The other day, I was in a conversation about setting an elegant coastal-themed tablescape and what dining options were available. It’s hard sometimes to find pieces that enhance the theme without being over stated. After a roundabout of sorts we landed on the topic of Oyster plates. I love Oyster plates! The sizes, shapes and patterns amaze me. Did you know that they date back to the Victorian Era?
The story goes, back when serving oysters on the half shell first became a delicacy, the plates were soon to follow. Because the oyster shells were heavy and could scratch delicate china, the plates were used to serve the oysters without the shell but still achieve the stylish half shell look. A hostess wanted their Oyster plates to not only serve oysters, but to make a social statement. Similar to the delicacy they carried, the plates were designed to be lightweight, uniquely decorated, and quite intricate.
Oyster plates were generally made in one of three styles: Turkey, Geometric, or Kidney. These styles are defined by the arrangement of the oyster molds on the plate. A Turkey style will have five oyster molds, arranged to look like a turkey. The classic oyster plate, that many of us recognize, is the Geometric style. In this style there will be six molds arranged in a circle around the plate with a shallow well in the center. The last style is the Kidney shaped plate. I’d like to think this is pretty self-explanatory, in this style the molds are arranged in the shape of a kidney.
Oyster plates have become somewhat a thing of the past, but for those of us who love vintage china and dinnerware, we hold a special place in our collections for treasures such as these!
Have you collected any Oyster plates?
For an article with the title “The Beauty of Oyster Plates”. (plural) I definitely expected more than one picture of one plate. I was a bit disappointed. However you have given me a Christmas idea. I doubt they will end up ever being used in the way they were originally intended as my brother doesn’t eat oysters on the half-shell, but he is a bonafide oyster lover. He gets it honestly from both sides of the family. My paternal great-grandfather was the only person in the family who ate oysters on the half shell and for a Mennonite boy that man DID love his oysters. I can’t say I’ve ever known the Mennonite community for being big oyster consumers. Perhaps its something he picked up from my great-grandmother’s family, not Mennonites by the way. I never thought about that before and sadly, as my “Nanny” passed away at 95 when I was 27 I can’t ask him. He got oysters EVERY Sunday for at least the last 3 years or so of his life. In the winter as they approached summer my one great aunt, the one caring for him, froze oysters in tiny weekly batches, one for each week until they got back to a month with an “R” in it. Does everyone know that rule? Anyway, as much as she dearly loved her father and was pleased she had him so long in life, she said she was so sick of oysters she didn’t care if she EVER saw another one. She made fried oysters every Sunday after church for him. But this is what you do for those you love. This reminds me, if you have living older relatives, ask them EVERYTHING you can humanly think of about their life growing up. My parents are the “older generation” now and while I know a good bit, I think of things ALL the time I wish I could ask now deceased family but I can’t, they’re all gone. Anyway, back to oysters. I don’t think many people realize that Maryland is just as well-known for oysters, in fact FAR more than crabs in the 1700s, 1800s, and first half of the 1900s. It’s only been the last 60 or 70 years steamed crabs have been more popular than the oysters in the state. However oysters are making a comeback after being on the verge of extinction in the Chesapeake Bay due to pollution, nitrogen overload and temperature changes, basically, poor land management. This is turning around due to INTENSE and concentrated efforts in all states which feed water into the Chesapeake Watershed but especially in Maryland. Everywhere you go you see indications of how to help save the bay. It’s paying off, oyster and crab production grows every year. My maternal grandmother only had a true appetite for oysters the last year or two of her life. My Grandma passed away at age 75 in the 1980s from CHF due to having Rheumatic Fever as a child (that’s actually a long life for a Rheumatic fever victim surprisingly). The last year or two she had no appetite for food much at all. However at least once a week my mom would get a pint of oysters and it wasn’t unusual to arrive at Grandma’s house (I usually went along) with her standing at the carport screen door with the frying pan in her hand. Bless her heart she did love them. My mom has said that they may not have received much as far as material things for Christmas. Usually for her there was a doll (my mom has ALWAYS loved dolls) some additional clothes made for it, perhaps one other item and some oranges (also a rare treat in Maryland in the 1940s and 50s). She said that was fine, they felt blessed and thrilled with what they received for Christmas. Christmas truly was about celebrating the birth of Christ in church and then being with family (imagine what kids today would say about such a meager Christmas!). However, my mom said that THE thing everyone really waited for was the GALLON of oysters which her dad always had for the family. It was NOT Christmas without oysters. As my mom’s family were a mountain farming family her’s was a pretty average holiday in the area. My dad’s family was a bit different. Living in the small town (he was considered a “city slicker” growing up in a town with a 1,000 people to my mom’s family) my dad’s Christmas was a bit more grand being the only child in the entire family with train sets, bicycles (after the war ended), wagons, etc. By the way, at the age of 78 my dad STILL has his first Lionel train he received at age 5. He was promised a bicycle by an aunt and uncle as soon as the war ended and such things were allowed to be produced again. They were true to their word. But….in some ways Christmas was the same, there HAD to be oysters. My dad has never been the oyster fanatic that my mom’s side of the family was but he can eat and enjoy them. That’s further than I ever got. I can enjoy a little oyster “stew” (basically the oyster liquor as its called with milk, butter and pepper) but with no actual oysters in it but lots of oyster stew broth with water crackers or oyster crackers. I have learned to eat oyster stuffing but when I have the holiday meal I cut the oysters into 2 or 3 pieces. My brother however could LIVE on fried oysters. For his birthday in early November I gave him a pint of oysters (is this a sign you’re getting old when you start to give each other food for gifts?) (which my mom prepared for him, I don’t think his wife would have a clue what to do). I think it might have been the best gift I’ve ever given him. I think I’m going to try and get to an area antique store and get him one or two oyster plates if I can find any. I have some which were family ones but I won’t give them up. Yes, oysters have always played a huge role in our family and considering how much his children seem to be enjoying them, especially my niece, I don’t think its going to change any time soon.
