The Fort Frances Museum’s latest exhibit—“Bone China: Gone with the Hope Chest?”—goes back in time when fine china was used frequently, filling the main floor gallery with elegant place settings for visitors to admire.
“What we’re finding are a lot of our women past a certain age do have fine china, bone china, and beautiful collections of it,” noted museum curator Sherry George.
“And so the museum put out a call to the community asking for pieces to borrow for the exhibit and received quite a variety of stunning pieces.
“We have a fabulous collection,” she added.
Most of the pieces originated from Europe, although the name “china” comes from the country where it was perfected.
“Some of it has been handed down mother to daughter, so it could be a grandmother’s collection or an aunt’s,” said George.
“Some women even have two or three collections, and they’re beautiful.”
George conceded fine china isn’t used much anymore.
“We live in a different world, where everything is a little faster and people aren’t having the opportunity to put them out,” she explained.
“Most [pieces] are trimmed with silver or gold, so quite often they won’t go in the dishwasher—so that means hand-washing.”
George said bone china is created not only using clay, but almost half actually is bone ash.
“It’s created from ashes of bones of animals,” she explained.
“It gives the china a strength that other ceramics do not have,” she noted. “So although this china looks very fragile, in many cases quite often is it quite strong.
It doesn’t chip easily; it can be used often.”
George said a lot of people were quite thrilled to loan the museum their place settings, cups, and saucers, or their whole collections, so they can have the opportunity to display them.
“So we’ve got two full collections; one is a French limoge—Debbie Ballard’s beautiful collection,” she noted. “Basically it’s pink flowers on white.
“She has quite a few finishing pieces, so platters, vegetable dishes, butter dishes, a soup bowl, a cup and saucer.
“So when it’s set up, it really does look quite lovely.”
George added they’ve also got a lot of seven-piece place settings from others.
“So it gives people an idea of what different kinds of china might look like,” she reasoned.
“All of these pieces here belong to members of the community,” George said. “They all brought in their china and it will go back to them when [the exhibit] is done.”
A few unique pieces are on display.
“We also have . . . Royal Dalton figurines and heritage plates,” said George.
“We have a Wedgewood teapot and creamer set that is absolutely beautiful; it’s almost a royal blue with raised cream figurines.
“We have a couple of children’s miniature sets of china, and it is china,” she stressed.
Some of the children’s bone china features Mickey Mouse paintings as opposed to the dainty flowers commonly found on the “adult” china.
In addition to reading the label on the bottom, bone china is easily identifiable by the name.
“Many of the houses were quite famous,” George noted, citing Royal Dalton, Royal Albert, Wedgewood, Queen Ann, Irish Belleek, and Paragon.
“You can almost tell by the appearance of it,” she added. “Very fine china is almost translucent.
“You can tell quality by just looking at it.”
In the past, fine china was collected by young women in their “hope” chests.
“The ‘hope’ chest was almost a worldwide tradition that young girls saved for their marriages,” George explained.
“In Canada and the U.S., it’s called the ‘hope chest.’ But in other countries, England, for example, it’s called the ‘bottom drawer.’
“It would include linens and fine china.”
Just like that old tradition, George said she’s a little afraid that bone china also is going to go that way as people no longer are collecting it.
“What’s going to happen to all of these absolutely beautiful pieces?” she wondered.
While there still are companies that make bone china, the pieces on display at the museum are parts of older collections.
“At one time, the streets were lined with businesses that sold china,” George remarked, noting that there soon will be information available at the museum on businesses in Fort Frances that sold bone china in the past.
George also noted that everyone used to have a hope chest. It wasn’t something just for the wealthy, although bone china was expensive.
“Tea was very popular,” she said. “In England, it wasn’t just the upper classes that drank tea, it was the lower classes, as well.
“[Bone china] was fairly costly,” she added. “You might get an entire place setting for a wedding gift, but it’s not likely you’d get a whole set of china.”
Often, young girls would receive a cup and saucer as a birthday gift. Over the years, their collection would grow as people added to a girl’s pattern.
While brides nowadays will have a gift registry, in the past a women would register her pattern and people would buy her china accordingly.
“Tea is becoming popular once again with young people, so who knows? Maybe there will be a renewed interest in china,” George speculated.
Out of the 50 cups and saucers that came in for the exhibit, George said about half are being used for tea and scones the museum is offering each Thursday during the summer.
The rest is on display.
“Every Thursday, we have tea and scones upstairs, and it’s served on fine china cups and saucers,” she explained.
“We have enough sets to have a different cup and saucer at every place setting, so it’s very pretty.
“It’s been very popular,” George added, noting all of the 22 spots were filled on a recent Thursday.
“Our ladies quite often are dressing up, and enjoying the quiet and cool,” she remarked.