When the Danish pottery studio of Bing and Grondahl shaped, fired and glazed the company's first souvenir Christmas plate in 1895, the shop was merely putting a new marketing spin on an old custom. Danes baked holiday cookies as gifts for friends and relatives, and then presented the treats on plates. "Behind the Frozen Window," an elegant plate decorated in blue and white, became an instant hit. Over time, cookie plates with lavish designs came to be exchanged regularly by Danes, becoming prized art objects that decorated walls and shelves. Landscapes, primitive art, flowers, folk art and other designs appeared on limited edition plates of all sizes and shapes. Eventually, the giving of collectable plates became a universally recognised hobby, reaching its zenith in the 1980s when limited edition plates were ranked by hobbyists as one of the decade's most popular collectibles.
Though Bing and Grondahl's "Behind the Frozen Window" is most often cited by plate collecting authorities like Chicago's Bradford Exchange as the first collectable limited edition plate, accuracy requires going back centuries--to around 600 A.D.--to find the roots of plate art. The Chinese invented porcelain as a means for creating sturdy eating utensils, using indigenous Kaolin clay to fashion their tableware. Firing and glazing techniques resulted in practical objects that were beautiful as well. Thanks to 14th century trade routes between China and the West, it was only a matter of time before markets for porcelain plates and vessels were opened across the globe.
Collecting plates first became a hobby with the wealthiest tier of European society. The houses of Goebel, Royal Copenhagen, Wedgwood and Spode began producing signature patterns of porcelain plates, cups, dishes, bowls and teapots to satisfy the appetites of royalty and well-to-do families throughout the 18th century. The most well known studios parsed their product lines and began to sell both place settings and plate art designed exclusively for gift giving, exchange and display. Over time, new materials and finishes were used on collectable plates and prices for works of art on clay-based pottery became more reasonable for people of all social classes.
As international travel became more common, Americans were on the move. Some travelled to Europe for pleasure; others enlisted in the military and served on foreign soil. As was the custom, everyone from debutantes to soldiers brought home souvenirs of their travels. Decorated plates were a favourite selection because they were unique, small and beautifully reflective of their country of origin. Along the way, U.S. consumers developed a fondness for plate art originating at high-profile European porcelain studios like Germany's Rosenthal, France's Lalique and Ireland's Belleek. While an art-hungry U.S. market craved these imports, it wasn't long before U.S. tabletop manufacturers like Lenox and Edwin M. Knowles realised they were missing a huge market segment. They diversified their product lines and by the 1950s many companies were producing both domestic dinnerware and collectable art. The American limited edition plate market was born.
What defines a limited edition collectable plate? There are two traits: either period of issue or number of plates produced. For example, manufacturers issuing limited edition collectable plates commemorating our nation's 200th birthday might choose to fabricate a set number--1,976 plates was a popular limit--or they fabricated the issue over a 1,976-day firing period. When either the maximum number of plates or days of manufacture was reached, the original mould, decal or design was destroyed or retired by the manufacturer. Certificates of authenticity setting conditions of limitation were regularly packed into plate boxes and consumers came to expect this certification as a guarantee of the issue's exclusivity.
Riding the wave of America's fascination with plate collecting, entrepreneur J. Roderick MacArthur launched the Bradford Exchange in 1973 to promote plate collecting as a viable hobby and to establish a formal centre for the valuation and trading of limited edition plates. MacArthur oversaw the building of a stock market-like trading centre complete with regularly published Current Quotations sheets listing postings of highs, lows and trade amounts for thousands of limited edition plates from around the world. The collectable plate market reached its zenith during the late 1980s and while the hobby continues to fascinate admirers and attract new ones, the market has trended downward over time. That said, collectors love their plates and decorate their homes lavishly with their collections. Most expect to pass their heirlooms on to future generations.