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Serving up history on a plate

Calendar plates, which began as early 20th century swag, have become an unusual collectible

For most of us, ceramic plates are quotidian objects, used at mealtimes and then stored away. For Palo Alto resident David Hoexter, they are a thing of beauty and a gateway to another time and place. That's because Hoexter collects American advertising calendar plates. He will present his vast knowledge about the subject during a free public program at the Menlo Park Library on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m.

As the name implies, advertising calendar plates were given away by merchants, mainly in small towns, in the early part of the 20th century as complimentary gifts. They are small (usually around 8 inches in diameter) and were intended for display. They were produced using a process similar to lithography by factories in Ohio and New Jersey. Hoexter has some examples that predate the 1900s, but for the most part, the plates were made from 1906 to 1920, with 1910 being the peak year of production.

Hoexter was introduced to the world of pottery collecting by his wife, Judie, who is an authority on English transferware. Judie was active in local antiques fairs and David would assist her.

"About 10 years ago, we were working at the Hillsborough Antiques Show," explained Hoexter, "when I saw a calendar plate from a Berkeley vendor. I grew up in Berkeley, so I bought it and decided to research it." This was the start of a collection that now numbers around 90 ("and still growing") and of a fascination with the background of each and every plate.

"Often, the history is more interesting to me than the pottery itself," Hoexter said. A case in point is his collection of plates from North Dakota. As a consulting geologist, he has an innate interest in geography and topography. Using Google views, he researched the train lines that took immigrants to settlements in the state after the Civil War. He discovered that his plates were given away by dry goods and hardware stores as incentives to lure customers away from the competition. Hoexter's keen interest in the subject resulted in a trip to North Dakota, where he and Judie tracked the train lines and tried to locate the towns, most of which do not exist today.

Where does he find the plates? "eBay is a great research tool," Hoexter said. "There are usually several hundred (plates) offered at a time and it's a better source than antique shows." He usually pays between $10 to $20 for a plate, "but I have been known to bid higher for something I really want." The most expensive plate he has seen was from a Portuguese merchant in Kauai. "It sold for several hundred dollars, probably because it was the only plate from there in any year," explained Hoexter.

The library presentation will be part Powerpoint (history and maps) and part hands-on, with examples of plates for people to see and touch. Hoexter invited me to pick up the plates and look closely — necessary since some of the printing is tiny — and explained that because the plates are made of earthenware, "this is hardy stuff." And indeed, most of his plates are in good condition with clear designs and legible calendars. "They were intended to go on the wall, so they were mainly for decorative use," he said. "But sometimes you can see marks or indentations from plant pots."

The plate designs vary: from flowers, dogs, horseshoes and angels to "Gibson girls" with large hats. Often, the months of the year are displayed around the border. "Some of the designs were topical, such as an image of the Panama Canal from 1915," he noted.

"I surmise that potters in Ohio came up with the original idea," Hoexter explained. Merchants could pick a pattern from a catalog, or order from traveling salesmen. A paper decal would be produced, placed on a fired blank plate and then glazed. After a final firing, it was ready to sell.

Hoexter said that the merchant's name was placed on top of the glaze, which meant it was not sealed securely. "Often the name of the merchant is fully or partially scratched off, making research into its history more difficult." He explained that a shop owner might have paid 10 cents per plate in 1909, which would translate to almost $3 today. "That was not an inconsequential cost for a small merchant," he said.

Hoexter estimates that he has identified 2,600 plates and has created a database that other collectors can refer to. He is active in the Transferware Collectors Club and currently serves as its internet activities administrator.

What was the attraction of the plates to people living in rural America? "Many of these people probably did not have much in the way of worldly goods," he said, adding, "I think people loved beautiful objects, as we do. And, they were free!"

If you're interested

David Hoexter will discuss his collection of advertising calendar plates on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 7-8 p.m. at the Menlo Park Library. Admission is free. The library is located at 800 Alma St., Menlo Park. For more information, call 650-330-2501 or visit menlopark.org/Library.

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

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