Hey there! It’s your new Frederick S. Upton Fellow, Alicia Risk. Every Friday, I’ll be posting a blog about something interesting in the museum; anything from new exhibits, weird stuff we find in our archives, or interviews with new staff members! This week, I’m talking about our newest exhibit, curated by our favorite museum specialist, Jennifer Ananbeh.
On the Table: China Collections from The Heritage Museum
As a little girl, I knew that when mom brought great-great-grandma’s fine china set down from the tallest cabinet for a meal, I knew dinner was about to be very serious. Setting the table (usually a menial task that I frequently complained about to my mother) under the added pressure of carrying antique china became like performing brain surgery: every dish needed to be meticulously placed, the lace placemats square to the table, and the forks, knives and spoons in the right order. These fancy occasions usually took place during holidays when our whole family gathered together and ate a meal on these priceless heirlooms.
Mementos like these sets of china have a way of keeping the spirit of our ancestors alive through the cultural tradition of sharing a meal with family. Preserving and interacting
with a physical reminder of family presents an opportunity for younger people to connect with their parents and grandparents, learning about their family through reminiscing
over a meal. These heirloom dishes are often handed down from generation to generation, collected from honeymoons, family vacations, and other travels taken throughout generations of families.
Often a full set of fine china is gifted to newlyweds, as a symbol of the elegant, graceful and fragile ways of love. This symbolism is a relic of the 1840’s through the 1870’s, or the Victorian era, but the act of gifting entire furniture sets, appliances, and particularly fancy porcelain plates became popular in America in 1924, when the department store Macy’s began offering wedding registry services to engaged couples. Keeping these expensive, beautiful pieces safe and only bringing them out for special occasions became a tradition of its own right, and many American families inherit their elder’s sets.
In some cases, fine china isn’t used for eating at all, but instead as individual pieces of art for the use of displaying in a home. The practice of collecting souvenir plates dates back to the early 1900’s as a way of remembering many different occasions, from vacation destinations, presidents or important people, art pieces, and war memorials. St. Joseph’s heritage of being a tourist destination since the turn of the century resulted in the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center acquiring a sizable collection of these commemorative plates.
Our town flourished around the turn of the century, as tourists from Chicago came to vacation in St. Joseph. These tourists wanted to bring physical representations of their favorite attractions to hang on their walls back home. Many of our plates feature depictions of local buildings, ranging from the First Congressional Church (the Heritage Museum’s original location), to the House of David, to Hotel Whitcomb, as well as numerous scenes of lush Michigan nature. Visitors from across the United States could take home their favorite scene from their vacation to St. Joseph, and hang it on their wall to enjoy. Other businesses produced these beautifully painted plates, including the Twin City Milling Company, L. Mollhagen & Co. Grocers, and the Farmers and Merchant Bank in Benton Harbor. Our collection also includes non-commemorative pieces from fine china sets, owned by St. Joseph residents over time.
One piece to note is Herbert Gorr’s collection, a set of his mother’s floral painted china from the early 1900’s. Gorr, who was a huge presence in St. Joseph’s historical community, made great contributions to the Heritage Museum and the greater southwest Michigan area. He co-founded the Old St. Joseph Neighborhood Preservation Association, helped to establish the St. Joseph Historical District, co-designed Bear Park, located near the Maude Preston Palenske Memorial Library, and served as a president and board member of the Fort Miami Heritage Society (now known as the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center). He gifted his estate to HMCC, and his large, well-preserved collections of artifacts are cared for by the museum to this day. While we don’t know much about how Herbert Gorr’s mother acquired the set of fine china, it likely would have been present for her on her wedding day, or a gift from her family for a special occasion. The Gorr family collection stands as a valuable example of St. Joseph history, as well as an excellent specimen of turn-of-the-century material culture.
Jennifer Ananbeh, our resident museum specialist, curated this exhibit with her own family’s traditions in mind. Every holiday, her grandmother always made creamed corn casserole in a particular dish set, and Jen remembers it never tasting the same when not made in her grandma’s dish. Keeping that connection of family and dishware in mind, she chose pieces of the Heritage’s collection to display in this exhibit. While the china in this exhibit isn’t personally related to Jen or anyone else’s family who visits the museum, the connection to St. Joseph’s heritage is strong, and, in a larger sense, is our collective heritage. The staff at the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center hopes that you get a chance to check out this great exhibition!
View our exhibition of HMCC’s fine china collection, titled On the Table: China Collections from the Heritage Museum, now through the end of next year. The display is located in the first floor vitrine display case of the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center.
If you have any ideas or questions you’d like to see in a future blog post, please email Alicia at email@example.com, or call (269) 983-1191. If you’d like to keep up with our future blog posts and other museum news, like us on Facebook to get notifications and updates!