ABC plates don’t just hold food—they also serve up an education. “They were made to teach children about values and life,” says collector Neil Palmer of North Little Rock’s Crystal Hill Antique Mall. Rimmed with the alphabet and decorated with maxims and inspirational sayings, ABC plates transformed every meal into a learning experience.
First produced in the 19th century in Staffordshire, England, they were later fashioned in the United States, mostly in the Ohio region, and contemporary-looking versions are still in production today. Palmer’s white earthenware collection holds true to the plates’ Staffordshire roots, originating in the late 1800s when prominent potters like A. Shaw & Son and J. & G. Meakin exported their goods around the world.
Palmer is most drawn to the valuable lessons his collection teaches. One plate depicts the wise old owl as a schoolteacher. Another, which shows a man plowing a field while his comrade rests, states, “Plough deep while sluggards sleep, and you shall have corn to sell and keep.” Illustrations of animals, as well as childhood games, events, nursery rhymes and pictures from books like “Robinson Crusoe,” are also popular. Religious motifs, although rare, can be found as well.
In addition to simple transfer images, these decorations were sometimes applied through a technique known as polychrome, which means multi-colored. As Palmer explains, “The design was transfer-printed, often not centered since it was done by hand, and then brushed with color before the plate was fired.” Variations of the plates were also made from porcelain, metal, glass and tin.
Staffordshire plates sell for about $175 apiece, and sometimes much more. “It depends on the uniqueness of the decoration,” Palmer says, “and how much wear and tear the plate has.” The fact that they were made for young children means that they are often found with significant damage, which decreases their value.
But while condition is a key factor in assessing price, Palmer purchases any that “make him smile,” he says, “especially if it has a really appealing look or message.” Many of the sayings were derived from “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” a compilation of sayings written by Benjamin Franklin and known for its extensive use of wordplay.
Twenty years into his collecting and Palmer has learned a valuable lesson himself. Rarely finding more than one ABC plate at a time while scouring Arkansas’ antique stores has taught this avid collector to be patient. “You really have to dig deep,” Palmer says. But, as Benjamin Franklin once stated, “He that can have patience can have what he will.”