Thank you for reviving oyster memories. My family had oyster business. G-grandfather and grandfather. They had their beds in the Mobjack and Chesapeake Bays. Oysters were a staple in our family’s diet. My grandfather gave oyster plates to my mother and grandmother. I have one of those sets, some of the odd ones he picked up here and there. I started buying them as a young married wife and inherits some of my parents and grandparents. And yes, I know the “R” rule. Have a sign someone had made for advertising my family’s business “Oysters” *R* in season My husband framed several and my sister and I have them hanging in our homes as did my parents and grandparents. My daughter inherited my mother’s and hangs in her home. They dredged, shucked and packed oysters sending them up and down east coast and as far west as the Mississippi River.
I do have one oyster plate. It is blue and white, given to me by a 93 year young friend. The plate actually had belonged to her mother. It is real treasure and on display!
My husband and I were in New Orleans last Spring. While there we visited several antique shops looking for oyster plates. I knew up front they would be expensive as I have a small collection. We did indeed find many oyster plates but I was looking for specific oyster plates done in a French blue as I intended to hang them over an oil painting with that shade of blue. I found two with the coloring I needed and another with a beautiful green that went so well with them. Would never consider eating out of them but we both love oysters any way and any time.
We started a collection for our daughter-in-law who is from Louisiana. I love to find unusual ones and add to her collection. Very amazing the varieties of the plates.
Special china for specific foods always have intrigued me. I have four pastel fish plates made in Italy which would hold a good sized filet of any sort.
Another special set I have would not fit the fine china category strictly, but is very dear to me. Years ago a patient of Joe’s took up SCUBA diving in her sixties. After a series of productive dives she brought him eight Shrimp Cups. Each of them she had made of two shells which she had garnered. She had cleaned and glued them together. forming a server. The top shells are creamy beige, peachy beige and solid cream colored, dappled and striped snail shells atop overturned scallop shell shaped shells of similar coloring and markings. The Shrimp Cups are three and a half inches high with the same width opening, almost two inches deep, and hold six nice shrimp with a bit of green garnish and sauce.
Actually this dived-for, made from scratch set is what Majolica, or perhaps Belleek, might imitate. Because of its history it is priceless and irreplaceable. A beautiful gift from an interesting, grateful patient.
Thank you, again, Phyllis for bringing to mind another lovely category for us to think about with pleasure.
Not familiar with oyster plates and found your story very interesting. But, I must admit you have given me a craving for Oysters Rocker-feller! A dish I have not had in years…..Yum!
Oyster plates are such a unique item; such variety. Most of my family loves seafood; but, there’s not an oyster eater in the bunch! Perhaps I should purchase a lovely plate and use it to serve scallops or shrimp. Would the Victorians be appalled or simply design another plate for each of those?
Your guess is as good as mine. The Victorians seem to have a plate and a fork for everything!!!
Must have been an interesting time to eat always from specific plates for specific foods and often time use sterling flatware designed for that same food. Something we would consider rather lowly like sardines even had specific severing containers and forks. What a life!
My sister recently sent me a beautiful Majolica oyster plate from France. It is the only one I have although I would love to start a collection.
I have a set of lovely seashell dishes, but no oyster plates…they wouldn’t get used, as no one in my family cares for oysters on the half shell! You have to give the Victorians credit for being inventive when it came to table settings! They created so many unique dishes and silverware pieces, even the runcible spoon!
Yes! I have a wonderful collection of oyster plates. The plates are so graphically beautiful, aren’t they? (Sad to say, I am not a fan of actually eating oysters, although my husband is.)
Oyster plates come in so many variations, from heavier French majolica to the finest, most elegantly painted porcelain. Displayed in a hutch or on a wall, they are art. I try to sell the antique plates I acquire, but often they seem to “stick” here at home.