Have a birthday? Get a raise? Ace a test? Or just, feel like gussying up a standard dinner table? ALL good reasons to break that china free from the cabinet!
About the Episode:
There is an art to setting a beautiful table. And while you may own gorgeous dishes, you also may feel nervous about “breaking them out,” even for a holiday meal! Not my family. We find a way to make an occasion out of every day, and I’m here to help you build a glittering and fabulous table out of the things you love most. Just in time for the holidays!
In this episode, you’ll hear:
- What kinds of antique dishes are available (and where to go to complete your beloved set!)
- How to arrange a table featuring your favorite pieces
- Why “I felt like it” is all the reason you need to set a to-die-for table!
And so much more!
Follow me on Instagram @FarmhouseVernacular!
Hello and welcome to the Vernacular Life Podcast, where we talk about anything and everything that could go on in our turn of the century vernacular farmhouse. I’m Paige, your host as usual. And we’re going to talk about setting fabulous tables with antique dishes today. Although I guess this could be really used for any kind of dishes, but I’m specifically talking about vintage dishes because that’s what I have, so we’re going to go with that.
All right, so let’s start with a little bit of background. The first thing is that there are different kinds of dishes shockingly. I love dishes, and it’s a really good thing that there’s different kinds because there’s more opportunities to collect them. But firstly, when you think of nice dishes that you’re going to set tables with, you think of china, right? And china is just a thinner dish, a finer dish.
If you drop it from more than a foot or two, it’s probably going to break. A lot of times, these dishes have gold or silver bands on the edge of them. Very intricate designs. Lot of different time periods for these. Obviously there’s some very, very old ones. There’s some more modern ones. That’s the nice dishes, right? Then there is something called restaurant wear and I am a huge fan of restaurant wear.
I will make sure that there is a link to a YouTube video in the description where I talk all about the different kinds of restaurant wear I have, but restaurant wear is a very interesting kind of dish because it was made for use in restaurants, hotels, trains, places where the dishes see a lot of use and they really need to be strong and durable. And the biggest difference with these dishes is that they’re pretty darn thick.
They’re very heavy and they have this very characteristic rolled edge, which makes them pretty darn resistant to breaking and chipping. Obviously these were meant to be used, like I said, in hotels or diners or restaurants, where there are a lot of people eating off of these plates and they need to be durable. They don’t want to be replacing them all of the time. Now, I grew up using a vintage set of walker china that my mother has, which was restaurant wear.
Hers is very exciting because it has a fluted scalloped edge, very, very pretty. And then once I got my own house and I wanted my own dishes, I built a set of vintage restaurant ware in the pattern, Dewitt Clinton by Syracuse China. It is a beautiful pattern. As far as I know, it was made for the Bird of Paradise Hotel in roughly the 30s.
And they kept that style and that pattern in production for quite a long time. I think some of my newest ones are made in the 80s and 90s, but it’s still that same 1930s pattern. These are all restaurant ware. And one thing that’s really cool about restaurant ware is that the pattern or the print is underneath the glazing. Instead of being applied on top of the glazing, it’s applied underneath the glazing, which means that they’re actually fairly microwave and dishwasher safe.
My mother actually ended up with her set because she found a complete set on eBay and bought it. I went to a website called replacements.com and I found a pattern that I liked. And then I pieced it together from other various sets off eBay. I would buy five bowls here and 10 plates here until I had a pretty good size set.
Now, whenever we talk about vintage dishes, the first thing that always comes up is that people are very concerned about lead. Obviously, older dishes tended to have lead in them. And if you’re really concerned about it, you can use a lead testing kit and see if there is lead in the surface. Here’s the deal.
The dishes I grew up with are fairly old. We never tested them for lead, but we were tested regularly and our lead levels were checked regularly and they never spiked to a ridiculous degree. This is something that it’s kind of like dealing with lead paint, where if you look on the internet, there’s a lot of very alarmist reactions to lead in that you have to completely encapsulate your entire house and you can’t go anywhere near lead. And that’s just personally not been my experience. I’ve never had an issue with it.
If it’s something that is concerning to you, then by all means, do your own research. Totally up to you. One thing that you do want to look out for is a phenomenon called crazing on your vintage dishes and crazing you’ll notice it because the surface of the dish will look kind of crackled and it will have lots of little lines in it. And that happens when the glaze and the actual dish expand or contract at different rates.
