A brief history of melmac
Nov 7, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Fall has officially started in Arizona, which means we’re trading in the triple digit temperatures for brunch and patio season. While the desert color scheme is less autumnal than I’m used to, my urge to hunker down and bake is kicking into gear regardless of my green surroundings. Today I was whipping up some lemon bars and thinking about what to write for this week’s feature. The oven timer started beeping at me, but still no idea had formed. Feeling a bit annoyed, I started cleaning up the kitchen instead of focusing on where my muse had escaped to. You know how they say sometimes the best inspiration is right under your nose? Well, I flipped over my large mixing bowl and there it was – a melamine marking. That little marking got me thinking – what better topic to write about than a beloved vintage plastic? Join me as we take a tour through a brief history of melmac.
Melamine, the material behind melmac, was developed in the early 1830s by a German scientist. A century later, melamine hit its stride, being used for dishware. What made melamine dishes so special? Well, it turns out if you add crazy hot heat (think Arizona in May!) and formaldehyde, melamine cools to become a super sturdy plastic. We’re talking durable enough to stand up to thousands of washings while being nearly impossible to break. The armed forces were the first major consumer of melamine dishware and after the war, this new “super material” became a muse for designers such as Russel Wright. This influx of designer products and re-branding ushered in the era of melmac (the branded name for American Cyanamid’s line of melamine products). Some of the more popular designs by the likes of Wright or Raymond Loewy, were even beautifully carved.
But it wasn’t just the artistic crowd who gravitated toward melamine. Following the global conflict, traditional materials were difficult to find or cost-prohibitive to use. Melamine emerged as one of the cheapest plastic alternatives and manufacturers hurried to make it useful in all sorts of domestic applications. As this was the era of the consumer, the marketing campaigns for melamine were ambitious. Nearly every popular publication of the time included happy advertisements showing family life improved by modern convenience. These persistent efforts paid off as most manufacturing facilities stayed open twenty four hours a day to keep up with increasing demand.
As the American household clamored to be more modern and tech savvy, these manufacturers ensured melmac was right there to support the entire family. Bright and joyful, these pretty plates jazzed up any table setting and once the meal was done – they popped right into the brand-new dishwasher for easy cleaning. Wives could now enjoy a post-dinner conversation, rather than work over a hot sink. At-home entertaining was at an all-time high. But by the early 1970s the easy-living melmac had ushered in, suddenly fizzled out. Prone to staining and scratches, the dishes were showing their age. In an era that rejected some of the more “traditional” looks and practices from the 1950s, showing age was not a good thing. A victim of its own success, these once-treasured pieces were tucked away in attics or sold at garage sales. But our story doesn’t end there… Today, collectors seek out these once-inexpensive dishes. In fact, some of these pieces are even in museums!
If you’re lucky enough to find melmac pieces during your travels to flea markets or garage sales, here are some things to keep in mind. Never microwave or place your melmac near a hot stove. Also, be sure to avoid using those big steak knives on your precious plates. If you take gentle care of your melmac, it will jazz up your table for years to come!