In the autumn of 1621, the Plymouth colonists and the Wampanoag Indians celebrated the autumn feast, also known as harvest feast. The harvest feast was a longstanding event in Native American culture and one which took place long before the colonists ever reached the site at Plymouth. Today, we call that celebration Thanksgiving.
The 1621 harvest feast differed significantly from our 21st Century Thanksgiving meals. For instance, very few vegetable side dishes were on the menu as mostly meat was eaten during the first Thanksgiving, no forks were used (only spoons and knives), and the person seated at the head of the table was of high social status and positioned in close proximity to the best food offerings.
If you are preparing for Thanksgiving and you intend to use your grandmother’s antique china plates or your mother’s vintage mixing bowls, here are some tips. I know that some of you are reading this column and saying to yourself… ”why do I need Dr. Lori to tell me how to use my grandmother’s antique china? I’ll just take the china down from the shelf and use it on my table.” Well, it’s not that simple. Your grandmother’s antique china or her old mixing bowls can contain lead. Leaching lead from antique china may be toxic. This is the case with many pieces of antique and vintage china.
Many of the old glazes used on antique (more than 100 years old) or vintage (less than 100 years old) china contain some level of lead. If your china is highly decorated or multi-colored, there is a better chance that it contains lead glazing or decorations using lead. And, those pieces of china with decorations atop the glaze rather than beneath the glaze may contain lead. If any of your pieces of antique or vintage china or pottery is damaged in any way (chips, cracks, crazing, etc.), don’t use it in the preparation or service of food.
Everyone knows that grandma’s china was not intended to be used in the microwave or in the dishwasher, but it is also a bad idea to place that old china in the refrigerator. Storing your leftovers in the refrigerator on an old decorated china plate is not good for the life span of the antique nor is it good for you once you re-serve those leftovers. Why? The plate is fragile and cooling will impact its overall condition. Also, lead can leach from china that is hosting foods high in acidity from the refrigerator. Thus, a piece of lead glazed or lead decorated antique china that experiences a significant temperature change (as with cooling) may leach. If you must eat off of your antique china or vintage ceramic dishware, don’t do so as a regular practice and certainly don’t eat off of it every day.
It is not wise to eat off of china with painted or metallic decorations (like gold leaf or silver banding). And, if you are in the practice of using an old ceramic bowl to feed or give water to your pets, make sure these old ceramic pieces are not chipped or cracked. You want to protect our furry friends against lead leaching too!
So, if you want to highlight your grandmother’s china, it is best to use pieces as a display within your holiday centerpiece or on the Thanksgiving buffet table hosting dried or silk flowers as a reminder of your family history. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving!
Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents antique appraisal events nationwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on the hit TV show, Auction Kings on the Discovery channel. For info, visit Facebook.com/DoctorLori or call (888) 431-1010.