plastiquarian reprints - from no. 32 - Summer 2004

The Rise and Fall of Melamine Tableware

Steve Akhurst
 

At a time in the immediate post-war years when plastics housewares generally had a dubious reputation with the public, melamine tableware quickly proved to be a strong exception. This article describes the development, zenith and eventual supplantation of this fine material.

Boonton Belle tableware designed by Belle Koogan (USA)Melamine Formaldehyde (MF) moulding materials were developed in Germany and the US just prior to the Second World War. Afterwards, this new `wonder' material was there to be exploited in the eager civilian markets of the western world. There was a time when melamine and Melaware were `household' names and most of us and our children used this brightly coloured (`gay' was the word in those days) tableware. Major china and pottery manufacturers in the USA and the UK felt threatened by these new products and some even adopted melamine (the `formaldehyde' suffix usually being omitted) for some of their new tableware designs.
Half a century later we have to look in camping shops, Mothercare and the like for the current melamine ware or we need to trawl the car boot sales or eBay to get hold of some choice pieces of `retro' melamine tableware from the 1950s and 1960s. So what happened during that short period, why are we still taking our tea or coffee from china or pottery cups and saucers?
BIP's Gaydon range designed by AH WoodfullThe basic chemical, melamine was first isolated by Liebig in 1834. It lay dormant for almost exactly 100 years until Henkel & Co in Germany took out a major patent for MF. Between 1935 and 1940 similar work was being carried out in the US and American Cyanamid brought out its Melmac moulding material. Henkel's first MF moulding powder was produced in 1941 and called Ultraplas. During the war MF was used for several military applications in the USA including liners for helmets and various catering items for the navy. No doubt there were also military applications in Germany.

Early tableware developments
We have to look to the USA for the early development of melamine tableware. The American Cyanamid Company had gained experience of goods moulded from its MF material during the war in particular for the navy. The benefits of MF over the earlier UF (urea formaldehyde) soon became clear, particularly the greatly improved water resistance. At the end of the war the company was keen to build a reputation for quality moulded goods and to counteract the bad publicity associated with many inappropriate plastics applications introduced in the late 1940's. In 1944/45 a pilot factory for moulding domestic goods in MF was set up. In particular, American Cyanamid commissioned Russel Wright, an established ceramics designer, to design a range of MF tableware.
Top: Melaware jugs by Ranton & Co. Bottom: Cups & saucers from Brookes & Adams Fiesta rangeThe result was the Meladur range, which was initially tried out in four New York City restaurants. Wright's range of tableware was an instant success and was the catalyst for a number of moulding companies to start producing their own MF ware. Meladur was comparatively thick walled and still had the air of institutional ware about it, but its commercial success encouraged Wright to work on a more stylish range, which was introduced by the Northern Industrial Chemical Co and called Residential. In 1953 this range was given the Good Design Award by the Museum of Modern Art, a coup for Wright and for plastics generally. Another early leader in the production of MF tableware for the home was the Boonton Moulding Company. Belle Kogan designed the distinctive Boonton Belle range, which incorporated a mixture of styles partly clinging to pre-war art deco but also using the "daring new shape", the squared circle.

Top left - Melaware jugs produced by Ranton and Co. designed by David Harman Powell a member of A H Woodfull's design team
Bottom left - Cups and saucers from the Brookes and Adams Fiesta tea set

These were stylistically great improvements on the earlier `institutional' wares.
The success of MF tableware in the USA was clear from the whispering campaign promoted by the Vitrified China Association. In 1951 they portrayed MF dishes as being so soft that ordinary scratches could harbour bacteria and could not be properly cleaned. It was also suggested that the material was so chemically unstable that it released formaldehyde (described as embalming fluid) when subjected to hot water.

