What does the U.S. Navy have in common with the parents of small children? An appreciation for virtually unbreakable dinnerware.
Melamine, a formaldehyde-based compound used to make floor tiles, whiteboards, and fire-retardant fabrics, is also used to make the plastic dinnerware more commonly known by the brand name Melmac. Molded while warm, Melamine sets into a fixed form with a smooth, durable surface that resists most food stains.
The Ohio chemical company American Cyanamid created the first Melamine dinnerware for the U.S. Navy during World War II. The shatterproof and lightweight tableware dishes proved to be a practical choice on rough seas. The plates also kept food warmer than the metal kind previously used.
American Cyanamid saw the market potential for their product. In 1945, they commissioned designer Russel Wright to create a dinnerware that they would test in several New York restaurants. Though it looked similar to china, Melamine performed better under tough conditions.
The Melamine trend quickly caught on with the public (though retailers were reluctant to display it alongside fine china) and similar lines launched around the country. Most makers commissioned well-known designers to create their collections. Designers for Texas Ware, Boontonware, Raffia Ware and Melmac began experimenting with color, shapes and textures to give their line a distinct look. No longer just a practical alternative to china, Melamine’s bright colors and molded shapes transformed it into the stylish dinnerware of choice. Kaye LaMoyne developed a mottled look for his Branchell Color-Flyte and Royale lines and even incorporated gold dust into his hand-painted Ebonyte line. Belle Kogan’s Boontonware line, Boonton Belle, featured an inlaid square on her circular plates. But the fine craftsmanship of the Florence Ware line created in 1955 for the Prolon division of the Prophylactic Brush Company line made it as desirable as porcelain dinnerware.
By the 1950s, the now-fashionable dinnerware entered into its golden age of popularity¬ and became a staple of American table settings. But with success came controversy. Porcelain manufacturers who felt threatened by Melamine sales allegedly launched a whisper campaign to suggest that the plastic dishes gave off toxic fumes (they don’t). The rumors didn’t interrupt production; between 1945 and 1965 over 350 companies manufactured Melamine dinnerware.
Plastic dinnerware’s popularity began to wane in the mid-sixties. The introduction of Corelle¬ slowed sales and the influx of mostly imported and poorly made Melamine hurt its reputation as a quality product.
Restaurants and cafeterias still rely on standard Melamine dinnerware and trays, but designer versions are making a stylish comeback, pushing the boundaries of fun and functionality. Children will love the brightly colored dinosaur and garden gift sets by Crocodile Creek ($27.99 each), and grown-up partygoers will enjoy the Retro-themed funky patterns by French Bull that can be mix-matched for an even flashier look ($44, set of 4 dinner plates).
Paula just adores the convenience and style of Melamine dinnerware, and she especially loves its durability. She has an old Melmac plate she’s been hanging onto- one of her favorites- hoping to be able to find someone to help her create an entire line from it. She finally got her wish and later this month, you’ll be able to find her own precious patterns available in Michaels craft stores, perfect for entertaining your guests for just about any occasion!
Caring for Melamine
For scratches ands stubborn stains, use commercial cleaners made for Melamine, like Dip-It ($3.49, 5 oz.) instead of scouring powder. Also, avoid putting your plastic tableware in the microwave and never in the oven. Melamine tends to absorb heat, which can cause it to soften, blister and even crack. It is dishwasher-safe.