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Collage illustration of a vintage plate underneath a magnifying glass. Lille Allen/Eater

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How to Score an Enviable Vintage Dinnerware Collection

Everything you need to know about buying secondhand dishes, silverware, and vintage kitchen items

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Amy McCarthy is a reporter at Eater.com, focusing on pop culture, policy and labor, and only the weirdest online trends.

I love people’s old junk. There is nothing I would rather do than wander down the aisles of some dusty antique mall, prowling through old sets of bone china and perusing vintage furniture. And while every room in my home is packed with thrifted and antique finds, I find myself mostly looking for secondhand finds for my kitchen. Maybe it’s because my tiny apartment cannot hold all the antique bureaus and midcentury chairs that my heart desires, but I do at least have the cabinet space for a few new bowls.

In many cases, I also believe that old kitchenware is better crafted than the stuff that I can buy new. (Or at the very least, the stuff I can afford to buy new.) I’ve scored pricey vintage Limoges plates for a buck or two a piece, 100-year-old cast iron pans for not much more, and of course there is my ever-growing collection of pre-’80s, sturdy borosilicate Pyrex casserole dishes and bowls.

Whether it’s because you, too, can’t resist the appeal of a casserole dish decorated with a jaunty, ’70s-inspired mushroom print or simply are looking for a cheaper way to stock your kitchen, use this as a guide to everything you need to know about buying secondhand dishes, silverware, and everything else you’ll need to outfit your vintage kitchen.

How to shop for vintage plates and dinnerware

There is a distinct charm in a set of good-quality plates that feels well-worn-in, both aesthetically and functionally. It is difficult, though not impossible, to score a full set of ’70s Corelle or vintage Fiestaware, but if you do, consider yourself incredibly lucky. Otherwise, piecing together a collection of plates, bowls, and cups from different makers is an excellent way to end up with an eclectic tablescape that is decidedly your own. If you’re into an atomic, midcentury vibe, check out Franciscan Dinnerware, made by Gladding McBean from 1934 to the early 1960s. If you want something colorful, classic Fiestaware is a timeless choice.

When shopping for your vintage dinnerware, make sure to give every piece a good once-over to inspect for cracks, chips, and nicks. Flip the piece over and look for a maker’s mark or brand, and do a quick Google search to roughly determine its age, and figure out how difficult it will be to order a replacement when you inevitably break a plate or two in the dishwasher. If you find a set that you’re in love with that’s missing a few pieces, check sites like eBay and Replacements.com to complete your set.

How do I know if vintage dinnerware contains lead?

The United States did not regulate the inclusion of lead in dinnerware until the 1970s. As such, many items made before this period may contain some amount of lead. You can purchase an at-home lead testing kit to determine if the item you purchased has any level of lead. Some dinnerware may test positive for lead, but its levels could be low enough to fit in with current federal guidelines. Dishes with red and orange glazes are a key exception to this rule — prior to the ’70s, many of those were made with uranium, and according to the New York Times, should be avoided for food consumption.

How to find vintage flatware

Whether you want to assemble an eclectic, mismatched set of charming old silverware or are looking for a sleek set of fancy steak knives, the world of vintage flatware offers a truly vast array of options. Some patterns, like Christofle’s minimalist Perles flatware, have been around for more than 100 years, and for good reason — good flatware is timeless. But more modern options, like the totally ’90s flatware produced by French brand Sabre, are an equally compelling choice.

But don’t just pay attention to brands. Many of the cool sets you’ll see on eBay or in antique malls were made by companies that have since folded. Inspect any interesting silverware you find for a maker’s mark, which is likely somewhere near where the handle connects to the business end of that spoon or fork. You can also keep an eye out for a “hallmark,” most commonly “.925” in tiny print, to determine if the piece is real silver, and how much silver it actually contains.

How to clean old silverware

Almost all of the old silver you’ll see in a thrift store or online will have some amount of tarnish, and that’s okay. Tarnish is harmless — it’s just oxidization of the silver — and, I think, adds a little bit of charm. But if you’re looking to get that silver back to its original state, an abrasive cleaner like Wright’s silver polish or Bar Keeper’s Friend paired with a little elbow grease will make it shine again. Some people, weirdly, use Coca-Cola. As far as upkeep is concerned, it is ideal to wash silver by hand, as the chemicals in dishwasher detergent can pit and stain the metal.

How to shop for vintage cookware

When it comes to vintage cookware, there’s plenty of options to choose from — and plenty you should stay away from. Generally, it’s best to stay away from buying non-stick pans secondhand, for a few reasons. First, it’s likely that this donated pan has plenty of scratches and scrapes that have eroded its non-stick finish. Second, if you suspect that the pan is truly vintage, it may be made with coatings that are no longer approved for use in food. If you see a brand-new pan, perhaps one of All-Clad’s popular nonstick skillets, with the tags still attached, though, it’s fair game.

Also fair game is stainless steel and cast iron cookware. This stuff is pretty indestructible, especially if it’s high-quality, and can be easily cleaned up (once again, with Bar Keeper’s Friend) if it has any rusty spots. WIth cast iron, you can restore the seasoning with a little oil and a super-hot oven. Copper cookware is a little more complicated. Many copper pots made before the 1970s were lined with a thin layer of tin, which has likely eroded after years of use. Look for copper-lined pans, made by high-quality brands like Mauviel and Duparquet, and pay attention to how thick each pot is — most copper pot enthusiasts prefer pieces at least 2.5 mm thick.

If you love your cookware, hand-wash it: Sure, many pots and pans are technically dishwasher safe, but that doesn’t mean that the dishwasher won’t impact them over time. Dishwasher detergents contain acids and other chemicals that can react poorly with certain metals, especially copper. Just buy a little drying rack and give your pots a quick hand-wash with plain ol’ dish soap to ensure that they have an even longer life.

Where to find vintage linens

Maybe you don’t splurge on fancy tablecloths and cloth napkins, but buying vintage is a great way to bring a super luxe linen feel to your table on the cheap. Scour thrift stores and vintage shops for embroidered napkins, lace tablecloths, and, of course, perfectly kitschy napkin rings to tie the whole table together. Many of these tablecloths are hand-embroidered, too, which means that you could score a one-of-a-kind piece for just a couple bucks. You can also buy vintage linens and customize them yourself. It’s easy to dye a super-cheap tablecloth to match your space.

Just make sure to hand wash them: As easy as it might be to toss everything into the washing machine, lace tablecloths and those with super delicate embroidery will not fare well with the rest of your laundry. Use a detergent made for delicate fabrics, like Woolite or the Laundress, and hang your pieces to dry.

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