Treasures of China

Staffordshire bone china, 1815-20, painted in enamels and gilded. Courtesy David Jackson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales



We had a sealed-off bedroom in our little ranch house when I was growing up. In it were my mother’s curations of treasured items, including her mother’s china, stacked by size on the floor with newspaper between each plate, and a blanket draped over it. There was a second set of china—in my memory not as thoughtfully protected—which had belonged to my absent father’s mother.

When my mother’s house had to be cleared out, my sister and I agreed we would each take a set. She would take our mother’s mother’s china, and I would take that of my father’s mother. We had different fathers, and my sister, ten years older, actually knew our maternal grandmother, who died when I was an infant, so this made sense.

The maternal set was nicer, maybe even bone china. Those grandparents had what passed for money in that place and time and would have entertained political and labor leaders. The paternal set was cheaper—probably bought from the Sears catalog or an itinerate porcelain china salesman—with an applique pattern, meant for use in a farmhouse.

I have never used or even unpacked my set in the eighteen years since I got it, and I rarely think of it unless it is time to move, when it becomes a source of mild anxiety. What is that anxiety? It is certainly not for the physical objects, which are of course fragile. For me, the set represents family, most of whom I never knew, a sentiment that attaches to the only stuff they passed down, which to them was special, a marker of aspiration and self-image.

China sets are no longer valued as they used to be. Young people often do not have space to store things that will be rarely used, or do not like the ornateness or implied waste of resources of china. There is a trend to give money as gifts—with times tight, houses and cars expensive, interest rates up, and employment down through Covid—and perhaps fewer couples getting married want to bet their registry on something expensive they may never use and would have to make room to display.

“If you don’t have that many guests coming to the wedding, you could register for place settings and end up with…a plate,” my friend Larry says. His ex-wife has two sets of inherited china, one of them hand-painted, and she feels now like they are white elephants. “Nobody wants china anymore,” Larry says. He was at an estate sale recently, and one of the auctioneers called to him as he was leaving to ask if he wanted a Royal Doulton porcelain set for cheap. He kept walking.

I suggest to Larry he rent a warehouse in the desert and buy up complete sets of fine china in secondhand shops and at garage sales and store them until the day buyers want them again—out of nostalgia if nothing else. He points out that in his business, nostalgia purchases are often cued to exposure earlier in life, as with Care Bear animation art or A-Team lunchboxes. China was used by some people’s grandparents but not by the people who would buy in the future, he says. It would be like expecting a craze for those mechanical devices that make toast by holding it over a gas stove burner.

And yet, china is lovely. You can buy a set cheaply from Etsy or ebay, even if it is missing a few pieces or is mismatched, use it every day without anxiety, donate after a time what has survived, and get another set. Rich as royals, my relatives used to say in the old days.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.