How Melamine Became the Must-Have Plastic for Laid-Back Living

Melamine dishes made it possible to live life on the patio without fear of destroying the good china. Learn how this functional dishware became a staple for casual dining in the 1950s and beyond.

In post-war America, the typical middle-class neighborhood was characterized by dinners on the patio, lots of kids, and laidback gatherings where you wouldn't dream of putting out the good china and a heavy damask tablecloth. Instead, the go-to dinnerware for the era was plastic dishes, specifically those made from melamine.

"Melamine absolutely fit into this casual approach to life," says Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, an assistant professor of interior design at Auburn University who teaches a course in interior design history.

50s outdoor table setting with melamine dishes and cups
Courtesy of Better Homes & Gardens

Melamine is a form of plastic resin created in the 1830s by German chemist Justus von Liebig. However, as the material was costly to make and von Liebig never determined what to do with his invention, it sat unused for a century. In the 1930s, technological advances made melamine inexpensive to manufacture, so designers began brainstorming what to make with it, eventually discovering this type of thermoset plastic could be heated and molded into affordable, mass-produced dinnerware.

In the early days, New Jersey-based American Cyanamid was one of the leading manufacturers and distributors of melamine powder to plastics makers. They trademarked their version of melamine plastic as "Melmac." Although the material was also used to make clock cases, stove knobs, and furniture pulls, its primary use was dishware.

Melamine dinnerware went into wide use during World War II when it was mass-produced for troops, schools, and hospitals. With metals and other materials in short supply, new-fangled plastics were considered the material of the future. Unlike other early plastics like Bakelite, melamine was chemically stable and sturdy enough to withstand regular washings and heat.

1950s outdoor table setting with melamine cups
Courtesy of Better Homes & Gardens

Melamine Moves Into the Home

After the war, melamine dinnerware made its way into homes in a big way. "There were three major melamine factories in the 1940s, but by the 1950s there were hundreds," Gatlin says. Some of the most popular brands of melamine dinnerware included Branchell, Texas Ware, Lenox Ware, Prolon, Mar-crest, Boontonware, and Raffia Ware.

As millions of Americans moved to the suburbs on a tide of post-war economic prosperity, they bought sets of melamine dishes to suit their new houses and lifestyles. Patio life was a newly popular concept, and families wanted affordable plastic dishes they could take outside. At the height of the baby boom, melamine was the perfect material for the age. "There was a real novelty with dishes that you don't have to be careful with," Gatlin says. "You could drop them!"

Ads of the era touted Melmac dishes as a wonder plastic for "carefree living in classic tradition." Another 1950s ad for Branchell's Color-Flyte line claimed the dishes were "guaranteed against chipping, cracking, or breaking." Popular colors included pink, blue, turquoise, mint green, yellow, and white with floral or atomic-age-inspired geometrics in bright colors.

"The 1950s had that exuberance that other decades just didn't," says Gatlin. The era's optimism showed up in the bright colors and shapes of these dishes, she says. "Melamine dishes had all these iconic midcentury geometries, like elongated serving bowls and neat little teacup handles, making them distinctive," Gatlin says. Buyers were encouraged to mix and match colors, giving place settings a sense of creativity and fun.

woman in cooking in kitchen with melamine bowls in 1955
SSPL/Getty Images

Best of all, Melmac was fairly affordable, with a set of dishes that could serve four people costing around $15 in the 1950s, which is about $175 now. "They weren't precious," Gatlin says. "You could embrace trends and really showcase personality because you could afford to replace them after a couple of years and get a new color."

Melamine dishes had impressive design chops, too. American Cyanamid hired industrial designer Russel Wright, who brought modernism to American tables through his design of Steubenville Pottery Company's American Modern line of dishes, to work his magic on their plasticware. Wright designed a line of Melmac dishware for the Northern Plastic Company that won the Museum of Modern Art's Good Design Award in 1953. Called "Residential," the collection was one of the most popular Melmac lines of the 1950s.

A Modern Melamine Resurgence

Melamine dinnerware went out of popularity in the 1970s when dishwashers and microwaves became fixtures in American kitchens. Not safe to use in either appliance, the wonder-plastic of the 1950s was replaced by Corelle as the casual dishware of choice.

In the early 2000s, however, melamine experienced a resurgence alongside mid-century modern furniture. The original 1950s lines became highly collectible, and new collections of melamine dishware were created.

Technological tweaks to melamine's formula and manufacturing process made it dishwasher-safe, giving it new life. Meanwhile, increased interest in sustainability made melamine a popular alternative to disposable plates that end up in a landfill after a single use.

However, melamine is still not microwave-safe, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which limits the scope of its resurgence, whether vintage or new.

"In our era of convenience, which is different than the 1950s definition of convenience, those old melamine dishes are not likely to be used daily," Gatlin says. Treat that hardworking dinnerware from the '50s as carefully as you would any antique. In the 21st century, a plastic dish can be a treasured collectible, and vintage melamine can serve as the good china.

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