The glaze buckles and you end up with all of these lines. And crazing, it’s not really a problem if you’re going to have decorative dishes or if you’re going to put something like bread or a holiday decoration on the plate. You just don’t really want anything that’s liquid in a dish that is crazed because that tends to cause issues with bacteria. Obviously you have these microscopic cracks in the glazing. Bacteria can get down in there and then that’s just not great.
Most of the dishes that I have are not crazed. I tend not to use them. If they’re crazed, I just keep them as decorations. Now, as far as where I get my dishes, it’s all over the place. I’ve gotten some at thrift stores. I’ve gotten some at antique fairs. And then the biggest one was that I built a collection off eBay using replacements.com to identify the patterns that I have. And that’s a really great trick.
If you can figure out what pattern you have, which I believe they have a pattern identification email or something that you can send, I’ll make sure that there’s a link to it down on the show notes. But if you can identify the pattern that you have, then you can look on eBay or auction sites for other sets that are within your pattern. And then you can get a much larger set over time by piecing together these individual sets.
And typically what I would do is just for a couple years, for my birthday or for Christmas, I would just ask for additional pieces of this dish set. And I ended up with quite a lot from that. We also actually registered on replacements.com for our wedding. And so I had a few people who got me some things through that website in order to build this vintage collection, because it’s hard to put antique dishes from an antique mall on your wedding registry.
Now the last thing I want to talk about just as part of a background before we actually get into setting a table is to look at the background color of your dishes. Some dishes have a very distinct white background and some dishes have more of a cream background. Neither one is particularly better than the other. My everyday dishes have a cream background. And that just means that if I’m serving something and I put my bright white milk glass bowls with it to serve potatoes or whatever, it just doesn’t look exactly right, because my dishes are cream and the serving bowls are white.
My china on the other hand has a pure white background, so if I want to mix up the serving dishes, I can use bright white china with bright white serving dishes. But if you’re looking at a set of dishes to buy, think about whether or not you would like it to have a cream background or a white background. Okay. That’s all of the background of dishes. And now let’s actually talk about setting a table.
This is really something that I picked up from my mother. She set a beautiful table for pretty much every occasion that you could possibly want to set a table for since I was little. I’m not even just talking about the big ones like Christmas and Thanksgiving and birthdays, but if someone got a good grade on a test or my dad got a promotion or we just wanted to have Thanksgiving in July for whatever reason, she would set a pretty table.
And it always involved china and napkins and napkin rings and candles. And so I grew up very much thinking that that was just normal. That’s what you do. When you want to have a fancy dinner, you set a fancy table. She is pretty much an expert at setting tables, just using things that you love and making tablescapes that are really pretty and so much so that I actually invited her to teach us about hostessing in my community, The Vernacular Society.
The Vernacular Society is a grandma club, basically, of a bunch of very cool people who get together and we do different projects. We learn the skills and the things that our grandmother’s knew, but maybe we don’t necessarily know. Things like hostessing and canning and sewing and knitting and all of those kind of crafts and past times of yesteryear that nobody really talks about anymore.
If you are interested in joining this community, you can check out the show notes and there will be a link there that you can join, or you can go to farmhousevernacular.com/tvs, and you could learn more about it there. But I did invite my mother to teach us about hostessing for one month. And she has a whole video where we talk about exactly this kind of thing, this table setting and setting beautiful table and making the meal just that much more special with pretty things on the table.
The first thing that we’re going to start with, and this is usually how we start when we decorate a table, is that we’re going to start with something that we really like, and it doesn’t necessarily even have to be something that is table related. We have built entire tablescapes around jars of feathers or around plants or around books that we thought were pretty.
We’re going to walk around our house and we are going to just look for something that calls to us at that specific moment. And again, this doesn’t have to be anything table related. We are just looking for a jumping off point for our story. What is this story that we’re going to tell on the table? What kind of mood or feeling do we want to evoke? And what in our house speaks to that?
And usually your house is full of things that you like, so walking around and finding something that is interesting and that is exciting really shouldn’t be too bad. Some of the kinds of things you could think about are can candles that you think are really pretty or tins that you think are really pretty or a bowl that you think is beautiful, or maybe a little statue sculpture that you think is really pretty. Literally anything that you find pretty and attractive can be made into a table centerpiece.
That’s our first step is that you want to start with something that is just calling to you that particular day, is just saying, you know what? Pick me up and make me the centerpiece of a table. Once you have found something that you think is really pretty, and you have found something that you want to embellish on for a table setting, start to think about what kind of story that is telling.
