by Dr. Lori Verderame
The Victorian era saw a rise in the interest in oyster consumption and oyster plate production. Through the 19th Century, oysters seemed to be available everywhere–in restaurants, on street corners, at oyster parties, etc. While oysters were first a working man’s staple, over time heads of state, monarchs, and the social elite enjoyed oysters and ordered china dinnerware sets featuring organically-shaped oyster plates.
Oysters were harvested in shallow water and gathered out of their beds using hand rakes and tongs. Oyster farming gave jobs to many working class individuals but as the oyster beds were exhausted, the bi-valves transitioned from being a traditional foodstuff for the working man to a high-priced delicacy for the wealthy.
Oyster Plate Styles
Oysters were served on the half shell over ice and also without ice. Some ate oysters directly from the shell and others used the shell to host oyster-based recipes like oysters Rockefeller. Porcelain china or hand painted plates that left room for the oyster’s shell were often scratched or damaged by the coarse and unusually shaped shell. Most collectible oyster plates were hand painted on porcelain and only gave enough room for the shucked oyster and did not leave room for the awkward oyster shell.
These particular ways to serve oysters impacted the way oyster plates were formed, styled, molded, and designed.
The number of depressions or the depth of the oyster-shaped wells in an oyster plate currently impact value and desirability with antique oyster plate collectors. There are five-oyster wells in a plate known as a turkey plate because the five oyster wells resemble the outline of a turkey. These plates are among the most commonly collected plates. Also, there are kidney shaped oyster plates and oyster plates with a circle of depressions to hold five to seven oysters with a round cocktail sauce well at the plate’s center. Some oyster plates have a number of depression wells to hold up to two dozen or twenty four oysters as a platter.
Oyster plates were also popular wedding antiques and collectibles because of the oyster’s well documented history as an aphrodisiac. Thus, oyster plates were often the gift of choice for brides, at bridal showers, and to mark anniversaries.
Collecting Oyster Plates
Some of the best known ceramic manufacturers of oyster plates during their heyday were Minton, Wedgwood, and other Staffordshire pottery firms. Oyster plates were also made by firms such as Haviland of Limoges, Belleek, and America’s Union Porcelain Works and in styles like Quimper, Majolica, etc. Some of the most popular styles of oyster plates were those designs that were copied and sold to the general public. For instance, when President Rutherford B. Hayes commissioned a set of dinnerware to be produced during his administration, circa 1877-1881, the popular design of the set’s oyster plates were copied and sold on the commercial market. Many of these sets still exist on the market today.
Unlike cockle or whelk plates, the Victorian oyster plate enjoyed a revival in the early 2000s thanks to television chef, Paula Deen who featured her collection of oyster plates along with her regional Southern recipes for oysters.
What to Look For
Hand painted, high quality oyster plates with unique details and designs by well known manufacturers are more valuable than plain oyster plates. Patterns of oyster plates should match the rest of an existing dinnerware set. Hand painted oyster plates should feature sea themed figures like seaweed, oysters, star fish, sea creatures, shells, etc. While traditionally found in various types of ceramics, authentic Victorian oyster plates have been found in other materials like glass.
Antique, specifically Victorian era, ceramic oyster plates are light in weight, somewhat translucent when held up to the light, and do not have any pre-drilled holes to accommodate a metal plate wall hanger.
Condition is paramount when it comes to oyster plates so do not purchase oyster plates that show any damage, chips, cracks, abrasions, glaze skips, hairline fractures, inclusions, etc. Hanging oyster plates on plate rails or by metal plate holders can damage the rim, chip the porcelain or damage the design. Carefully display them in a china cabinet free of dust and high heat. Do not stack oyster plates higher than 6 plates as the weight of the plates on the top of the stack will damage the plates on the bottom of the stack. Avoid plates with even minor damage.
Values for oyster plates range widely and are very pricey in the antiques marketplace. Values for fine oyster plates are based on age, condition, shape, manufacturer, number of depression wells to host oysters, quality of materials, and quality of hand painting.
Get an online appraisal of your oyster plate from Dr. Lori.