A Gilded Age scandal led, eventually, to one of the finest collections of platters, here in Tidewater.
Lemonade Lucy, in the White House conservatory with the artist from Harper’s Weekly.
With that chance meeting, a scandal was born, and so was a nationwide craving for oyster platters – an unusual style of dinnerware that has only recently come into revival.
The elaborate serving dishes feature shallow dimples – usually six – that resemble empty half shells. In the Victorian era, manufacturers made these dishes in glass, porcelain, stoneware, even sterling silver. They’d arrive at formal tables with a single dainty fork, and freshly shucked oysters resting in each dimple.
Today, vintage oyster platters sell for thousands of dollars, and one of the nation’s largest collections is on view – and for sale – in the Northern Neck town of Kilmarnock. It’s somehow fitting for
Tidewater, given our love of oysters, but the platters actually got their start in Washington, thanks to a first lady with outlandish taste in dinnerware.
The year was 1879, the gilded age of oysters, when watermen packed famed Lynnhaven River bivalves into bushel baskets and shipped them as far as France.
Oysters were cheap and plentiful enough that every class of epicure could partake. So when Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, a teetotaler (thus the nickname) and a naturalist, decided to replace the White House china, oyster platters had to be part of the set.
Working with the magazine artist Theodore Russell Davis, Lucy settled on designs shockingly different from the staid patterns of her predecessors. Along with ice cream dishes shaped like snowshoes and seafood platters with gilded lobster-claw feet were oyster platters with porcelain half shells rimmed in gold and resting on a tangle of seaweed.
Manufactured by Haviland & Company of Limoges, France, the full set came at a stunningly high price: $3,120, or about $74,300 in today’s currency. Public outcry ensued.
Haviland, having lost money on the project, attempted to generate profits by patenting the presidential oyster platters, then selling reproductions in fine department stores in New York, Chicago, Baltimore and San Francisco.
“That got it going,” said Steve Bonner, owner of Kilmarnock Antique Gallery. “Railroads and steamships commissioned custom oyster plates to put them a notch above.” Stateside manufacturers began production as demand surged. At the White House, Lucy’s china was rarely used after the Hayes administration, but her presidential oyster platters were reordered by Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland (who so frequently stayed at a Norfolk hotel while hunting in Back Bay that it was dubbed “Little Washington”).
“American consumers would continue to pursue oysters with a passion until roughly the outbreak of the First World War,” wrote Jeffrey B. Snyder in his book Collecting Oyster Plates, “when depletion of oyster beds raised the price and decreased the availability of oysters enough to dampen people’s enthusiasms.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, disease ravaged mid-Atlantic oyster reefs. Harvests were halted and consumption became dangerous, even deadly. The beds recovered around the turn of the millennium, and so did interest in oyster plates.
Bonner outlined this history of the platters while sitting in a tufted leather wingback chair in his office, a brass telescope to his right and, to his left, an antique dresser covered with stacks of oyster plates.
He started studying, collecting and selling oyster plates about a decade ago. He’s considered by many collectors to be the nation’s foremost authority. His website, Virginia-Antiques.com, features about 300 plates. Outside his office in the antique shop proper, 175 more are displayed in gleaming glass cases.
Presidential oyster plates sell for more than $3,000 now. Bonner doesn’t have any of those, but he does have a $500 ivory-colored plate embellished with a mussel shell, a $350 pale-green plate with the image of a scrim of linen loosely draped among the shells, and a $600 plate with an art deco look that features an emerald-colored center sauce-well ringed in tiny white scallop shells.
“There is nothing like this,” Bonner said of his collection. “There is a lady in Alabama who has a beautiful collection, but it’s all at her home.”
His collection is located just inside the front door of his sprawling antique shop on a side street in Kilmarnock, about 90 miles north of downtown Norfolk. It’s now a stop on the Virginia Oyster Trail. There is no charge to look, although the temptation to start a collection might overwhelm.
For ostreaphiles, it’s well worth the risk.