The Rise and Fall of Melamine Tableware
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.
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
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?
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.
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'
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.
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
melamine tableware took a number of years to really take off.
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.
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
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.
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.
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'!
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