“Boontonware”

Coffee and Tea Service in the 1950s

Background

The cup and saucer (Fig. 1) were manufactured by Boonton Molding Co. in Boonton, New Jersey in the early 1950s. The company was founded in the 1920s and was a spin-off of the highly successful Boonton Rubber Manufacturing Company. 1 Boonton Molding was established and run by the son of Boonton Rubber founder Edwin Scribner, George Scribner, after failing as a salesman at the rubber manufactory. 2 The company grew quickly and exclusively made molded plastics, often melamine formaldehyde plastic, which is the material the cup and saucer are made from.

In the early 1950s, Boonton Molding Co. began producing a line of pastel-colored melamine dishes, designed by industrial designer Belle Kogan, to great acclaim. 3 The Boontonware line received Consumer Reports top rating in 1951 and was lauded as being “unbreakable”. 4 This product line and a similar Boontonware example from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Fig. 2) is visually very similar to the cup and saucer in the BGC Study Collection. This cup and saucer are one piece of a partially-intact set housed at the BGC (Fig. 3).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1 5

Fig. 3

Fig. 2 6

Fig. 4

Fig. 3 7

Material

Melamine is a thermoset plastic which is produced by reacting formaldehyde and triaminotriazine, pouring the liquid into a mold and put under intense heat and pressure to create an object that is unable to be re-softened, due to its molecular structure. 8 This process produces a “tough, glossy plastic usually strengthened with a filler of wood pulp” and often went by the popular brand names of Melmac or Melaware. 9

Natural plastics, materials that can be softened by heat and molded into a different shape, such as amber or shellac have existed for millennia. 10 However, the material most would recognize as plastic today did not begin to develop until the early 20th century. Synthetic plastic is a material that has been created with the byproducts of oil or coal using chemical processes. 11 The first genuine synthetic plastic was created in 1907 using phenol formaldehyde and marketed under the trade name Bakelite. 12 After World War II, there was a consumer plastic explosion. 13 The rapid plastic mass manufacturing that had been necessary for the war effort was transformed into consumer goods, including kitchenware.

To learn more about mass manufacturing in the 19th century, see the Dutch Gin Bottle.

Commerce & Exchange

Melamine dinnerware became incredibly popular in the 1950s, rivaling ceramics as the most common dishes used in the United States. Though melamine was more expensive than most ceramics, it was durable and offered rich color selection. As much as 50% of dinnerware sold in America by the late 1950s was melamine. 14 As an advertisement for Boontonware in 1955 shows, melamine dishes could be manufactured to resemble ceramics (Fig. 4). Boontonware’s line of “Candescent” dishware claimed that it was “as translucent as fine china, yet guaranteed against breakage!”.

By creating a highly durable product with the same supposed aesthetic qualities as fine china, Boontonware was able to convince many consumers that Melamine dishware was essential for any modern American home. The ad also states that every purchase of Boontonware comes with a written guarantee to replace any dish that happened to break, a marketing strategy that must have attracted many consumers to its products.  Melamine helped to bring plastics into mainstream tableware in this mid-20th boom, “stylish, streamlined melamine tableware helped to elevate plastics to the dining table”. 15 In fact, many melamine dishes created in the 1950s are still in use today. A quick search on eBay for “Boontonware” to prove this claim, led to hundreds of results in different styles and colors.

The designer of the BGC cup and saucer, Belle Kogan, is an interesting lesser-known historical figure. She was a pioneer in her field as one of the first women to become an industrial designer in the United States. Kogan emigrated from Russia at a young age and found her calling after studying mechanical drawing in high school. 16 Though she would go on to have more illustrious schooling, it was this mechanical drawing training she received in high school that allowed Kogan to give her clients accurate working drawings of her designs (Fig. 5) which in turn made her a highly sought-after designer. 17 Kogan worked with many different media including silver, aluminum, ceramics, glass, plastic, wood and cloth and was one of the first industrial designers – man or woman – to experiment with plastic. Her 1950s lines of plastic dinnerware for Boonton Molding Co. was particularly popular and was purchased widely. 18

For more on different types of commerce and trade in 20th-century Argentina, the 19th-century Netherlands, and Ancient Greece, see the Mate Gourd, Dutch Gin Bottle and Mastos Cup.

Fig. 4 19

Fig. 5

Fig. 5 20

Drinking as a Performace

Since the late-18th century, when many of the wealthy classes made the “patriotic” decision to begin drinking coffee instead of British-associated tea, coffee has been “at-home” in America. 21 In the 19th century, coffee was taken up by the temperance movement as the “moral” alternative to alcohol. 22 At this time, coffee became more readily available to most consumers as the industrialization of the production of coffee bean yielded a cheaper, better tasting product. 23

A lithograph from the Library of Congress (Fig. 6) shows the beginning of the domestication of coffee, and perhaps the way our cup and saucer may have been used. In the advertisement, a family enjoys a coffee service with matching cups, saucers, sugar bowl and creamer. The ad also shows the proper way to use a set such as this and the rules that govern an appropriate service of coffee (cups lifted by the handle, not drinking from saucers, the woman/wife serving, taking small sips, etc.). The melamine plastic coffee and tea service sets were crucial in bringing high-quality, fashionable sets to the mass-market.

