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On the Table: Settings From Victorian Age to Space Age

September 07, 2000|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For collectors of American china and glass, or any pop sociologist, a new exhibit of tableware provides a lens on the relationship between cultural changes and the dishes, etiquette and table settings of American meals from 1880 to 1980. The Dallas Museum of Art has produced "Tabletop to TV Tray: China and Glass in America." Available for online viewing at http://www.dm-art.org., the exhibit chronicles changes in American life in a century that began with the Victorians and wound up in the Space Age.

More than 500 examples of plates, bowls and glasses--much from the museum's own decorative-arts collection--are included in the exhibition, believed to be a first to track a century of American tableware fashions.

"It's amazing to see that in less than 100 years, our society changed from one of a formal sit-down dinner every night to one of convenience and fast food," said Charles L. Venable, co-curator of the exhibition. A coffee-table catalog is available.

A historian who is deputy director and curator of decorative arts for the museum, Venable sees the show as an intersection of design history with social history. "We are holding a mirror up to ourselves, and it happens to be tableware," he said.

Meals in 1900 were so elaborate that books were written to explain how to serve food, and setting the table might require as many as seven sterling silver forks for various dishes. But by the 1920s, casual dining ushered in Fiesta ware, which continues to be popular. "We've gone from the most fragile china to contemporary dishes that must be freezer-, oven-, microwave- and dishwasher-safe and still look attractive," noted Venable. "Basically, we've gone to restaurant-ware."

He thinks tableware makes the perfect lens for a study of social change. "These objects have such symbolic power, and we acquire them at such dynamic moments in our lives." Such traditions as the bridal registry for silver, china and pottery, which he considers a "watershed in retail history," are uniquely American.

And although women still register for bridal gifts, today they are as likely to want tool kits, only one indication of a shift in women's values over the century, said Venable. "This show is as much a feminist story as anything," he said. "Think of all the artistic time and emotion that went into those Victorian meals."

Dining ware reflects the change. Casseroles appeared in 1940, as did Tupperware, and the 1950s saw the introduction of TV dinners. By the 1960s, the popularity of dishwashers led to a decline in sales of delicate china, which didn't take well to harsh detergents. By the 1970s, the microwave oven had impacted both the preparation and presentation of food.

Today, Americans tend to juggle fast-food meals with a growing interest in gourmet cooking. "It's almost a schizophrenic existence," said Venable.

Connie Koenenn can be reached at connie.koenenn@latimes.com.

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