And I talk about story a lot. I talk about how the house talks to me, how it tells me what it wants, what he wants or what he doesn’t want. And I do the same thing when I’m setting a table. I look at the centerpiece and I say, okay, I think this statue is really pretty. I think this candelabra is really pretty. What kind of story is that putting in my head? For example, I did a centerpiece this year for the dining room for the fall season.
And I really just took every brass candlestick that I had and every tapered candle that I had, and I put them all together in the middle, in a big, giant mashup. And if I were to say, what kind of story does that invoke in my head? My answer would be it’s something like a large manor where there’s just candles everywhere. There’s no electricity. There’s no traditional lights and every light source in the house comes from a candle.
And so if you’re going to have a big fancy dinner and you’re going to have Dracula and all of the people invited, then you are going to want to eat by candlelight and you’re going to need a lot of candles. And that’s the kind of story that I start to tell myself. And I think we as humans understand stories so much and things just go so much better when they’re translated in story.
If you can take something that you love and start to build a story around it, you can start to build a narrative around it, I think not only will it be easier to decorate a table, but I think you’ll have a lot of fun with it as well. Some of the things that my mother and I have come up with before, for Thanksgiving one year, she collects feathers. She walks on their property. She finds beautiful feathers and she’s been collecting them for years. She has this beautiful crop full of feathers.
And we were walking around looking for table decorations. And we said, wow, this collection of feathers is really beautiful. Can we do something with that? And then we started to think about, okay, what kind of narrative can we bring about with these feather? And once you start on that path of finding the narrative, then you can kind of look at what else you have and see what other pieces go with that narrative.
We were looking at this crock and these feathers, and we said, okay, these are kind of putting me in the mind of prairie, pioneer, frontier days, but during the holidays. And so we started to add pewter candlesticks and we started to add wooden bowls and everything started to become this magical adventure into what we think a pioneer table might look like. And listen, you really use your imagination.
You’ve started with something that you like, and then you’ve just bring your imagination in and say, let’s keep telling this story. Let’s keep embellishing this. Let’s keep adding to it and seeing what we can come up with in a table scape. The third thing that you’re going to do after we’ve found something we like, and then we’ve started to embellish a story about it is you’re going to start looking at what dish you have that will fit that story.
We were in this place of a pioneer Thanksgiving, but with a little bit of fancy. So we said, okay, would they have likely had very fancy china? Probably not. We decided to use some very simple white plates to add to this simple but elegant theme. We usually start with the plates because they’re the hardest thing to match. And between my mother and I, we have a lot of dishes.
We have a lot, a lot of dishes. I have three different china sets. She has two or three different china sets, depending on how you divide everything up. Between us, we tend to have a lot of options when it comes to picking out our plates. But if you don’t have a lot of options, then use what you have, use what you are comfortable with, use what you already have in your cupboards.
Because the point here is not to go out and spend a bunch of money on a ridiculously expensive tablescape. The point is to use what we have in new and interesting ways to make something very festive. Now, if you don’t have any plates and you’re looking for a good set of plates to buy initially, I would recommend going with plain white dinerware. It is extremely versatile. It goes with absolutely everything. You can find so many different uses for it. You can embellish it in so many different ways.
If you’re setting out and you’ve never had a nice set of dishes, I would go with something completely plain and completely white, because you can add it to so many different table scapes and really just make it that much more fun. With your theme and your plates and your centerpiece started, now you’re just going to keep building. You’re going to look around your house and find other things that to you feel like they go with that same theme, feel like they go with that same kind of imaginative story that you’ve been telling yourself.
We started with the feathers and the very simple crock, and we started to add things. I think we had brown napkins because that picked up on the browns and the feathers and this whole rustic tablescape that we were going for. You’re going to look around for things that embellish and enhance this theme that you’re working on. Some different places you can do that are with napkins.
Of course, plain white napkins are never an issue, but if you can ever find them on clearance or at thrift stores, having some different colors of napkins really just gives you a lot more options in terms of what to use and what to put out with your tablescapes. Side dishes are really great. And this is one area that I love to use pressed glass. Pressed glass is often very inexpensive at thrift stores.
There’s usually lots of different size bowls for pretty cheap. You can find them in antique malls and I love pressed glass so much because it adds sparkle and it adds elegance to a tablescape, but it’s really cheap. Usually at my thrift store, pressed glass bowls will be less than $3 a piece. And I love adding those just because it looks so fancy, but they’re usually dishwasher safe. They’re never particularly old or expensive defined.
