Oyster Plates

Oysters have been consumed in Britain since Roman times. By the early 19th century, industrialized harvesting of oysters increased their availability such that over 124 million oysters were sold annually in London alone. Oysters were frequently used as a filler in other meat pies and pickled oysters became one of the staples of the diet of the poor. As Dickens’ Sam Weller remarks in The Pickwick Papers, “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.” Due to over-fishing and pollution, the natural oyster beds became exhausted, and by the middle of the 19th century oysters were more of a delicacy for the upper classes than a poor man’s dinner. In the Victorian dinner party, oysters were served as an appetizer, either baked or served raw on ice. As with other highly esteemed foods, oysters were served on specialized plates designed to accommodate them.

Majolica oyster plates are mostly commonly of a round shape with individual wells for oysters surrounding a central one which held sauce. The divisions between wells are typically decorated with shells, fish, corals or seaweed. The number of oyster wells was variable, with six being the most common. One specialized design by Minton also incorporates an additional elongated well for crackers. Other patterns by both Minton and Joseph Holdcroft are of a rectangular shape and incorporate only four wells. Also produced by both English and French manufacturers are larger serving platters containing any number of wells. Of particular importance is a master server by Minton incorporating four tiers of wells fashioned as oyster shells which revolved about a brass spindle.

Perhaps the archetypal majolica oyster plate is a formal design by Minton comprised of six wells separated by bridges of shells and corals and a ring of small scallop shells at the periphery. The pattern is most commonly seen in turquoise, but was produced in a variety of solid colors as well as a mottled pattern and another which simulated malachite. Period copies of this design with alternating well colors are frequently seen. They are unmarked and lack the detailing of the examples by Minton.

Among the rarest of oyster plates is the George Jones rendition of a design patented by J.W. Boteler in 1874. The piece features only four wells and incorporates an Art Nouveau style handle. Other designs by Wedgwood, Minton and George Jones as well as the American Etruscan design are very desirable collector items.