‘I don’t do dishes’

I don't do dishes
The ceramicist’s mark

Well, if there is one thing you should know about me, it’s that “I don’t do dishes.” Now don’t get me wrong, I always try to help set or clear the table come suppertime, and I’m never really opposed to that age-old argument of “who will wash and who will dry.” But past this, I’ve never had much, if any, interest in dishes themselves. And while I’ve always known that my adoptive great-grandmother’s Blue Willow[1] plates were to be treasured (and to be regarded as something more than just “plates”), as a kid I never figured them to be much good at all, since you couldn’t ever touch them or use them to serve up a big piece of birthday cake. I mean seriously, what good are dishes that just gaze out at you from a glass cabinet or scowl indifferently from the dining-room wall?

Yes, I’ve always felt this way—and well, in some ways, I admit, I (mostly) still do. This was especially true until one day several years back when a package arrived for me all the way from the wilds of Hollywood. It was a package that I had been eagerly anticipating, and it arrived swathed in an odd assortment of old postage stamps and a great deal of packaging tape. Its contents were likewise swaddled in, of all things, a couple of thick and well-worn beach towels. How very peculiar this package appeared to be, and in retrospect, how very Californian it all seems now.

My excitement in receiving this package was of course due to the nature of its contents. You see, under all the swaddling, the package contained what was the sole remaining possession of my biological great-grandmother Opal (Young) (Porter) Everett[2] who had passed away in North Hollywood in 1978. I had searched for Opal, a woman who had given up my biological grandmother for adoption in the spring of 1915, and a woman who, for lack of a better word, disappeared again about 1939. Through sheer serendipity and a lot of sleuthing, I had “found” Opal and her Last Will and Testament, and now I found this odd package which contained what was said to be her dearest possession arriving at my door.

In truth, Opal didn’t have much. Rumor had it that she’d worked as a humble manicurist at some of the Hollywood studios in the ‘30s, but I’ve never been able to substantiate any of that. Her second husband, Henry Lee Everett, doesn’t look to have had much either, and was possibly unable to provide all that well for a widow who would outlive him by nearly twenty years.[3] No, pretty much all Opal had in the way of worldly goods (so I’d been told) was a lot of old and yellowing “paperwork,” and, of all the strange things, an antique white ceramic soup tureen. Yes, a soup tureen—a dish so dear and precious to her that she even took steps to bequeath it “outside” of her own family—to the safe-keeping of her Executrix and best friend in the whole world.[4]

By the time I discovered Opal’s BFF, she had become quite elderly herself and seemed relieved that someone from Opal’s family—even a hitherto unbeknownst great-grandson—had come forward to claim all that yellow paper and the single soup tureen. Opal’s friend had asked me if I wanted the old pot, saying she thought that it need to be returned to the family. Needless to say, dish or not, I jumped at the chance. You see, for me to own a piece of my biological great-grandmother’s life—even an old dish—meant a kind of closure, a tangible representation of Opal’s life and her memory, for my family and the Young family for years to come.

Then, as I removed the lid, a yellowing letter fell out of the old pot, a letter that would give me some clues as to just what I was looking at—and just what it all might mean.”

So, there it was on that sunshiny autumn day, an heirloom soup tureen unpacked in our kitchen. Good Lord, I had to wonder, what was I going to do with an old soup bucket like this? It wasn’t exactly a practical item or (for me) useful like a decent case of Sam’s Club Chinet.[5] Then, as I removed the lid, a yellowed paper fell out of the thing—a letter that would give me some clue as to just what I was looking at and just what it all might mean. It looks as if Opal had been somewhat of a ‘70s-style sleuth herself who had had questions about her own soup tureen. Seeming to sense that her soup tureen might not be just another run-of-the-mill porringer, she had written to (of all places) the folks at “M’m! M’m! Good! ®[6] to find out more about just what she had. The Campbell Museum was opened in 1966 by executives of the soup company; their soup tureen collection now resides at Winterthur Museum in Delaware.[7]

