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Melmac: Dishware for the Nuclear Age

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POSTED August 6, 2010 2:41 a.m.

If you know about Melmac and Alf - and what they have in common - then you were alive during the 1950s or thereafter and have an unusual sense of humor as far as the TV comedy shows you like.

Melmac is the trademark of an indestructible material used in dinnerware that hit American stores at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. Melmac could survive a direct hit in a nuclear attack.

My Dad bought my Mom a set in 1951 shortly after they were married. This isn’t good china, mind you. It was every day dinnerware. The complete eight-piece setting with accompanying items such as a gravy boat is still intact save one vegetable dish. What makes this truly amazing is she used it daily for 55 years. It was used by three boys and a girl and all of their friends. It was dropped, cut on, and even one dish was used in an early microwave cooking attempt where the item being prepared caught on fire and still the Melmac came through unscathed.

One is left with the impression if the material wasn’t so clunky you could make bullet-proof vests out of them or at the very least use them to shield against radiation.

The fact they have a longer life than most radioactive isotopes wasn’t enough, Melmac dishware came in four charming colors - putrid dark green, a wonderful sickening lackluster yellow, bleak gray, and a boring burgundy. When you set a table with them, it looked like some nightmarish parlor game setting from “Alice in Wonderland” on drugs.

Centuries from now archeologists will dig up this stuff and marvel at how tasteless the mid-20th century must have been. And they definitely won’t have to handle the stuff with kid gloves because you will probably be able to drop kick it and take a sledge hammer to it and not put a dent into it.

I’m not joking about the sledge hammer. One of my brothers bet a friend he couldn’t break a plate with two swings of a sledge hammer. My brother won the bet.

Alf was the subject and the name of a 1970s TV show about a furry alien that ate cats, told bad jokes and was from the planet Melmac. Enough said.

What brings up Melmac is how amazingly broad the definition of “collectibles” and “antiques” has become.

A Modesto “antique” store had a four-piece setting of Melmac with the prerequisite steak knife cutting grooves in the plates available recently for $150. On a return trip to the store I inquired out of curiosity about the set and was told it had been sold.

 I understand one man’s indestructible trash is another’s treasure. But even so, collecting Melmac seems akin to collecting Yugos that don’t even have a scrap value.

But then if you look around most antique stores have the things in them that qualify as collectibles or antiques that are a bit incredulous.

They run the gamut from old Dr. Pepper bottles and McCormick spice cans from the early 1960s to the Brady Bunch board game.

Market forces determine prices. In this case, it is obviously the market force of someone with either too much money in their pants’ pockets or someone who would pay $10 for a paper napkin that Tiny Tim once used to wipe his hands after eating at a Big Boy Drive-in in Tulepo, Miss.

A month doesn’t go by that some friend doesn’t bemoan the fact they tossed out “hundreds of dollars” years ago when they got rid of a Pyrex set, lunch pail, or some inconsequential knick-knack. Of course, they’d have to find someone willing to pay $50 for a Lost in Space lunch pail.

I’ve come across my share of stuff in “antique” stores where I find myself going “that is worth that much, you’re kidding me” in reference to something I once owned.

But it doesn’t bother me. I look at it this way. The hundreds of dollars I probably lost because I didn’t hang on to junk long enough so it could be valuable, I saved 10 times over in mini-storage fees.


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