Fig. 6

Fig. 6 24

American coffee consumption increased steadily throughout the beginning of the 20th century and continued to grow with the invention of the percolator around this time. 25 This only increased the duties of the “Hostess Housewife” of the early 20th century, many of who relied on their coffee and tea sets to entertain visitors to their home. 26 In serving their guests, a housewife was no doubt judged on her hostessing abilities by the quality of her coffee or tea, her skill in serving and the quality of her service set. Our Boontonware set would have suggested that the owner was modern and up-to-date in the homeware trends.

A housewife’s ability to brew coffee was one of her essential daily tasks, especially in serving her husband every morning. It was crucial that every woman learn how to make a good cup of coffee to become a ‘good wife’. This can be seen in the advertisement by the Pan American Coffee Bureau – no doubt with commercial motivations – in the Saturday Evening Post of 1940 (Fig. 7) and in numerous television advertisements of the mid-20th century, all of which would be considered sexist to our modern standards today (see the video clip below).

By the dawn of the 21st-century, coffee was ubiquitous in American households. 27 Though we cannot be certain without asking the owner, we might be able to guess that this cup and saucer was used for coffee due to the enormous popularity of the drink in the mid-20th century.

To see a more ancient form of performative drinking rituals, see the Greek Mastos Cup.

Fig. 7 28

1960’s Folgers Coffee TV Advertisements 29

  1. Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History, (New Brunswick, Rutgers, 1995), 96-97.
  2. Ibid, 97.
  3. Pat Kirkham, Women Designers In the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference, (New York, BGC, 2000), 273.
  4. Meikle, American Plastic, 187.
  5. Kogan, Belle (designer). Set of Melmac Boontonware (Showing one Cup and Saucer), 1950s. Melamine plastic. New York, Bard Graduate Center Study Collection, Gift of Pat Kirkham. Accessed November 2, 2018. https://library.artstor.org/asset/SS34886_34886_26991557.
  6. Kogan, Belle (designer), Boonton Molding Company (manufacturer). “Boonton” Creamer, 1948-1950s. Melamine (plastic). Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed November 11, 2018. https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/boonton-creamer-537225
  7. Kogan, Belle (designer). Set of Melmac Boontonware (Showing Five Cups and Saucers, Smaller Creamer, and Large Gravy(?)), 1950s. Melamine plastic. New York, Bard Graduate Center Study Collection, Gift of Pat Kirkham. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://library.artstor.org/#/asset/SS34886_34886_26991551;prevRouteTS=1543418732950
  8. Katz, Plastics, 149-150.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Sylvia Katz, Plastics: Common Objects, Classic Designs; with a Collector’s Guide, (New York, H.N. Abrams, 1984), 10.
  11. Ibid, 11.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid, 12.
  14. Katz, Plastics, 13.
  15. Ibid, 88.
  16. Kirkham, Women Designers, 271.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid, 273.
  19.  Catalog Housewares for Homemakers, Fall and Winter 1955. Published by: John Wannamaker. Published Collections Department, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE. Accessed November 28, 2018. https://digital.hagley.org/20100326_246?solr_nav%5Bid%5D=02317cc37346a391e219&solr_nav%5Bpage%5D=0&solr_nav%5Boffset%5D=0#page/2/mode/1up
  20. Drawing, Revised cream pitcher, March 16, 1953; Designed by Belle Kogan (American, 1902–2000); USA; graphite on tracing paper; New York, Cooper Hewitt; Gift of Belle Kogan; 1959-59-8-b. http://cprhw.tt/o/2CrvH/
  21. Mimi Hellman, “Making Coffee at Home in America: Episodes in the Cultural History of Design” in Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate: Consuming the World, ed. Yao-Fen You, (Detroit, Detroit Institute of Art, 2016), 101.
  22. Ibid, 104.
  23. Ibid.
  24.  Currier & Ives. A Fragrant Cup, ca. 1884. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. Lithograph. Washington D.C., Library of Congress. Accessed November 13, 2018. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001699196/.
  25. Ibid, 108 – 109.
  26. Ibid, 111.
  27. Ibid, 112.
  28.  Pan American Coffee Bureau. “What Every Young Girl Should Know.” Advertisement. The Saturday Evening Post(Philadelphia), November 2, 1940.
  29. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnjjkgIO3Ck&t=46s