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Those Happy Days
by Bob Brooke


Everyone knows of “Happy Days,” the 1950s-era T.V. sitcom featuring a typical middle class family. The mother on that show, much like scores of other American housewives of the period, must have thought she had died and gone to housewares heaven with the advent of Melmac dinnerware. That was just one of the items that made her days truly happy because its durability made it ideal to use in homes with children.

History of Melmac
Initially discovered by William F. Talbot, an employee of American Cyanamid Corporation in the 1930s, melamine resin or melamine formaldehyde was a hard, thermosetting plastic material made from melamine and formaldehyde by polymerization. American Cyanimid nicknamed it Melmac.

During the 1930's the raw material "melamine" hit an all time low price. With heightening wartime threats and soon to be monetary constraints, American industrialists jumped on the bandwagon to make melamine into functional products for both commercial and household use. By the late 1940s, many factories used it to make dinnerware.

Dishes made of early plastics and Bakelite didn’t hold up well or withstand regular washings or heat, but American Cyanimid showed that its new "improved plastic" could indeed hold up well. While the company produced the resin, itself, it sold it to other manufacturers which molded it into dinnerware lines for both home and restaurant use.

One of the benefits of molders purchasing from American Cyanamid, was its advertising campaign for Melmac. Old Life magazines from the early 1950's showed Melmac as American Cyanamid’s wonder plastic. There were other manufacturers who would offer melamine powders for molding. If a molder were to purchase from a non-Cyanamid distributor, they couldn’t refer to their melamine dishes as "Melmac." This may be why some old ads for plastic dinnerware specifically said "Made of Melmac" and others said just melamine.

The actual material "melamine" was dirt cheap in the mid to late 1930's, and there was a push to use this new material for all kinds of things.

Branchell of St. Louis MO made the terrific Color-Flyte and Royale lines as well as the brightly-colored Aztec line. Of special interest is their other Kaye LaMoyne design--an Asian design in black and cherry red with bamboo handles!

Later arrivals to the plastic dinnerware scene are the "space-age" Heller dinnerware designed by Massimo Vignelli and the stunning Ingrid (Chicago) dinnerware and drinkware.

Other manufacturers/lines that are of equally high-quality but apparently weren't distributed as widely include Spaulding Ware, Holiday and Debonaire by Kenro, Imperial Ware, Mallo-Ware and Watertown. There are also the terrific mid-century modern melmac lines designed by Russel Wright, Ben Seibel and Georges Briard. And Royal China Company, Oneida and Stetson, major pottery companies, also had divisions producing melamine dinnerware.

Prolon is only one of the many great lines produced by the Prophylactic Brush Company in Florence MA. The Florence and Beverly lines were perhaps the most popular for residential use, though today we seem to find more of the restaurant ware, both mottled and solid colors.

The Plastics Manufacturing Company of Dallas, Texas, produced Texas Ware, Dallas Ware, Oblique, SRO and Elan. The Boonton Molding Company of Boonton, New Jersey, offered Boontonware, Patrician and Somerset. International Molded Products in Cleveland, Ohio, produced Brookpark/Arrowhead Modern Design and Desert Flower lines designed by Joan Luntz. And the Prophylactic Brush Company of Florence, Massachusetts, made Prolon. Its Florence and Beverly lines were the most popular for home use.

Uses of Melmac
During the late 1950s and 1960s Melmac dinnerware found its way into just about every American home. However, the tendency of melamine cups and plates to stain and scratch led sales to decline in the late 1960s, and eventually it became largely limited to the camping and nursery markets.

One of the main attributes of Melmac is its durability. The lightweight plastic construction holds up very well, although the surface of Melmac dishes do tend to scratch with relative ease. Households with children found Melmac to be ideal for use at informal family dinners as well as with cookouts in the back yard.

Manufacturers used Melmac for just about any type of dinnerware, including plates, cups and saucers, serving pieces, and glasses. Manufacturers could add any type of color pigment to the resin during the molding process. As a result, they created it in a variety of colors and patterns. Muted colors, such as pea green and seafoam appeared in the late 1950’s, and during the late 1960s, makers experimented with interesting color combinations to complement the psychedelic look of the time.

Along with Melmac’s use in the home, schools used it for trays in their cafeterias. Utilizing a round or rectangular design, Melmac trays were often divided into sections that made it possible to easily place each entrée, vegetable, and dessert into place while going through the line. Many designs even included a slot that was ideal for the placement of a half-pint of milk or a coffee cup.

But by the end of the 1970s, Melmac had declined in popularity.

Today, collectors can find vintage Melmac in thrift stores, at estate sales, online auction sites, and garage sales. It's fun to collect it and due to it's long production, it’s easy to make a whole set. Some Melmac pieces are worth more in value than others. Full sets in pinks or blues are generally priced higher. Though you may have a problem finding full sets, you can start collecting it inexpensively by piecing sets together.

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