By Harriet P. Gross
Are you familiar with Franciscan — the California company known for its pottery? Well, what better time to talk dinnerware than during the holidays, when we’re all setting the most festive tables we can?
Back in 1955, I was a bride-to-be selecting the time’s requisite china and everyday dishes. For the former, I picked a beautiful, flower-centered traditional pattern made by Syracuse, which has long since stopped manufacturing delicate settings for individual households, now producing only heavy-duty restaurant “china.”
But for the other, I chose Franciscan’s 1954 introduction, Starburst. Although I was a pretty staid person then, I somehow went mad for its modernity. The plates had a look that was totally new, and no wonder: A collector’s guide tells me that its “design goal was to have a shape that was neither round nor square … achieved through a clever combination of parabolic lines and optical illusions.”
But somehow I got tired of it, eventually handing off the entire service for eight to my next-door neighbor, then as smitten as I had once been. I also threw in a matching set of amber glass tumblers and goblets etched with the Starburst design. I don’t know where my mind was when I had them made. (I don’t know where it was when I gave everything away, either.)
My mother was in love with Franciscan’s Desert Rose pattern, mostly because her name was Rose. She talked for years about buying a set but never did, because it was an expensive purchase — the kind that people give to brides for wedding gifts. She bought something else instead, and never used it much. I wish I had taken the money I spent on that glassware and bought her a service for eight in Desert Rose, but obviously I wasn’t thinking that clearly at that stage of my life.
Ever since then, when I serially loved and detested what’s now called “mid-century modern” in equal measure, I’ve been buying back the things I gave away. And I’d enjoy having Starburst on my table again, rather than the many inferior sets of pottery that have come and gone in my house over these many years. (Sometimes I still wonder whether my old neighbor is yet alive somewhere.) But, but, but…
And then one day I went to a major museum’s show on a century of housewares, and — guess what? My old dishes had become an art exhibit! I went directly to a resale mall and located two pieces in that pattern, paying more for them than the entire service for eight had cost in 1955. But, of course, this was many years later. Starburst is now a collector’s item, “currently the most popular of the old patterns,” the guide’s author writes, “and the most expensive. A few years ago it could be found at thrift shops, but has been pretty much grabbed up at this point.”
Desert Rose, however, is another story. Franciscan made 468 different patterns — many of them short-lived and obscure — in its 50-year history, which ended when the company was sold and moved to England in 1984. Today, it is one of only two patterns still in production. I feel guilt every time I see a piece of the pottery my mother craved until the end of her life.
So why am I telling you all this now? Because one day, much more recently, I wandered into a consignment store and saw a service for eight in an obscure, long-gone Franciscan pattern, a design introduced in 1955, the same year I got my Starburst. Only vaguely modern in shape, it features a design of rather delicate leaves in a variety of browns and greens. It is called Autumn.
The stars, if not the Starbursts, were in conjunction for me then. I’ve always loved fall leaves, as much as my mother loved roses. And her 25th yahrzeit (she died when Franciscan did!) coincided with Rosh Hashanah this year. The whole set was a current-day steal at $50 — just about what a similar set was selling for 55 years ago! So now you know what our holiday meals are being served on this season. I envision my mother, looking down on me and laughing at the irony. I hope she’s laughing, anyway.
A postscript: The same shop also had a service for eight of real Syracuse china in a pattern quite different from the old one I still use, but similarly beautiful. I bought it as well, also for just $50. Maybe that will grace our table next Pesach!
By Harriet P. Gross