In this guest post, author and freelance museum education consultant Rebecca Reynolds discusses a piece of popular crockery in our collections that has now become a much sought after item.
This month sees the 60th anniversary of the first Woolworth’s order for ‘Homemaker’ tea sets, the crockery of choice on so many dining room tables from the late 1950s onwards. You might recognise the Homemaker’s geometric design of sofas, pot plants, carving knives and armchairs.
A plate from the range made its way into a book published in February this year, Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums, in which I asked curators, conservators, visitors, users and artists to talk about museum objects from around the UK. Dr Louise Purbrick, senior lecturer in Art and Design at Brighton University, chose to talk about a Homemaker plate in a cabinet on the ground floor of Brighton Museum.
Woolworth’s piled Homemaker kitchenware high and sold it cheap. Teapots went for 10 to 15 shillings (50-75p) and teacups for 2/6 (12 ½p); a full set of plates, bowls and cups cost 31 shillings (£1.55). Many of the families who bought the range could not have afforded the more upmarket furniture shown on it, such as the chic kidney-shaped table. Indeed, the design helped to give the shop’s image a boost: ‘Smart, stylish and modern,’ said an advert of the time. ‘Can it be Woolworth?’. The range, designed by Enid Seeney at Ridgway, was a huge success.
The line has since become highly collectable; a 40-piece set went for just over £400 at Bonhams in 2010. ‘I just love the black and white vintage furniture icons, the simple rounded shape of the items and their overall durability,’ says collector and gardening blogger Gillian Carson. ‘I have scoured the charity shops for even one plate from this sacred range, but have had to resort to eBay to get my hands on one for my kitchen wall,’ says Claire Smyth, who blogs about ‘retro wonders’. ‘A red sandwich plate has been found in Australia,’ writes Simon Moss in Homemaker: A 1950s Design Classic, which tells the history of the design and tracks different versions.
Dr Purbrick set a place for the plate in her personal and professional life:
‘The reason I know this plate is because I had one. I was a punk – a little bit of a young punk, and in the 1980s I was setting up home – or at least, I was moving into a flat – and I bought a few of these in second-hand shops in Worthing.
Mine was a tea plate. They would have been ever so cheap – 20p each, perhaps less. I really liked them, but you change your mind about things or you feel you can’t carry them, you don’t know where you’re going and you might be moving from an unfurnished to a furnished place so I got rid of them. And then I came across it in the 20th-century gallery in the V&A and thought ‘why did I not keep those?’ But when I bought it I had no idea I was going to be an Art and Design historian; I was working as a home help; thinking about doing social history; I was retaking A-levels and didn’t go to university (that is, to a polytechnic) until I was 23.
The plate has also got quite a humorous and kitsch punk look, like people who liked the B-52s, which I didn’t exactly, but I can see how punk in the 1980s would have some of that humour. Kitsch can be thought of as over-decorated and standing for what Pierre Bourdieu would call vulgar, popular taste because it’s easy to read; you can see the images on the surface of the kitsch object, whereas fine art would be abstract and you would contemplate its significance and deep meanings. So kitsch would stand for ideas of poor taste or working class taste but also a style that’s understandable, translatable, and assimilated into life. But I think kitsch now has become redeemed in the way which a vintage buyer in Brighton, for example, is able to identify something that is at the margins of good taste and which can be recuperated as a sign of knowledge of what’s in and out of fashion.
I wish I still had that plate.’
In the book the plate appears alongside two other domestic objects – a child’s toy farm set from Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life, and Jane Austen’s writing table in the Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire.
You can learn more about Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums at my website.
Rebecca Reynolds, author and freelance museum consultant
Please note that the Homemaker plate is not currently on display in Brighton Museum, but you can view and download an image from our Digital Media Bank.