And I just feel like it makes a table look so much more elegant and fancy when you use those pressed glass dishes. Other areas are candlesticks. Always adding candlesticks. Now I have a pretty healthy fear of fire. We’ve spent so much time working on this house and we’ve put so much effort into it. And so having an open flame just scares me quite a lot because I don’t want to burn the house down.
But if we’re having a nice dinner and everybody’s sitting there and it’s very controlled, I of course will light tapered candles. And so adding candlesticks that are glass or pewter or silver or gold, it’s just another way to take that table setting up to another level. And then there are just little odds and ends. You don’t have to use things in the middle of your table that are necessarily table decorations.
If you find things that are really pretty like books or a necklace that you really like, or a plant or a dish or a sculpture or a scarf that you think is really pretty, if you think it’s pretty and in your mind it fits that imaginative narrative that you’re going for, put it in the middle of the table. Knock yourself out. And the last thing we’ll typically go for is flatware.
And I don’t necessarily just mean silverware. Although, if you have silver and you want to use it, knock yourself out. But a lot of times you can find different, interesting sets for cheap at thrift stores, at antique fairs. My personal silver set, I want to say was $35 from an antique fair and it’s silver plate. It’s not solid silver, but it’s really pretty. And to me, that’s just another way to differentiate, this is a special meal versus this is an everyday meal.
Now, I do have to say that this is an evolved system that we’ve come up with. We usually start with something that we like, and then we come up with a story for it. And then we just look for plates and embellishments and flatware that fit that story. But the reason that we do this is because finding places to celebrate in your life is, I think, a really good way to not only practice gratitude, but to enjoy other seemingly mundane days.
And this is something I really have to credit my mother with this because she was the queen of celebrating. We celebrate everything. When Brandon came into our family, my husband, he asked her after about the third or fourth time we got together, you make a everything a party, don’t you? And she said, yes, I do. And that’s really how we grew up is that you never needed a reason to use the dishes. You never needed to wait for a special occasion or for a particularly fancy day or a reason to use the dishes.
Wanting to use the dishes and wanting to have a nice meal in your fancy dining room, or put on a pretty tablecloth, that was reason enough to do some of these things. And that was reason enough to have this celebration and to set these fabulous tables. And I think that’s part of the reason that now these days we set some really gorgeous tables.
Now they’re not anything you would see on Pinterest. We don’t overload with fresh flowers and all of these chargers and place settings. And that’s just not how we do it, but we do make an effort to use the things that we love and the dishes that we love as frequently as we want to.
And because of that, I think we’ve ended up with some really beautiful tables that are unexpected because we have done it so many times that we’re just more comfortable pushing the boundaries a little bit and saying, okay, what if we put this on here? Or what if we put our potted plants on here or our succulents on here as centerpieces? And the point I’m trying to get to is that you don’t need an excuse for a celebration.
You don’t need an excuse to find joy in table setting in your dishes in just a general meal with your family, because being together with your family or whoever you are deciding to have a meal with, whether it’s friends or neighbors or coworkers, that is enough of a reason to celebrate. And if someone’s coming to your table, if someone’s getting together with you and making an effort to see you and to talk with you and to be with you, then that is a reason enough to use the dishes.
I just wanted to talk about this a little bit today because as the holiday season comes up, if someone’s coming over and you feel like setting a fancy table, set a fancy table. Or if someone’s coming over, go ahead and bust out the nice dishes because waiting for a day that it makes more sense to use them or waiting for something that seems more appropriate, a time that seems more appropriate to use them, if you do that, you’ll just end up with dishes that have been sitting in your cupboard for years and never used.
I hope that, I don’t know, it maybe inspires you to break out the nice dishes and break out the pretty china and the fancy silverware just because, just for fun, because it’s a way to make things a little bit more exciting. It’s a way to make a normal meal a little bit more special. And I hope that as the holidays come around, that you and your family take advantage of that and make something really beautiful and really memorable on your table.
That’s just a little bit of how we put together pretty fancy tables. I will include links. Last spring, I did a YouTube video about setting a beautiful table, and it talked about a lot of these things, so I’ll make sure there’s a link to that video in the show notes at farmhousevernacular.com/podcast. As always, thank you so much for hanging out with me for a little bit and thank you for listening and I will see you next time. Bye.