I don't do dishes
The reply

Now, the origins of the actual soup tureen are straightforward. And, oddly enough, I have to wonder if dishes don’t have better luck in tracing their own ancestral origins than we do. The old pot’s ceramicists, Davenport Pottery of Longport, Staffordshire, look to have originated in England sometime between 1793 and 1887.[8] However, how Opal came to have this old vessel is a bit more obscure. It occurs to me that it most likely belonged to her mother, Mary (Neff) Young who might have received it as a wedding gift when she married Opal’s father George Alfred Young in 1884.[9] This is the most likely scenario. It is possible, too, that the tureen may have come down from Opal’s grandmother Elizabeth Freelove Sprague who married Opal’s grandfather Guilford Dudley Young in 1853, both of whom happen to be Mayflower descendants.[10] Both possibilities fit into the manufacturer’s time line. And yes, I guess it is also possible that it had been passed down from an even more distant point in time: from Opal’s great-grandparents, Alfred Young Jr. and Rebecca Johnson (Davis) Young, who both lived well into the 1870s.[11]

I don't do dishes
The “old pot”

One thing is however certain: Opal took the reason why this old soup tureen was so precious to her to the grave. And in truth, the old pot’s value and its obscure journey from England to Connecticut to Kansas and on to Hollywood, in the end, don’t really matter. No, what truly matters here is that a tangible piece of the life of my great-grandmother, a woman I never would have known, exists. An item that will now stay (hopefully) safe, as it awaits the journey to its next destination, and the next of the Young family’s descendants.

Then, of course, there is the very evident genealogical conclusion to all this: that, yes, indeed, I do “do dishes.” (Wink!)


[1]Blue Willow” is a crockery pattern; per Wikipedia, a style of dishware possibly originating in late 18th-century England.

[2] Opal (Young) (Porter) Everett (1895–1978).

[3] Henry Lee Everett (1892–1959).

[4] Emma Lou Peake (1919–2007).

[5] “Chinet® is a registered trademark of Huhtamaki N.A.

[6] “M’m! M’m! Good! ®” is a registered trademark of the Campbell Soup Company; the slogan has been used in the company’s advertising campaigns since the 1930s.

[7] “Campbell Museum,” formerly at Camden, New Jersey; and as per Terry Pristin, The New York Times, 25 March 1996, “New Jersey Daily Briefing: Campbell Museum Closes,” 25 March 1996; it closed that same year (1996); http://www.winterthur.org/visit/museum/campbell-collection-of-soup-tureens/.

[8] From www.thepotteries.org: “John Davenport, born in 1765, is said to have begun potting in 1785, first as a workman, and later as a partner with Thomas Wolfe of Stoke. He acquired his own pottery at Longport for the manufacture of earthenware in 1794. In 1830 he retired, and his two sons Henry and William carried on the firm until 1835, when Henry died. This style of the firm then became William Davenport and Company. William died in 1869, and his two sons took over the direction of the business, which remained in the family until 1887.”

[9] Marriages of Butler County, Kansas, 1861–1885, FHL, states: “Young, George A., age 27, 27 March 1884 to Neff, Mary E. age 20.”

[10] Vital Records of Bolton., Conn., to 1854, states: “This certifies that Guilford D. Young of Tolland, Conn., and Elizabeth F. Sprague of Bolton, Conn. were by me joined marriage in the town of Bolton, on the 18th day of December 1853. . . .”

[11] Alfred Young Jr. (1800–1877) and Rebecca Johnson Davis (1804–1884) married at Chatham, Conn., 1 Jan. 1826.

About Jeff Record

Jeff Record received a B.A. degree in Philosophy from Santa Clara University, and works as a teaching assistant with special needs children at a local school. He recently co-authored with Christopher C. Child, “William and Lydia (Swift) Young of Windham, Connecticut: A John Howland and Richard Warren Line,” for the Mayflower Descendant. Jeff enjoys helping his ancestors complete their unfinished business, and successfully petitioned the Secretary of the Army to overturn a 150 year old dishonorable Civil War discharge. A former Elder with the Mother Lode Colony of Mayflower Descendants in the State of California, Jeff and his wife currently live with their Golden Retriever near California’s Gold Country where he continues to explore, discover, and research family history.

