving Mustangs and have robot housemaids.

  5. fun post. don't care for mid-century modern myself. we use china for everyday here, the stuff I got when I got married the first time, because otherwise it wouldn't get used (though we had plenty of plain white pottery when the kids were growing up. I do have a set of special china for when I used to do Thanksgiving or other entertaining which happened almost never, but it is a set of place settings from different members of the extended family so every place setting is different. my sister collects china sets. she must have half a dozen at least. I had to laugh about your 'small' coffee cups. They look normal size to me. I don't care for those oversize cups and mugs people use now as the coffee gets cold before I drink it all.

  6. I can see why there are so many great patterns. They're attractive and sell well. So now I know why my friends have such interesting sets of dishes. Come to think of it, I've seen lots of this in antique stores.

  7. PANG OF ENVY for the Starburst china!
    Even after working in thrift stores for four years, I haven't seen much of that grooviest of groovy stuff come through.

    Red Wing Pottery is made just down the Mississipi River from me (I'm in Mpls), and it does turn up as donations now and again. One of the things I love best about working in thrift is I can enjoy it without having to take it home.
    But I'd get the Starburst if it came in.

    We always have a lot of unsold coffee cups in various patterns.
    Almost no one wants those 8 oz. cups,
    (though I agree with ellen abbott's comment that they work well because your hot coffee doesn't get cold). But for now, honking great mugs are the norm.

    I agree that online sale sites like ebay have taken some of the fun out of the hunt, especially since some thrift stores, like Goodwill, no longer put the collectible stuff on the shelves--they have their own online sales site.

    Thanks for this fun post!!!

  8. Fascinating post, Steve. I must admit that though my last name is Taylor it is neither of the Taylors from that china company. We've gone through a lot of changes in our china, too, over the years but it was all due to SWMBO growing bored with each style. I just never got involved in the search and purchase. Right now we have five dinner plates, three of one style and two of another.

  9. Now I feel very dull, having had only two everyday sets of dishes in my married life, one which is the current set! These patterns definitely remind me of days gone by, mod furniture and mod clothes.

  10. I just found the poem you linked to for Catalyst yesterday - love it, love it :)

  11. mid century patterns (swoon), but you were right to unload them, I would be happy to just have one bowl and a pair of chopsticks, a mug and a knife- that's all- but I do admire china especially the patterns you have chosen.

  12. Oh, such a walk down memory lane! I grew up with some of these patterns! The ones I found bit by bit in flea markets and garage sales in the 80’s were called Temporama! Loved that 50’s turquoise and geometric design. I was saving them for a dream “cottage by a lake” you know, just in case that ever really happened. It was fun collecting the stuff! I finally did get to use them, too, when we quite by accident found a cottage by a lake, and then actually bought it, and I happily moved in with the china, and painted the kitchen to match. A decade later, now they are again boxed up waiting for my niece to get an apartment (soon); apparently some college grads are loving the vintage items, and I know she’ll use and enjoy them. I did save one (tiny!) cup as a keepsake, and do use it for scooping flour all the time! Fun post, Steve! (The kitchen is no longer turquoise, by the way!)

  13. A lovely post. I think because my mom collected china (not the thrift store variety) it never occurred to me to do the same although I did have a brief flirtation with festival place settings. I loved the vibrant colors. My mom has passed on to me several much loved wedgewood sets complete with bullion cups and demitasse tea cups and yet I use my chipped everyday plates and mugs each day. Not sure where I’m going with this but you’ve prompted me to think about this somehow.

  14. Of course, I meant Fiesta Ware (although there is apparently also a crockery set called Festival that is also brightly colored). And now you have sent me off on a nostalgic internet exploration.

  15. Hi Steve, I have been reading your blog for a short time and found you through the blog Going Gently, I especially enjoyed this post as I'm a big fan of mid century pottery. England had some wonderful pottery in it's day by Broadhurst and designs by Kathy Winkle I have some of her designs and use various pieces mixing and matching daily, you might find some in the charity shops that's where most of mine were purchased here in Canada, you should recognize them easily as they look a lot like the ones you how.
    Anyway I enjoy reading your daily adventures and photos.

