Once upon a time in Victorian England, hostesses honored their guests with the fashionable flavors of the world’s most revered bi-valve: the oyster. But in true Victorian fashion, oysters couldn’t be served slipping and sliding around a plate like a fish out of water; they needed a special platter to keep things neat and tidy. Specially designed plates came to the rescue, offering hostesses an attractive way to serve oysters.
Paula’s beloved oyster plate collection reflects the variety of colors and forms that characterize most collections. Plates come in three basic styles: deep-well plates for oysters in the half shell with ice, deep-well plates for oysters in the half shell without ice, and the more common plates for oysters without shells. Today it is difficult to find deep-well plates in good condition because over the years the rough shells have scratched and damaged most china. Oyster plates also vary in their number of depressions. For example, five or six depressions are most common, but some plates have as few as two or as many as two-dozen. Like Paula, many people collect oyster plates in their various styles, but some collectors prefer to display only certain styles, dictated either by the number of wells, shape, origin of production or material (while most plates are china, some were made from pressed glass or silver).
One of the most popular and distinguishing oyster-plate styles is Majolica, which can be identified by the use of intense color in the plate’s design. George Jones and Joseph Holdcroft first made the style popular in 1851 and Wedgwood followed suit in 1860. Victorians adored decorating with the brilliant jewel tones and colorful opaque glazes, but the style fell out of fashion in the 20th century when it was seen as gaudy and ostentatious. Today, antique oyster plates in the Majolica style are the prime collector’s choice and can fetch thousands of dollars.
Oyster plates were generally produced by well-known European china factories, such as Haviland, Limoges, Minton, Quimper and Wedgwood. But the first plates made in the U.S.—bearing the marking “UPW” or Union Porcelain Works—are also highly collectible. In addition, the 19th president, Rutherford Hayes, commissioned Haviland Limoges to produce a special collection of oyster plates, referred to as “turkey” plates among collectors because the shells decorating the wells resemble the outline of a turkey. A single oyster plate from this collection is worth around $3,000.
Lesser-known china factories also produced oyster plates, many of which are unmarked and, consequently, the least costly to collect. Oyster plate reproductions also saturate the market. These can sometimes be identified by small holes on the back for hanging. As a general rule, plates under $75 are usually reproductions. And because the price of antique oyster plates begin around $90, it’s best to invest in a reliable guide before beginning a costly collection.
While the use of oyster plates is on the decline, their popularity as collectibles continues to rise. Over-farming and rising costs have put the hey-day of oyster eating behind us, but beautifully decorated oyster plates remain a testament of our culinary history.