Monday, November 20, 2017
QUESTION: For my family, Thanksgiving was the biggest gathering of the year. I remember my mother planning the event as early as October. Back in the 1950s, we'd pile into the car and drive to the local turkey farm to order a very large bird. My mother would have never considered buying a frozen turkey at the local market. I heard her speaking on the phone to my grandmother about how many were corning, what kinds of pies should be baked, or whether we would add some new recipe for cranberry sauce. At the center of it all lay the traditional turkey platter, which had been handed down for generations. Can you tell me how these platters came to be, who made them, and why they became so popular?
ANSWER: Many families still use a large turkey platter. Though large but not very sophisticated, it often features a 22-inch pattern with yellow roses manufactured by Homer Laughlin. It’s got high sides and can hold a very large turkey, and by now it’s even got a few rim chips, but it’s part of the family, so it means a lot.
The turkey was the last dish to be brought to the table and the senior member of the family would always carve the bird. Everyone would say grace and eat more than any thought humanly possible. While sitting around the table, family members would tell stories—Grandpa always seemed to tell the same ones to the embarassment of his wife. In many cases, this holiday feast was just as Norman Rockwell painted it.
The first turkey platters appeared in the early 1870s, when East Liverpool, Ohio, was the setting for the founding of several important American potteries due to the existence of raw materials such as clay, coal and natural gas. One of the largest and most successful, was the Homer Laughlin China Company, founded by brothers Homer and Shakespeare Laughlin in 1897. It went on to become one of the world's major producers of institutional china, including Fiesta ware. They based their holiday platters on several of their most popular dinnerware lines and decorated them with colorful printed transfers.
Thus, the same image often appeared on many of their turkey platters—a bird with its tail feathers fanned out fully, set against a rural farmyard background. The platters featured wide rims in Harlequin yellow and turquoise blue.
In the mid-1950s, a similar design appeared on Thanksgiving platters made by Taylor, Smith & Taylor, which the company sold to retailers to use as an advertising premium.
In its "Historical America" series, Laughlin also produced an elaborate scene from 1621 called "The First Thanksgiving," transfer printed in rose pink and sold exclusively through F.W. Woolworth. The company also produced a similar "Bountiful Harvest" platter showing Pilgrims and Indians gathering and sharing food.
A somewhat scrawnier bird appears on platters and plates made by Southern Potteries Inc., a Tennessee firm formerly known as Clinchfield Potteries. It began in 1917 by producing commercial, semi-vitreous china tableware decorated with stock transfers.
Its better-known trademark, Blue Ridge, debuted in 1932. By the late 1930s, it had switched from transfers to underglazed hand-painted decoration. Within 15 years, it had become the largest American producer of hand-painted china, with an annual production of 24 million pieces. Some of the firm’s top artists signed a limited number of special designs, and these are among the most coveted pieces for collectors.
For example, there’s a wild turkey platter painted and signed by artist Mildred L. Broyles, depicting a standing, long-necked bird eyeing a bug, valued at over $2,000. Another, signed by Louise Gwinn called “Turkey Gobbler,” shows a bird in a woods and sells for over $1,750.
While Homer Laughlin and Southern Potteries dominated the market, there were several other companies, from California and elsewhere that staked their own claims. Among these are platters produced by the Nelson McCoy Pottery Comapny of Roseville, Ohio, featuring a solid brown embossed relief of Tom Turkey, the Delano Studios of Long Island, featuring a soaring bird in flight, and the Hadley of Louisville platter, with its whimsical, schematic turkey in blue on vitrified stoneware.
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