Score Fine China for Just $5 A Setting for Your Post Covid Dinner Parties
With vaccines rolling out and restrictions on gatherings starting to lift, it’s time to start planning for all those post Covid dinner parties coming this summer! I’m fortunate that my son’s grandma is a Culinary Institute trained chef who makes immaculate meals like it’s NBD (seriously, she can bake without recipes… who does this?!), so I never have to worry about the food. Instead, the tablescapes are my domain! My 4 year old son and I start our planning on Saturday for our Sunday family dinners, mixing and matching place settings, glassware,and serving dishes from my vintage China collection that I’ve built over the past few years from my thrifting trips.
According to Scully & Scully, fine china was first produced during the Tang dynasty (618–907). The early 8th century of this dynasty was a golden age in which beautiful art and culture flourished. Fine china is made from kaolin, a type of white clay. Porcelain is also made from kaolin, but the firing temperature is higher than that of fine china, making it more durable. But when Americans say “China,” they are most often generically referring to “fancy dishes” — the kind reserved for special occasions. And that’s how I use the word as well.
China was a mainstay of bridal registries up until the 1980s and early 1990s, when lifestyles began to change. And in more recent years, thanks in large part to the Internet and the fact that people are getting married later in life after they’ve already acquired a household full of necessities, registries have veered more towards “experience gifts” of travel, concerts, massages, dinners and such. I was surprised to learn that 1/3 of couples register for a fine china place setting, and that number has remained relatively consistent in recent years. This from the bridal registry site Zola and reported on just this past June 2019 in Southern Living. I expected this number to be much lower. But I’m reminded of the old adage from former UK Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who said “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This is to say, it could be that 1/3 of the people who registered AT ZOLA registered for China vs. a reflection of the general population (I’m kinda a data geek, as you can tell).
I can tell you this for sure, I’ve never been married, and I sure as hell did not let that keep me from acquiring a massive collection of China. And in our house, we use it daily. My 4 year old uses it. We serve the pup’s food on it. If there’s no gold or silver trim, we put it in the microwave. It ALL goes into the dishwasher (this momma hates handwashing!). Things occasionally get broken, and when they do, we have a very brief moment of mourning, then brush up the pieces, and get on with it.
Thrifting allows us to have this mentality. I pick up plates and bowls for as little as $1 each (my Texas sister is prolly reading this and laughing that I pay that much when she gets them for 25 cents). Now, this doesn’t make them any less valuable. They are still the China that a blushing bride put on her registry and that originally cost as little as $25 a plate and could easily (very easily) escalate to hundreds of dollars a setting (eeks!). They are still the same plate that will zhuzh up a rack of lamb or a slice of pizza (I hate to digress, but ICYMI, “zhuzh” is actually on the Merriam-Webster list of words they are watching… WTF.)
China ends up a thrift stores for a variety of reasons. Once a treasured family heirloom passed on to the next generation, China today can be burdensome. It’s tremendously expensive to ship due to its fragility and weight. So, if grandma passes (may she RIP) in the midwest and her granddaughter lives in NY, it could cost hundreds of dollars just in shipping. And even at this price tag and with all the bubble wrap in the world, there’s still a good chance a piece will get chipped or break all together. Even if you have the means, there’s still the issue of storing the China. In the age of tiny homes, most people simply don’t have the space to store frivolous decor. As sad as it is, the reality is that it’s more affordable and practical to donate grandma’s dishes to the local thrift than keep them in the family. So, people like me come in to snag them and put them back to good, beautiful use!
Check out my tips for thrifted tablescapes below.
Mix & Match Patterns: Don’t worry about being matchy-matchy when it comes to your tablescape. The more color, the more pattern, the more interesting it will be! Guests can pick their faves. Or, if you’re like my kiddo, you have your go-to faves (he loves the NIKKO brand Fine China “Secret Garden” dinner plate with the Noritake brand “Blue Orchard” salad plate… and I suspect that’s only because he has not yet seen the recently acquired “Gold Buffet” butterfly plates from Royal Gallery).
Blend Gold & Silver: Yesteryear’s formality has trained us that you can’t mix metals, but we’re not living in yesteryear so get on with it! TBH, if you’re not already mixing your gold and silver jewelry, please know that this is perfectly acceptable now too.
Skip the Teacups but Grab the Serving Dishes: My family are big hot tea drinkers, but I never grab the fancy teacups and saucers at the thrift. Reason is, they are incredibly hard to store since they don’t stack. And, on top of that, the cups are too small for regular portions of tea. We usually drink our hot tea out of insulated, on-the-go mugs from Yeti. That said, if you are able to find great China serving dishes, I do suggest you grab those. Most China sets focus on the plates and not so much on the serving dishes, so these are rare and harder to find. If you see a good looking one, don’t hesitate — just grab it if the price is fair.
Vintage Glassware: I have a pretty large and growing vintage glassware collection. I focus on colored glassware, and we mix and match it to our place settings for a pulled-together shabby chic look (wow, if that’s not the oxymoron of the year, I don’t know what is!).
Display Them: Because I could literally entertain three dozen guests in my house with my China collection, I’ve run out of cabinet space. My boyfriend may think otherwise, but I’ve decided they are so gorgeous that they can just sit on the counter stacked in their pile of golds and silvers.
Editor’s Note: I want to acknowledge my momma, who bought me not one, but TWO sets of fine China for my college graduation, and who then SHIPPED them from Texas to California for me. The “China” mentioned in this article — you know, the pieces that are OK to break, put in the microwave, etc. — does NOT include those pieces from mom, which are bubble-wrapped umpteen times over, kept out of reach of kids, have never come close to dog food, and are otherwise worshipped.