  16. I've just had fun scrolling through your posts and getting caught up with the snow and Olga and now these china patterns. I recognize some of them and think they're fabulous. A friend recently gave me a set -- they have a name but they are sort of Jetson-like with odd shaped, angular cups and saucers. I'd go look and see what pattern they are, but I'm in Portland typing this in a hotel bed!

  17. Joanne: Glad you liked it! Yes, the shapes are great -- some of them are really innovative. I love the butter dish with the "Pompeii" set, for example! Let me know what you find out there!

    Ms Moon: That IS an excellent idea! I remember seeing some of those crazy dishes in magazines, but my mom never made them she was more a pork chops and baked chicken kind of cook.

    Sharon: I remember you posting about your china habit before! You do have some beautiful sets.

    Vivian: Maybe thrift shopping is still as much fun as it used to be, but my impression is that there's a lot more junk out there now. I just don't go to thrift shops very often anymore. Donating your sweaters to FIT was a smart way to dispose of them! And yeah, I miss that super-optimistic vision of the future that we all used to have.

    Ellen: The different place settings for each person is a cool idea. I don't like today's SUPER huge mugs, but a normal mug size is about right for me. Those little cups, I can drink them in three or four sips!

    Red: Yeah, I bet this mid-century stuff turns up a lot in antique shops now. It's very popular, and much more expensive than it used to be!

    Fresca: It's cool that you still get Red Wing now and then. It's not still made there, is it? Most of those American china companies are out of business now. "Starburst" was pretty rare in a thrift store even in my day.

    Catalyst: The producers of all this china were counting on boredom to help drive their business!

    Jenny-O: It was a mod, mod world!

    Linda Sue: Well, that's the thing. The designs were great but the sets were so BIG. We just don't live like that now. No one needs saucers and salad plates and fruit bowls and all those specialized pieces. Cup, big plate, little plate, bowl -- that's about all that's required.

    StillWater: Yes! Temporama! I had to look it up but I definitely used to see that pattern now and then. Not a LOT of it, but enough to conceivably collect it. I don't know why I never started buying that one.

    37P: Fiesta Ware is a longtime favorite, and they're remaking it now, as I'm sure you know. It's amazing how complicated some of those china sets could be, with all those specialized cups and other pieces. Of course, that was part of the fun of using it!

    Jennifer: It IS an excellent idea. I think Dave might kill me if I suggest that he make grape jelly meatballs, though.

    Margo: Thanks for coming by! Englad DID have some amazing mid-century pottery. I don't know Broadhurst or Kathy Winkle, but I know Clarice Cliff (a bit earlier than mid-century) and I recently posted a photo of the "Homemaker" pattern that I saw in the V&A museum. I'll look up the ones you mentioned so I know what to look for!

    Elizabeth: Interesting! Let me know what they are! I'm curious!

  18. Love this post! (I am late to my reading, as usual.) I have a set that is my age, 55 years old, which I know only b/c my dad told me the year I was born, they started collecting it. Got it at Woolworth's (if you remember those), and I think it was like a dime for each piece. It is absolutely beautiful; pink and aqua blue, thistle design on a white background. And I use it all the time.

  19. I thought I left a comment yesterday, and it seems that somehow I did not. I love thee dishes. I had forgotten about these patterns and styles, and it reminds me of my youth.

  20. I love anything mid-century modern....esp. the houses! Thanks for posting about
    the mid-century pottery. My grandfather worked at Taylor, Smith and Taylor pottery
    back in the 40's. He also worked for Homer Laughlin Pottery that makes Fiesta.
    Thanks for posting all the pottery pics....I'm in mid-century heaven!

  21. Yep, Red Wing Pottery is still in business in Red Wing, MN, but it's nothing I'd want--more touristy MN sorts of things, and an uninspired one-with-the-Earth kind of line...