Several months ago, I spotted a slick goldenrod yellow melamine dish set at the local Salvation Army. Inspecting the pieces, I recalled childhood experiences: eating brown sugar and butter sandwiches from the plates and drinking cold whole milk from the teacups of a similar set that belonged to my mother—cool, shiny and the color of homemade chocolate pudding. Priced at under $5 and including a gracefully beautiful sugar-creamer pair, that goldenrod collection came home with me, and with it came my desire to find out more about the history and value of these artifacts of my childhood—and just about everybody else born between 1940 and 1980.
The Melamine Era
Dishes made of melamine resin (the proper name for this plastic, more commonly known as simply melamine or Melmac, a trade name) became popular after the second world war, when their affordability, shatterproof practicality, and modern appeal made them an attractive alternative to ceramics and glass. Though initial designs were essentially meant to emulate those more traditional materials, replicating relatively subdued classic tableware forms, designers soon began to draw upon the protean character of this material, producing more fluid, exotic and novel shapes—from curvaceous divided serving bowls to square tea cups.
In their heyday during the 50s and 60s, melamine dishes were made in staggering quantities by manufacturers from Massachusetts to California and everywhere in between, turned out in countless styles, colors and patterns. Eventually, due to market saturation and a shift in perceptions, production slowed considerably. Though some melamine resin products were and are still produced, including promotional cereal bowls and the majority of rigid plastic utensils for use in non-stick cookware, by the early 70s the melamine era had effectively ended. As a result, though many of us may remember the stuff from later childhoods—a fact due to the products’ durability and profusion—most of the vintage melamine available dates to that early two-decade period, and there’s a lot to be had.
Where To Buy Melamine
On eBay and at thrift stores, flea markets and yard sales, it is still easy to scrounge pieces, odd lots and entire sets for anywhere from a few cents to a few bucks. However, some unique pieces and those designed by the likes of such luminaries as Russel Wright and Massimo Vignelli are likely to fetch significantly higher prices.
Making Your Melamine As Good As New
Though manufacturers touted the material’s indestructibility and imperviousness to daily use, most vintage melamine—especially plates and bowls, as they tend to be subject to the brutality of silverware and scouring pads more often than teacups and creamers—bears at least a few minor marks of its age. Patterned pieces are particularly prone to degradation. The good news is that much of this damage can be repaired, particularly for the solid colored pieces. Stains can generally be removed with a quick diluted bleach bath, and scratches can be rubbed out with plastic polish.
Durable, reparable, affordable and readily available—this is one of those rare collectibles that can actually be used from day to day with relative abandon. However, there are a few considerations to bear in mind before you begin to collect and use melamine dishware.
Potential Problems with Melamine
First off, melamine can’t handle microwaving, and it generally doesn’t much enjoy the rigors and confines of the dishwasher, so if you do a lot of nuking and can’t abide by hand washing, it’s probably not for you.
Secondly, and more seriously, melamine resin is the product of the chemicals formaldehyde and melamine, and while, to my knowledge, no extensive (or conclusive) testing has been done to ascertain the potential risks of the sustained use of melamine resin dinnerware and utensils, I would feel remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some level of questionability in its use. We know that formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and based on last year’s animal feed disaster, in which food contaminated with melamine (the chemical) was responsible for the death of countless pets, it seems likely that this chemical is not so great for humans either. But, the idea with plastics, as I understand it, has been that while toxic substances may be used to produce a plastic, these substances are harmless when trapped within the structure of the hardened plastic.
However, recent concerns about polycarbonates stem from research that suggests that the toxic chemical used to make those plastics, bisphenol-A, may leach out of the plastic into the foods stored inside. And reports in 2005 about the hazards of Teflon and plastic linings for grease-proof packaging were related to the possibility of these plastics releasing their dangerous constituent chemical perfluorooctanoic acid. In both cases, it seems that the most risk arises from heating the plastics in question—placing a baby bottle in boiling water or in a microwave to warm it, goods that are canned and sealed very hot, which therefore heat plastic can linings, heating non-stick pans to high temperatures, etc. So, it seems, in the case of melamine resin, since it cannot be microwaved or directly heated, the greatest risk would be not with tableware but with kitchen utensils—spoons and spatulas—used in hot applications.
It is not a happy circumstance, but it seems that all plastics are likely to impart some amount of toxins into the food with which they come in contact. Just the same, I can’t personally raise much concern about such things. There’s an endlessness to that type of worry that I’d prefer to exchange for the occasional indulgence amidst the dulcet contours of cool melamine.