Melamine ware comes to Britain
The news of the success of these new melamine wares soon crossed the Atlantic to Britain. Two groups of visitors to the USA were to be influential in the development of the UK melamine tableware industry. British Industrial Plastics (BIP) who already had close ties with American Cyanamid sent a small team in 1948. Among them was the designer `Woody' Woodfull. One of their significant visits was to the Boonton Company. Another visitor to the USA was Roy Midwinter who had recently joined his family firm W R Midwinter, one of the most successful producers of ceramic tableware Despite these visits British melamine tableware took a number of years to really take off. Melawae plate decorated with stylised leaf typical of 1960sApparently Gaby Schreiber `arguably' designed the first UK tea ware in MF for Runcolite. This was rather thick ware reminiscent of the early American styles. (I have never seen any of this set - examples may exist in the Gaby Schreiber archive held by the Victoria & Albert Museum). The other early example of British tea ware appeared at the 1951 Festival of Britain: this was a very traditional bone-china look-alike in white with fluted sides and edges. This set was produced by J S Peress of Salford, which later became a rather secondary player in the MF market with its Argosy ware.
The role of BIP in the development of British MF tableware was crucial. All the main producers used the company's Melmex moulding powders. BIP provided a unique service to the industry by making available its design advisory service, which was set up in 1952 led by `Woody' Woodfull. This free service was apparently offered in order to increase the use of Melmex - but also to ensure the quality of new MF products, and it seems likely that most of the major sets of tableware had design input from the BIP unit. Woodfull's team included several highly talented designers including John Vale, David Harman Powell and Barrie Eccleston. In 1953 BIP ran trials with MF tableware at four major Littlewoods cafeterias in London. This trial set was moulded by Streetly (a BIP subsidiary) but it's not clear where it had been designed. Artists' impressions in Beetle Bulletin suggest a rather basic one-colour set, which was referred to as Melamine Ware. Ranton & Co introduced its first set of tableware around 1955. This was a single colour set with traditional styling and rather thick walls. The design was probably produced by, or in collaboration with, the BIP unit. This was the first Melaware set. Ranton had taken that tradename from under the noses of BIP and registered it. This was probably the ware that was given field trials at Butlin's Skegness Holiday camp. The robustness of MF ware was highlighted by the reduction in wastage over a season of cups alone from 84% for ceramic cups to 20% for MF cups. At about the same time Roy Midwinter was collaborating with Woodfull's BIP design unit in the development of an MF set of table-ware to counteract the perceived threat of MF to his family firm's pottery wares. The resulting Midwinter Modern single coloured set indeed had a modern look, not least because of the quartic or rounded square shape of the saucers and plates. This .new' shape is said to have reflected the appearance of TV screens of the time. Brookes and Adams brought out its `Fiesta' range around 1958. The cup and saucer were distinctive but the horizontal cup handle was rather impractical. This set was designed by Ronald Brookes, who had earlier spent some time at BIP working under Woodfull.

Midwinter ModernThe next stage in the development of MF wares was the introduction of a white lining inside cups and jugs etc. Ranton brought out their new Melaware range with two-colour cups with distinctive and fairly practi
cal handles, the white liner flowing over the top of the handle. This set was again designed by the BIP unit and is attributable to David Harman Powell. At this time MF tableware was becoming big business and BIP decided it would like a bit of the moulding action. So Woodfull and his team designed a set of tableware to be moulded by Streetly and marketed as the Gaydon brand, which established in 1961.
The Gaydon and the Melaware two-colour sets probably represent the pinnacle of British melamine tableware. The technical skills required particularly for the twocolour cups were exceptional. The different approaches towards creating a comfortable and stylish cup or jug handle are especially impressive. Gaydon cups were made in a split mould giving a comfortable contoured handle whereas Melaware cups and jugs were made in a solid mould with angled moving cores to achieve the distinctive but less comfortable handle. In both cases the two-colour effect was produced in two stages and the items required individual hand finishing. The Gaydon set was the most comprehensive with over fifty different items. Perhaps the white lining of MF cups was eventually the cause of their downfall. A white inside looked more like china and it made the tea look `right'. But the white liner also showed up all the staining and scratches for which melamine ware became infamous.
Jugs from the Gaydon tableware rangeNew ranges of `modern' straightsided ware like the Gaydon Encore range were introduced. The use of decorative foils, the equivalent of under-glaze decoration on china ware, to pep up existing ranges did little to enhance the reputation of MF ware.
So despite these efforts the sales started to flatten off in the mid 1960's. The collaboration between BIP and Ranton resulting in the formation of the BMTC (British Melamine Tableware Corporation) in 1967/8 was an attempt to rationalise marketing and production by these `big two' but the decline continued and BMTC was only effective for a couple of years. Some production continued with Swifts of Exmouth using a range of new and existing tools but eventually this too ceased, the firm having been absorbed by the Antiference Group. Eventually MF found niches in the leisure and nursery markets, a far cry from the aspirations of candlelit dinner parties.
Stunning ed and white Gaydon cup & saucerMF resin was never cheap and went through a number of pricing problems. Processing was slow and required hand finishing. Newer materials and processes, especially injection moulding, were much more competitive. The scratching and staining became more apparent the longer that MF tableware was on the market. Perhaps the real reason for this decline was the fact that the British like their tea from `a nice china cup'!

 


Bibliography

Wahlberg H,(1994), 1950s Plastics Design, 2nd edition, Atglen PA USA, Schiffer
Tilson B, (1999), The Development of the British Plastics Industry 1885 to 1970, University of Birmingham
Various, (1997), Austerity to A. ffluence - British Art and Design 1945 - 1962, London, Merrell Holberton
Various, (1951-1960), Beetle Bulletin, British Industrial Plastics
Meikle J, (1995), American Plastic, New Brunswick NJ USA, Rutgers University Press
 

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