Growing up, there were two very distinct sets of dishware in my home. The first, in a cabinet next to the sink, was the mostly matching set we used everyday. It was a collection of cups and glasses gathered throughout my parents' lives, including plastic souvenir cups, glasses from their first apartment and items of unknown origin. Next to the glasses were plain white plates and bowls marked with small chips and cracks with the odd pristine piece mixed in. For a family with two rambunctious children and an equally energetic dog, it was best to use dishware that could withstand aggressive use. The second set was stored in cabinets at the edge of the kitchen and were brought out twice a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and only if guests were present. (This cabinet proved to be an excellent place to hide candy from my brother.) The good dishes, along with the good towels and good soap, were only used for company as a way to demonstrate that their visit was special and we were happy to host them. The idea of having items for "everyday" versus special occasions is by no means a recent development. There are numerous examples of this dichotomy in the collections of the Ohio History Connection, but for now we will focus on a collection of objects from a family living in Logan County, Ohio, at the turn of the 20th century.
The Green family of Logan County, Ohio, was typical of rural American society in the late 19th and early 20th century in their desire to express and embrace hospitality. Cultures around the world and across time have placed a high regard on hospitality. Treating guests and visitors well is a sign of compassion and friendliness. Being hospitable involves meeting physical needs like food, drink and shelter. It can also include meeting emotional needs like ease and comfort. Having special household items reserved for company expressed the Green family's esteem for their guests and their desire to make them comfortable. These special items were often more expensive or of higher quality than objects that fulfilled the same function, but were used every day.
For everyday use, the Green family had earthenware made by Homer Laughlin. Homer Laughlin and his brother, Shakespeare Laughlin, formed the Laughlin Pottery Company, which operated in East Liverpool, Ohio, until 1879. The company would become the Homer Laughlin China Company in 1889 and later would move production just across the river in West Virginia. The company is perhaps best known for their Fiesta line of dinnerware. This set of dinnerware used by the Green family would have been a sturdy and affordable choice for everyday use. People could buy Homer Laughlin dishware as single pieces or as sets, making it more affordable. The vegetable dish seen here dates from around 1930 and is decorated with three floral designs in orange, black, green and yellow.
The notion of having things “just for company” tells us a lot about American society during the late 19th and early 20th century beyond hospitality. Being able to afford multiple items that performed the same task shows a heightened level of prosperity. The productivity of the family farm not only met the essential needs of food and shelter, but allowed the family to buy luxuries that they wanted but didn’t really need. Also, they had a house large enough to store special-occasion objects. Many of the “just for company” items came from far beyond rural Ohio. It tells us that there was a sophisticated transportation system that allowed trade from all over the world. There were manufacturers that could mass-produce objects to lower individual costs and enable more people to buy their wares. There were marketing and advertising systems in place that diminished the isolation of rural life. People in rural Ohio had access to items every bit as much as the residents of a great metropolis.
The pieces featured from the Green family come from France and Germany. The pitcher was made by the Reinhold Schlegelmilch firm in Germany. The pitcher likely dates from 1910-1920 and may have been purchased as a single piece to compliment existing tableware. The white porcelain plate, made by Haviland & Co, is part of a larger dinner set that was likely the wedding china of Milton and Sylvia Green. Couples were often gifted fine dinnerware for their wedding as it was believed that they would likely entertain in their future as a family. The company china in my own family was also originally a wedding gift. It is a set of blue and white porcelain dishware that my great-grandmother brought with her from England after marrying her American G.I. It was such a nice set that it was passed to my parents and then to me to use for company.
As formal entertaining declines in popularity, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that families maintain separate sets of tableware for everyday and special use. The cost of not only the items themselves, but the space in which to store them, has rendered the idea of formal china somewhat passé. Among my peers, the only households with fine china are those who inherited sets from their grandparents. While having special items reserved for guests was once seen as a mark of hospitality, it can often be viewed now as old-fashioned and stuffy. Indeed, much entertaining is now focused on making guests feel at home as if they are one of the family.
Collections such as the Green family's allow us to have a better understanding of how hospitality was expressed in the past, and more specifically in rural Ohio. It offers us a glimpse into a dining room that likely resembled those of our grandparents and great-grandparents and gives us on opportunity to reflect on how we presently strive to make company feel special when they enter our home.