Years ago, I was perusing a fancy antiques store in New Orleans when I spied, for the first time, an oyster plate – a gilt-trimmed, hand-painted specialty plate that oozes Victorian excess. As any antique lover does when presented with an unknown find, I swooned first and then went down the rabbit hole of research.
Victorians were known for the slavish attention they paid to dinnerware, refusing even to serve a pickle or berry without the “proper” fork. An oyster plate – much like an oyster fork – is in line with that well-documented Victorian desire to preen at the perfection of one’s home.
Oysters were originally a working man’s dietary staple until the social elite caught on, serving them everywhere and often during the late 1800s. Not only were parties organized around the tasting of oysters, esteemed porcelain makers, including Minton, Wedgwood and Haviland of Limoges, produced special oyster plates for hostesses to present a raw bar at home.
To see the beauty of an oyster plate firsthand, visit the antique black-and-white oyster plate currently on view at GasLamp ($88; Booth T-384). Made of porcelain, it features a circle of six shallow wells to be used for serving shucked oysters with a round cocktail sauce well at the plate’s center.
(Fun facts: President Rutherford B. Hayes commissioned oyster plates for his official dinnerware, circa 1877 to 1881. Collectors can still find them on the secondary market. Also, Paula Deen, who lives in the Southern port city of Savannah, Georgia, collects oyster plates.)
Antiques inspired by the coast are charming in their depiction of sea creatures, from freshwater fish to crabs to lobsters. One such creature, currently on view at GasLamp, manifests itself as a 3-D fish in this Majolica fish sauce or gravy boat made by Richard Briggs of Boston in the late 1800s ($399; Booth T-379). Even when painted in this ornate fashion, fish sauce/gravy boats are typically produced in a tame, classic silhouette that is relatively homogenous. There’s nothing homogenous about this fanciful fish! It will set the conversation abuzz when guests realize the sauce pours out of its mouth. Raised relief details include fish scales, fins and eyes. What a daring accompaniment this piece would make for any soiree, particularly one seeking some extra panache and whimsy.
Made of porcelain, most likely in France or Austria, this porcelain sardine dish features a ribbed texture with intricate gilt accents and two sardines painted on the lid ($100; Booth T-944). Traditionally, one would serve sardines in this piece, but it would be terrific for any modern-day fish dish.
(Tidbit: Sardine boxes are becoming highly collectible. They were a status symbol for the Victorians, naturally, because they loved creating special utensils and vessels for all conceivable foods – and especially for the most expensive ones.)
Lobster bisque, anyone? This vintage casserole dish could serve as a tureen for seafood chowder, bouillabaisse or gumbo, or as a vessel for a baked lobster casserole ($29; Booth B-2012). A lifelike sculpted lobster adorns the lid of this highly collectible ceramic piece that will charm your dinner guests.
(Note: If any of your dinner guests remark that this lobster casserole dish is a bit faded, simply say, in a breezy tone, “Well, the sun bleaches anything left on deck when one sails to St. Bart.”)
This unusual footed bowl with a scalloped rim features an ivory-colored base upon which embossed shells are painted an unlikely celery green ($49; Booth T-2012). It was made by Mottahedeh & Company, a designer and supplier of luxury porcelain founded in 1924 that based its designs on historical models and maintained factories in Europe. This bowl was produced in Italy.
Sea-inspired antiques represent yet another niche category of antique collecting that can send one’s heart reeling. As artisan wares, such porcelain and ceramic pieces are everyday works of art to appreciate every time one dines. It’s an experience to use them, as when one admires a painting in a museum, and it’s a savvy way to turn the conversation to beach-centric topics, such as, “How are J.Crew’s swimsuits this season?” and “Have you seen Warby Parker’s sunglasses?”
Product photos by David Wariner. Oyster still life by Nicole Elliott for Unsplash.