Simple as ABC: A Primer on Collecting Alphabet Plates

“I read a magazine article about antique ABC plates, and I’ve found a few,” I told my friend Marcia. “I’d like to see if this antique mall has any.” So we explored the cavernous old building in Lebanon, Ohio, with little hope of success. 

Then there it was! This plate was different from the simple and inexpensive glass and aluminum ones I’d found earlier. This themed plate was titled “Nations of the World.” The alphabet was from left to right on the left side of the plate and the picture of a draped man and woman in a circle on the right was labeled “Greek.” I was so excited! I remembered seeing it in my book by Mildred L. and Joseph F. Chalala, published in 1980. Even though the book was ten years old, at that time it was the only book I’d found on the topic and I treasured the information it contained. 

Millie Chalala and her husband Joe simply took black and white pictures of her 531 plates and included bare bones information such as diameter, color, and the pottery company that produced it, when known. Published by Pridemark Press, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it has been out of print for several years. Sometimes copies are available for a considerable price on a used book website such as Amazon, but it is not as useful as the more recent ones.  

Since then my knowledge has expanded and my interests have narrowed. These plates that were manufactured for the practical uses of serving a child’s food and teaching the child the alphabet continue to intrigue me and my family. Often the picture in the center presented a third area of education. 

While I still have my original aluminum and glass plates that were the easiest to find—and still are—I prefer Staffordshire plates such as the Greek one. The five by ten mile district of Staffordshire, England, had rich deposits of clay perfect for firing as well as readily available salt, lead, and coal. Pottery companies abounded there from the late 18th to late 19th century, including names such as Burslem, Tunstall, and Hanley. Before transferware, ceramics had to be hand-painted which often made the dishes prohibitively expensive. The newly-discovered transfer process, using copper plates, ink, and tissue paper to put the engraving on the pottery, made production go much more quickly. Sometimes after the basic picture was on the plate, someone would paint in a few colors and then the plate would be glazed and fired. Often the ones with color added look as though the painter was in great haste, with the color often not “inside the lines”! So Staffordshire plates available today are both monochromatic and polychromatic. Great detail about the development of the Staffordshire potteries is found in The ABCs of ABC Ware, by Davida and Irving Shipkowitz. Some have very distinctive markings on the back; some have none. A chart of registry marks and numbers from 1842-1991 is found in ABC Plates and Mugs: Identification and Value Guide, by Irene and Ralph Lindsay. 

The Greek plate at $85 in 1990 began my “Nations of the World” set, plates made by the Brownhills Pottery Company, 1872-1896. I’ve discovered that the “Greek” plate is relatively common. Since then I’ve added Japan, Venetian, Turk, Wallachian, Chinese, and Russian—an eBay purchase for $278 in 2000. I learn from the Shipkowitz book that there is also an Italian plate, and I am always on the alert for it. 

Brownhills evidently liked the asymmetrical look of the “Nations” set, and produced several sets with similar designs: Birds of the World, Bible Pictures, Wild Animals, Nursery Tales, and Aesop’s Fables, to name a few.  Though some of these are rare and sought-after, “Birds of the World: Goldfinch and Chaffinch” seems to be quite common and easily acquired. 

Many plate sets were designed around popular books of the time. Several potteries featured Robinson Crusoe scenes with his little family, or finding footprints, or on a raft. Poor Richard’s Almanac inspired a set of plates featuring Benjamin Franklin maxims, such as “Lost time is never found again. What we call time enough always proves little enough.” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was widely lauded in England and plates featured drawings and quotations from the book.

As books go, the Bible probably had the greatest number of depictions, most scripture-based and traditional. A humorous example is a J & G Meakin plate, inscribed “Behold Him rising from the grave, Behold Him raised on high,” which pictures Jesus rising from a coffin with the lid raised. The “Sacred History of Joseph and His Brethren” and various depictions of “The Lord’s Prayer” and popular Bible stories such as “David and Goliath” are fairly easy to find. A recent plate on eBay showed a child kneeling before a prayer book surrounded by angels with the eye of God overlooking all. The verse says, “How glorious is our heavenly King Who reigns above the sky, How can a child presume to sing His dreadful majesty.” This rather frightening scene evidently was intended to instill the fear of God as well as the alphabet. 

Another interesting set definitely intended to instruct is “Flowers That Never Fade.” My first four in this set were found by my son in 1991 at Richard Dennis Antiques in London, England: Loyalty, Innocence, Contemplation, and Early Rising. Each characteristic has not only a picture demonstrating that quality, but also a verse to prompt children toward the same end. For example, the Politeness plate has this verse: “If little boys & girls were wise, They’d always be polite. For sweet behaviour in a child is a delightful sight.” I also have plates featuring Industry, Attachment, Punctuality, Meekness, Charity, Kindness, Affection, and Attention. 

Staffordshire pottery is certainly not the only kind of alphabet plates available. Tin and aluminum plates were also made with the ABCs around the rim. Painted tin by Ohio Art and pressed tin with designs and words such as “Who killed Cock Robin?” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” can often be found. Plates made specifically for hotel use are stamped on the back “Hotel” and come in a variety of designs from nursery rhymes, such as “Little Miss Muffett,” to baby animals and children’s activities. 

