How does one become a collector of tableware, anyway? In some ways, it’s a bizarre hobby. Ceramics and glass are delicate, and easily broken. Storage is an issue (believe me…). When used at dinner parties, fine china and glassware makes some people very nervous, even downright uncomfortable. Then why do it?
I don’t know. It’s a pull, an attraction, some would say an addiction. To me, tableware is a tool of a comforting ritual of graciousness. A well-set table conveys the message “I’m glad you’re here. I took the time and effort to put together something beautiful for us to share”.
But it wasn’t always so. In my salad days, beyond choosing the requisite china and crystal for my bridal registry, I didn’t give the stuff much thought. An inveterate reader, one day I came across Antiques for the Table, by Sheila Chefetz, and that was it. I was hooked. I poured over the book by the hour, reading the descriptions of elegant tableware, learning about the history of ceramics, its burgeoning popularity and ritual use during the Georgian & Victorian periods.
I noticed that her store, Country Dining Room, was in Great Barrington, Mass. Every summer we used to drive to Cape Cod for two weeks’ vacation, and our journey took us right through the Berkshires. One year I managed to persuade Glenn to break our journey there, much to the disgust of the four children waiting in the van. Her store was wonderful. Elegantly appointed tablescapes were arranged throughout the first and second floors. Formal china, glassware and linens on the first floor, along with a room devoted entirely to blue & white transferware. Upstairs were more casual goods and linens.
At first I was quite intimidated. My knowledge was next to zip, but Sheila herself and Tom Hayes, who worked with her, were wonderfully encouraging. Though extremely knowledgeable, they didn’t blench at my ignorance and were very helpful in guiding a novice collector towards some good foundation purchases. They were down to earth and approachable, and I Iooked forward to seeing them on our visits. Sheila passed away unexpectedly a few years ago, and Tom is now overseeing the shop.
And so began the annual tradition. I’d get an hour in the store on the way down to the Cape, and then we’d have lunch in Stockbridge. The children would groan and complain, but it didn’t get them to the Cape any faster, so they grew to accept it. They evinced little interest in the purchases, however as they’ve grown older and have started homes of their own, they’ve come to recognize what’s what. They know what needs to be washed by hand and what is destined for the dishwasher. In no time at all, my daughter-in-law, Annie, although newly inducted to the process was able to detect modern from antique just by feel. All the girls, whether tomboy or a “girly-girl”, have staked out their favourites. Lauren, lover of all things camo and skull, to my astonishment stated her preference for the very formal cobalt and gilded glass. Steph has staked out the creamware. Annie leans to the blue & white transferware, as it reminds her of childhood trips to Virginia to visit her American relatives. Kirsten’s purview is the French Blue collection. Nancy prefer the more casual, modern china and glass, although she also shares Steph’s love of the creamware. There’s something for everyone, and setting the table at our place is just plain fun.
We’re lucky to have chef Lauren in the family, and Adam is a registered dietician. The whole family loves to eat. We can’t wait to get together for the next meal, planned or impromptu, and all hands are on deck.
Our collection gets used. All of it. Nothing is off limits, and if something gets broken, that’s life. There is no point in having it if you can’t enjoy it. Yes, it’s still a bizarre hobby, but it’s one I share with my family and friends to serve as a foundation for enjoyment of food, wine and some roaring good times.