19 thoughts on “‘I don’t do dishes’

  1. “And, oddly enough, I have to wonder if dishes don’t have better luck in tracing their own ancestral origins than we do.” Thank you, Jeff, for your fascinating and upbeat commentary on this family heirloom, written with such accuracy but also with such a wonderful sense of humor!

  2. Fun article – thank you! I wonder if dishes/good china rate right up there with samplers as tangible items that connect generations. Growing up, I was very close to my father’s cousin – she was like a second mother to me. She loved ceramics & porcelain and as children her daughter Amy and I would roll our eyes when she would say things like ‘you’re the 4th generation to eat off these dishes’. When Amy & I got foggy on how we were related, the dishes were a good starting point: hmmm, we have the same great-grandparents, the ones with those holiday dishes. It took many decades for me to get interested in genealogy, and luckily my ‘aunt’ was still alive to see me trace the ancestors of the relatives who had first bought the set of limoges. She had several dishes allegedly brought from Cornwall by the previous generation – the great-greats – which she gave to me. In case my kids ever get the genealogy bug I have a folder in the dining room with ‘what was handed down from who’ to keep alive some of the stories behind the silver, glass and dishes 🙂

  3. Jeff, Blue Willow is MUCH older than the late 18th century; you can’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia, thought I use it a lot…but like genealogy websites, you have to verify what you read. I have a Neff line and a Johnson line, perhaps we are distant cousins. Altho I know there are 2 seemingly rather different early American Neff lines. I have been doing dishes since I fell in love with a piece of Wedgwood in 1960, it’s a dish disease that is incurable. Your lovely soup tureen is white ironstone and has a lovely shape. It’s gratifying to me that you can see the wonderful family value in that tureen, so many today don’t see any value to our ‘crockery’! It’s very sad that so many families are trying to find a way to ‘dump’ grandma’s or mom’s china…my own children included!!! Give your tureen pride of place in your home. The Campbell Collection at Winterthur is beautiful, if in the area I recommend a visit, you’ll find dishes of much interest which came down thru many interesting families. They also have some of George Washington’s china there, yes, George’s china, not Martha’s – he had more than she did.

  4. In the late 1950s, my grandmother was bequeathed Blue Willow dishes by a friend–a woman who had lived to 102! She even specified in her will that Grandma was to use them for “everyday” dishes, knowing that otherwise they would be tucked in a cupboard and only used for “good.” I now have them, as well as other pieces friends and family added to Grandma’s collection. Some are new enough to put in the dishwasher! Sources for the older pieces include Staffordshire, Buffalo NY and Japan.

  5. A great story and a great piece of material culture. It’s a lovely tureen, by the way, tho that’s the least of the matter.

    It is amazing how, for so many of us, so little remains of our ancestors’ belongings. Where did they all go?? I have a set of dominoes that belonged to one of my great-grandfathers, the only thing of his my grandfather had, he said. I have made sure to play dominoes with my grandchildren–and take photos of us doing so–and hope one of them will treasure them as I have.

  6. My goodness! I was just thinking the other day that I wish I had my grandmother’s china instead of what was on my bridal registry more than 40 years ago. I looked up Blue Willow on wikipedia, and there were her plates! I could just see them in my mind’s eye on the table, filling up with my favorites of her signature foods. Thank you.

    BTW, as the former medical director of the NYC Bureau of Lead Poisoning Control, I can tell you that much old china and crystal, especially Waterford, is laden with lead. Look at the tureen, but please don’t use it unless it tests negative for lead by an expert.

  7. That’s a beautiful “old pot,” Jeff! Your post makes me take a longer second look at all the old dishes I have!

  8. I love a story like this! My family seems to have had a tradition of passing things down, daughter to daughter to daughter. Items include a pewter tea/coffee set that, I learned, dates from about 1828. I had gotten an estimate of its age when I brought it to the Genealogy Road Show some years ago. Based on a little further research, my best guess is that it was a wedding gift to my 2x great-grandmother who married in that year. I plan to continue the tradition and pass it down to my daughter. But, lucky you, who never does dishes – lol!

