Melmac: How one 1950s plastic changed the way Americans ate.
“No worries here… the reason’s clear, dinnerware molded of Melmac is break-resistant”.
And break-resistant it was. Melmac by American Cyanamid, a brand of high-quality melamine molding powders, was one of the top suppliers of the material which would redefine what dishware could be for the modern American homemaker, forever.
The Material: Melamine Resin
Before we talk about Melmac, let’s briefly touch upon the chemical compound behind the famous plastic dishware brand. Amino resins are versatile substances that can be used for a variety of purposes. When mixed with formaldehyde, the chemical compound Melamine – first synthesized in 1834 (Wikipedia) – forms a resin that is a powerful adhesive: Melamine resin (resin expert).
From decorative laminates like Formica to dry erase boards, the resin grew in popularity towards the later years of the great depression and the early years of WW2 after it was patented in 1936. (Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Technology).
The Origin: American Cyanamid X Russel Wright
In the early 1940s, the industrial chemical company, American Cyanamid, approached famed industrial designer, Russel Wright, to develop and test a line of dinnerware from its patented melamine powder. This collaboration was a case study to determine how early examples of Melamine dishware performed in the market and to allow Wright to suggest ways to enhance it so it could be widely accepted.
By 1948, the tableware was being tested in five or six restaurants. In 1951, test installations were made in restaurants, drug chains, schools, and institutions. By the end of the testing, Wright advised that consumer use had to be encouraged via strong marketing– and it was.
But American Cyanamid was not a molding company, they were just the distributors of melamine molding powders. Their main goal was to encourage melamine dishes to be used in the American household, thus boosting their powder sales to molders looking to hop on the trend. After the Wright studies, 13-15 new molders came on board in the first year alone.
By using American Cyanamid’s powder and upholding its standards, molders got access to a plethora of perks, namely the use of the word ‘Melmac’ and the marketing that came with it. While other molders did offer dishware made of similar melamine compounds, the benefits of paying more through Cyanamid made the elevated cost worth it for many molders (Retrochalet Blog).
The Heyday: Promoting Melmac
“...it’s beautiful, it’s break-resistant… it’s the ideal gift!’ (1950)
“You’re on the right track when it’s tagged Melmac!” (1954)
“MELMAC… light, lovely, china-thin ! Guaranteed break-resistant –– we will replace FREE if it chips, breaks, or cracks in 2 years of normal use.” (1960).
These are just some of the taglines featured on ads for brands sporting Melmac dishware throughout the 1950s and 60s. The main offer? Break resistance. Why was break resistance so important to post-war consumers?
Depression-era and wartime Americans lived in a state of frugality for a long time. After the war, prosperity and convenience were synonymous with modern American living. While homemaking and traditional gender roles still held firm, innovations spurred by necessity, like using Melamine to make dishware economically, actually fit into the newfound freedom and leisure class’ desire to spread out and have fun. From TV dinners to canned and deli meats, plastic dinnerware fit the bill for commoditizing convenience and selling it to Americans looking to loosen up and have fun. (National Museum of American History).
Gorgeous homes and relaxed dinnerware – a far cry from the expensive and excessive china of days past – did not have to be at odds with each other. Molders used Melmac to continue to make beautiful dishware that was convenient and non-committal as ever. Top molders included Boonton Molding of Boonton, NJ (Boontonware), and PMC Manufacturing Company of Dallas, TX (Texas-ware) (Hobbylark).
The Decline (& Resurgence?)
Melmac fell from favor by the 1970s as consumer trends shifted. Also found to not be microwave safe (a flaw which was later fixed in future Melamine dishwares), the modern consumer could no longer consciously use Melmac without fear of toxicity (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
However, it never fully went away. Through the 1990s and into the present, Melamine dishware continues to be produced today. From West Elm to Pottery Barn to CB2, simple and intricate melamine designs serve as a reminder that Melmac – the “unbreakable” – was once king. Some examples below:
At Yesterday’s News, it is not uncommon for us to have a few pieces of Melmac or melamine-based dishware for sale. We recently got a huge load of Melmac dishes from one estate ranging in all shapes, sizes, and colors. From creamers and sugar bowls to plates, stop by and find your piece of American plastic wares history!