Watertown Ware

See pieces of Watertown Ware in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art here.

Sometime in the early 1940s, the United States Navy contracted with several companies -- most notably the Watertown Manufacturing Company -- to design a dinnerware line in the then-new-plastic melamine. The effort was to replace heavy and fragile china dinnerware with something more lightweight and resilient.

It is believed the young WMCo designer, Jon Hedu, was assigned the task of creating a line for the Navy. Little is known of this period of design, but the end result was adopted by the Navy during World War Two. WMCo produced the line -- called, aptly, Watertown Ware -- in ivory melamine. Pieces of this ivory melamine are extraordinarily rare -- many plastic collectors going two decades or more without ever seeing a piece.

At war's end, WMCo sought to profit from its war-time research and development; and created a consumer version of Watertown Ware in several pastel colors.

This historic moment marks the first time melamine (what would become the more-familiar Melmac) dinnerware was available to American consumers. These consumer pieces in various colors, also rare, are more plentiful than the military ivory-colored pieces.

(WMCo also produced the first melamine line designed specifically for consumers -- Lifetime Ware -- in 1946.)

Watertown Ware is important for many reasons: Melamine was extremely scarce during the war, limited to official government use. Were it not for the Navy's need to create a lighter-weight dinnerware, research into melamine dinnerware might not have begun until many years after the war. Additionally, if the early experiments in melamine dinnerware failed (as had military experiments with dinnerware made from other plastics) melamine dinnerware might never have been created -- relegating melamine to the prosaic utilitarian role (motor covers, light switch plates, etc.) it played during the war.

12 March 2005 UPDATE Thanks to a 1945 reference work recently acquired, we can now expand the scope of use for Watertown Ware. According to the 1945 Plastics Catalogue "Watertown Ware" was "molded for the US Navy, Air Forces, and in wide use by airlines." This adds the Air Force as a whole new, previously unknown, arena. Also, it is the first evidence of a long-held suspicion that its non-military uses predated the domestic introduction known to have started late-summer 1945. --Ed.

21 November 2007 UPDATE We have finally found Watertown Ware shapes used by an airline: in this case, United Air Lines. However, despite being the same design, and almost the exact execution, these items are marked "Hemco."

It is known that Hemco made airline ware, but we are not able to fully explain these items. These pieces came from the personal collection of a woman who was a flight attendant for United circa 1941-1945, and have remained in storage until recently. The photograph shows the original "Watertown Ware" items on the left. --Ed.

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