Alphabet Wares

ABC ware: Franklin proverb plate fragment.
ABC ware: Franklin proverb plate fragment.

Plates. We think nothing of our tableware today. We eat off them and whip them into the dishwasher. In summer we may buy paper plates, pile on the potato salad and then dispose of them when done. It’s just a plate.

Back in the nineteenth century, plates and tableware played a very important role in the educational development of a child and even adults – in a sense they were a “book” you could eat off of. ABC Plates, ABC Wares or Alphabet Wares were first created by several potteries in Staffordshire England beginning in the late eighteenth century. Their popularity peaked in the 1870s and by the late nineteenth century, American and German potters created their own versions, some as late as the 1920s.

These popular children’s gifts exposed young people to the alphabet, consecutive numbers, or a clock face — common motifs on the moulded brim. In the centre of these pearlware and whiteware plates, a transfer-printed scene depicting barnyard animals, pets, fun activities, biblical stories or fables would appear. It was education while you ate, in a day when books and schools were scarce.

ABC ware: "A Visit to the Zebra" plate fragment.
ABC ware: “A Visit to the Zebra” plate fragment.

Benjamin Franklin was a great source for ABC Ware potters. He created 78 proverbs/maxims that were often used on the plates. Above, you can see examples recovered during recent ASI excavations for the Highway 407 extension northeast of Toronto. Onedepicts a Franklin proverb: “Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge – for want of a nail the shoe was lost, and for want of a shoe the horse was lost.”

After some searching, the second Highway 407 ABC plate fragment was identified as a plate that depicts a young man admiring a zebra. The brim decoration consisted of a moulded motif with simple hand-painted accents. This alphabet plate, with the caption “Visit to the Zebra,” was created in the wake of excitement and interest in the new London Zoological Gardens that opened in 1828.

Plates. Looking at how interactive and decorative our tableware used to be certainly makes that lonely pork chop we’re having tonight look less exciting.

Written by: Douglas Todd


“ABC Plate.” Accessed on February 25, 2015: Kovel’s Komments.

Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, 2002. “Alphabet Wares.” Accessed on February 25, 2015: Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum.

Samford, Patricia. 2013. “African American Education in Postbellum, Maryland.” Accessed on February 25, 2015: Jefferson Patterson Museum Blog.