On Instagram and at estate sales, people are on the hunt for elaborate dishes and elegant glassware
Lisa Dye has been accused of depleting the world’s supply of depression glass. It’s the kind of accusation that could only be made on TikTok or another social media platform, a hyperbolic declaration that reveals people will develop hard opinions about just about anything. Still, you’d think such accusations would be saved for politics, not vintage china. Dye sells vintage china and table setting pieces through her business, Highlands Cakestand Co., as well as custom-made serving tiers, which she creates by drilling through vintage pieces. “As a rule, I don’t drill antiquity — anything over 100 years old,” she says. “Honey, if it made it that long, who am I to put a hole in it?” Still, the internet will always have opinions.
There is something almost delightful about watching people get riled up over vintage china. Traditionally, the privileged few have had access to things like bone plates and fine silver — they’re expensive to begin with, they break or get sold off or thrown away because no one wants to deal with the fuss. And as most of us don’t lead lives that look like what’s depicted on The Gilded Age, with a full house staff responsible for the care and maintenance of such fine pieces, practicality has been the overwhelming trend in dining ware for the past decade or so. DTC brands like Our Place and Year & Day sell sturdy, monochrome plates and bowls, minimalist choices meant to blend seamlessly into any home. But a recent push for more maximalist styles has led to an appreciation for vintage china, one that’s spanning generations and inspiring people to bring out the stuff they have sitting in their closets.
Jennifer Aube, aka @thehappyhuntingthrifter, was not always fascinated with vintage china. She was burned out from her job as a family visitation supervisor and thought thrifting and reselling items could be a way to earn some money. “However, I had no idea at the time that this would ultimately turn into much more than a hobby,” she says. Aube now sells vintage items on eBay, and chronicles her findings on TikTok, where she has nearly 18,000 followers. Recent videos show her identifying uranium glass, showcasing Fenton and Lenox items, and walking followers through her shopping process. “If you were to ask me this before I started this, I would have assumed that the only people interested in fine china were collectors,” says Aube. However, she’s found a whole world of people who are interested in fine china, and all for different reasons. The hashtag #vintagechina on TikTok brings up videos for thrifting tips, crafts, history lessons on different items, and inspiration for table settings for different occasions.
The online enthusiasm over vintage china has also resulted in IRL gatherings. May Eason began the Facebook group Beautiful Table Settings in September 2019. She began collecting china shortly before starting the group, and wanted a place to share her tablescapes. Now, the group has over 119,000 members, and last month hosted its first “BTS Bash” in Wetumpka, Alabama. Eason says more than 500 people came from across the country, listening to speakers and watching demonstrations on things like silver cleaning and planning thrifting trips. For Eason, enthusiasm over vintage china is all about sharing beautiful things. “You’re doing this for your family and your friends, so you want to make your table presentable and pretty,” she says. “And it’s fun to play with it. I think younger people are finally realizing you can change it up.”
Cynthia (who asked to be referred to by her first name) runs the vintage china company and appraisal service The Teacup Attic. She says she’s noticed a few different groups converging, including older women who have collected china for decades, tea enthusiasts, and younger millennials who have inherited their parents’ or grandparents’ china and are developing a growing appreciation for it. “As things are cyclical, vintage is always cool and the idea of tea parties has been swept into that trend, partially influenced by shows like Downton Abbey and Bridgerton, but also influenced by the pandemic,” Cynthia says. Dye agrees, saying she’s seen increased demand for “rich details, inherited pieces, color, grandeur and, in general, the lost art of entertaining,” and that she can’t believe how many lifestyle influencers “are now embracing the ‘grandmillennial’ or ‘maximalist’ vibe.”
In October 2020, Rebecca Jennings outlined the new maximalism trend for Vox as the pendulum swinging away from the post-Recession minimalism trend, which was itself a backlash to mid-aughts, pre-Recession gaudiness. Minimalism also came with expensive status markers, and as Kyle Chayka wrote in the New Yorker, many of its designers had ideas rooted in racism, preferring the clean sophistication of Scandinavian design to the “savagery” of more colorful, cluttered aesthetics. So maximalism is back, a reaction to the mass production and industrialization that gave everyone the same tasteful midcentury-feeling West Elm couch, but with a different flavor than the early-aughts variety.
“Trends like ‘grandmillennial’ style and cottagecore prioritize handmade ornamental objects like needlepoint pillows, lace doilies, and chintz curtains that suggest some kind of personal history,” writes Jennings. And while amassing more stuff may seem like we’re veering back into gaudiness, much of this round of maximalism is about thrifting, upcycling, and making use of inherited pieces rather than buying anything new. It’s also about nostalgia — Aube says many of her followers are looking for missing pieces for collections they’ve inherited, or just things they remember from growing up that may now be lost. And instead of hoarding away the fine china, more people are willing to use it for everyday occasions.
The pandemic also aided the rise of maximalism. When you can’t leave your house, minimalist style becomes downright drab, the neutral tones and bare walls a mirror of one’s isolation and depression. Aube says she’s noticed her followers gravitating toward china with gold accents and bright colors, dishes that can be admired for more than just their practicality and are a joy to look at when you can’t go out and look at anything else. The pandemic has also seemingly inspired more people to pull out the stops when entertaining, as years of not being able to entertain has made the prospect all the more celebratory. “I really think folks are ready to entertain in style and go to the effort of making at least the occasional meal a truly special event for friends and family,” says Dye.
The sentiment behind the boom in vintage china obsession is also the ironic sentiment behind every trend — the desire to not be like everyone else. Even if some vintage china was mass-produced, much of the appeal is that your home (and then, your social media) will look different. It’s less likely your friends are going to have the same patterns you found at an estate sale, or ones you snapped up from Instagram or TikTok before anyone else, or the same glassware your grandmother picked out. Your table settings, your home, can become the ultimate statement of you, not of Great Jones and Heath ceramics. The pendulum will inevitably swing back, and maybe by that time it’ll be those brands filling the Goodwill shelves. But for now, isn’t it nice to drink from an art deco coupe glass, knowing you’re the one who saw how special it was?
Carolyn Figel is a freelance illustrator & animator living in Brooklyn, New York.