Irene and Ralph Lindsay’s book, ABC Plates and Mugs: Identification and Value Guide, published in 1998 by Collector Books, Paducah, Kentucky, is still available. The book has no index, but the Table of Contents is fairly straightforward and the pictures are excellent. The book is about 8.5 x 11 inches and has no more than four pictures per page. Most plates that collectors seek are English Staffordshire, and there are about 700 Staffordshire designs in existence. The Lindsays have almost 600 plates in their book and include tin, German paste, American ware, and glass. Their prices were quite accurate in 1998, but times have changed. For example, they identify a good “Crusoe at Work” to sell for $140-250. Mine came from London in 1991, for £45. Recently the same plate sold on eBay for $9.99—in good condition except for one tiny chip, and one in excellent condition sold for $45. Definitely a buyer’s market!  

Alphabet plate prices are not only affected by the economy, but they are also affected by crossover collectors—those who are looking for a specific subject that happens to be on ABC plates. Collectors of Civil War memorabilia heighten the competition for the Civil War Generals plates, and those plus presidential collectors and Lincoln collectors make Abraham Lincoln plates sell as high as $800. 

Other themes whose prices are influenced by crossover collectors are fairy tales, sports, Majolica, and English monarchs, as well as book memorabilia collectors, such as for Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 

The ABCs of ABC Ware, by Davida and Irving Shipkowitz is a treasure of information about ABC plates, if only you can figure out how to find it! The index is deplorably lacking—three columns on two pages of a large book of over 300 pages. If you purchase this book, I recommend adding your own notes to the index as you find pages you might want to return to. Published in 2002, this book features the collection of Davida and Irving Shipkowitz and the information they’ve accumulated about alphabet plates in general. This is the most recent ABC plate publication and, as in the Lindsay book, the prices they give are a bit elevated due to the current economic climate, but their commentary and pictures are excellent. 

The Shipkowitz book is the showcase for all ABC plates. Containing over a thousand photographs of ABC items for children, the research shown in the narrative adds great dimension to the knowledge of collectors. The 26 chapters each feature a letter of the alphabet: A is for Americana, B is for Bottle Ovens, through I is for Infant to Infirm, J is for the Last Letter of the Alphabet, and so on. (J was the last letter to be added to the English alphabet, and some plates do not include the letter J. As late as 1904, a plate advertising Buster Brown shoes has no J in the sequence.) 

Since England is the origin of most ABC plates, I was eager to find the Richard Dennis Antique Shop when I visited London in 1995. When my family and I arrived, we found to our dismay that Richard Dennis no longer sold antiques. We stood, befuddled, looking at the displays of beautiful but new pottery. When we inquired, we were told that the antique stock was still stored “in the upstairs rooms.” The four of us were given unlimited access to three flights of stairs on which were stacked hundreds of antique Staffordshire plates. We ignored the sweltering heat as we explored each stack, extracting only ABC plates. After two hours we had unearthed 17 plates, including my favorite find—an Uncle Tom’s Cabin plate. The picture shows Simon Legree beating Uncle Tom and underneath is the quotation “There is another proprietor of souls.” 

We negotiated price on the group to our satisfaction, except for a 3¾-inch, bright yellow-rimmed plate which the gentleman referred to as “the dear one.” Though I must say that I questioned how “dear” it was when it was loosely stacked on a rickety stairs in the midst of more mundane plates, I still paid his price of £356. The letters were incredibly sharp and distinct, and in the center was the image of a griffin and a bird. On the back was an indentation of a cross, indicating the Sheriff Hill Pottery of Newcastle, circa 1820-1830, according to Gifts for Good Children by Noël Riley. Later the Shipkowitzes featured a similar blue-rimmed one on the frontispiece of the 2002 book. Based on the prominence they give this plate, it is still my dearest one.  

Gifts for Good Children: The History of Children’s China, 1790-1890, by Noël Riley, covers much more than ABC plates and is a great resource for anyone interested in all antique children’s china. It contains over 1200 pictures, most in black and white but with several color plates as well, and a brief description of each. 

The main sources of ABC plates are estate auctions, online auctions, and antique stores. Prices on eBay vary greatly and following the listings can educate prospective buyers. In antique malls, ABC plates are usually only in locked glass cases, for in recent years their value is known well enough that they aren’t simply sitting around. 

An excellent resource for information, pictures, and currently available plates is the ABC Collectors’ Circle: A Newsletter for Collectors of Vintage ABC Ware. It is published three times a year by Dr. Joan George. Dr. George is very knowledgeable and helpful in sharing information. She also welcomes informative articles about ABC ware. The subscription price of $20 can be paid through PayPal and received via email from drjgeorge@nac.net. If you prefer U. S. Mail, send a U. S. check for $30 to Dr. Joan George, 67 Stevens Avenue, Old Bridge, NJ 08857.