  9. I love this story because it made me smile…. Having a few antique dishes myself, I could connect with it.

    Thanks again, Jeff, for the effort you put into these postings……

  10. Jeff, my Encyclopedia of British Pottery and Porcelain Marks (Geoffrey A. Godden, 1964) indicates that mark dates between 1870 and 1886. The lack of the country name with the mark indicates it predates 1891, when the McKinley Tariff Act required all imported china to have the country name on it.

  11. It just occurred to me that I have my own soup tureen! And some other china that traveled from Cornwall to Telluride, Colorado, with my 2x great-grandmother. My grandmother’s aunt who raised her and her brother after their parents died brought lots of their possessions to Boston with the children, I assume to help keep their memories of them alive. I am inspired to start writing again, Jeff! All because of DISHES!

  12. i love old dishes, as long as there aren’t too many of them. I have the old chipped pitcher that my mother took across the fields to the neighbors to get fresh milk. It’s mate was broken when the bull turned out to be loose in the field one evening and mom had to run for it.

    I also had a pressed glass hexagonal bowl known in the family as the “cracker bowl” because the old four piece crackers were served in it Sunday evenings for crackers and milk supper. It was given to my great grandmother with a puppy in it by my grandmother and her brother in the late 1880’s. It now belongs to my brother’s granddaughter, and will be handed down to her daughter if she has children, which will make six generations of women. There’s a note in the bowl that tells its story and about the appraisal (about $100) it got on the Antique Rode Show.

    I have other dishes belonging to my grandmother and my husband’s grandmother.

  13. Jeff,

    You always write so beautifully. When I married in 1968, my grandfather gave me the remains of the lavender flowered Limoge china with gold rims from his and my grandmother’s July 7,1907 wedding. He told me he was embarrassed that he couldn’t afford to buy me anything. As we unpacked the pieces, which included a round soup tureen, I got teary, I was so thrilled. I didn’t think to ask him what they did with that china in the years right after their marriage when they lived as homesteaders in a sod hut on the South Dakota prairies (oh, my grandmother hated that soddie!). In my many moves, multiple pieces got broken (cats and movers will do that). I ended up sending a few pieces to a young niece once removed, who was very taken with the story. I saved out one luncheon plate, which now hangs on my wall, with a note on the back that it’s to go to my brother on my demise. He’s the family member, besides me, most interested in genealogy. Thanks so much for the reminder of Grandpa and their Limoge wedding china.


  14. I do dishes! My grandmother had the Blue Willow as her everyday dishes – and now I have the remnants of hers along with additions I acquired. But the best is that the family has handed down pieces, mostly cups and saucers. I have two unmarked matching cups and saucers with little blue/purple flowers on them. Nothing came with them but I liked them and kept them. On a trip back east, I stopped in Norwich, Connecticut and had a chance to tour the Leffingwell House. In their basement museum were some of my pattern cups and saucers! My 2nd gr grandmother was a Waterman and her mother or grandmother was a Leffingwell so I dare to think these are related even if I cannot prove it.

  15. I must say – all of you have much, much, finer dishes than my Great Grandma Opal’s plain old white ceramic soup tureen!

    I am humbled by all your well told “dish” recountings – and all your kind responses to my “soupy” tale! 🙂

    (And many thanks to Homer above for zeroing in on a more exact time frame for the date of its origin)


  16. Thank you for this blog about crockery, and for all the wonderful comments that evoked all your treasures. For me, there were so many things lost, including photos, personal items, and some valuable antiques, but you reminded me that I have some precious glassware that was given me by various relatives when they realized that I was the only grandchild who cherished it. I still have it, mostly still packed away, pending the china cabinet my son-in-law refurbished for me that belonged to his grandmother. It will all go to my daughter anyway! Many of the pieces are fine china that had been carefully taken care of for as many as four or fivegenerations before me in my mother’s family. But my favorite piece of crockery is a plain stoneware bowl that had belonged to my paternal grandmother’s grandmother. It had been her bread bowl and now it is mine.

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