Things That Matter: The Ugly Dishes

Back in the early 1920s, my great-grandmother Sarah shipped a crate of dishes from England to the U.S. as a belated wedding gift for my grandparents. She was too cheap to have them professionally packed—or she didn’t consider the need for this—so only a few survived.


Maybe it’s just as well. The dishes are not attractive. In fact, they are downright ugly: a slightly off-register pattern of orange and navy on a cream background, now crazed with age. Neither are they particularly valuable, at least in any monetary sense. But because of Great-grandma’s negligence, they most certainly are “rare.”

For years Grandma displayed a few plates on her mantel amidst examples of radiation-emitting orange Fiestaware and pots of trailing ivy. When she died, each of her grandchildren got three or four pieces of the stash. Fifty years of loving care had not altered the obvious. The dishes were still ugly.

Grandma died forty years ago. Ever since, in homes across the U.S., my siblings and I have dutifully displayed one or two plates or bowls—or in the case of my unfortunate sister, a large and cumbersome soup tureen. When our children grew up and moved into homes of their own, each was presented with a couple of pieces, a token of our misguided legacy. None of the current generation, except for the oldest granddaughter, even knew Grandma. Yet in first apartments and starter homes, propped up or hung somewhere amidst shabby chic or IKEA or Crate & Barrel, is an orange-and-navy reminder of generations past.

The dishes will always be ugly. And, to the best of my knowledge, no one has tried eating from them. But the ties they represent, binding us one to another, will keep them in our homes and in our hearts, forever. The story of the dishes is one worth telling—and saving.

~~~ APH: Life, Stories, People ~~~

9 thoughts on “Things That Matter: The Ugly Dishes

  1. Yes, Susan… I do have to agree with you that those are ugly dishes! But this really illustrates the point that our ‘things’ need to have their stories saved. Without knowing the story, your children’s children would probably toss these—and what a loss that would be!

  2. Oh, my, what a beautiful post. Thank you! Through my husband’s family we have some really beautiful and classic china that comes out on special occasions, but along with these beauties I always put out the two pieces of my grandmother’s wedding china that have come to me. Much humbler, and worn, and a little odd. But so important. It’s about the legacy of BOTH families that my kids need to know about.

  3. What a charming story. It’s great that ugly dishes can become one of those precious objects that help us remember the past and keep the family connected.

  4. Susan, how could you consider those beautiful dishes ugly??? I love them…orange and Navy is almost my favorite color combo!
    Well, actually, my wife, June, who has her own collection of hideous-but-precious- dishes that if I break (I wash the dishes in the family) then I may as well crawl into the trash can with the dish I broke-even June pronounced this dish ug-lee. But certainly not to be thrown away if handed down. I wouldn’t either, honest, not for the trendiest dishes from Saks or wherever they sell “beautiful” dishes. Good article, thank you, an important subject-these are the things real people think about!

  5. This reminded me of a family member’s 1866 will in which he bequeathed his daughter “the light coloured large platter Liverpool ware” that had belonged to her mother. I’ve often wondered what became of that platter and if subsequent family members knew its story.

  6. Once I was doing a talk for a garden club in one of the member’s home. I was standing in front of a fireplace and there was this huge vase on the mantle. Not really ugly, but one that would definitely need a certain style of decor to fit in. I asked the homeowner about it - what her daughters knew about it. Turns out it was one of the first decorative pieces she and her husband bought after they were married! Her daughters, she said, knew it was important for some reason (“Be careful of the vase!!”) but they did not know the sentimental story behind it. The eyes of everyone in the room went wide at that - they all had similar items at home. Great moment.

  7. I absolutely love this story. Those dishes are beautiful for their meaning in the lives of your family. Thanks for sharing.

  8. What a funny story. In my family there is a painting we all refer to as the ugliest painting ever. While it has monetary value that none of us believe is true, it’s real value is remembering that it was hung on the wall above grandpa’s reading chair and that we all generally laugh at how ugly it is. Thanks for sharing.

    1. That reminds me of a painting that used to hang in my grandparents house, Mary. I knew it was painted by an Uncle who had died young, and as a child, I marveled at his skill - and wondered why I didn’t inherit any of his talents. What I didn’t learn until later is that the painting was actually a paint-by-numbers, which apparently was very popular at the time. I don’t know if he had any real artistic skills, but he was awfully good at painting within the lines! And of course the painting was “valuable” for who created it, not how he did it.