A visit to any antique mall in the United States is certain to include a sighting of a few pieces, or perhaps a full table setting of the well-known and well-loved Franciscan Desert Rose dinnerware. The largest-selling pattern in the history of American dinnerware, Franciscan Desert Rose has enjoyed the world's longest period of popularity of any dinnerware pattern produced by a single company, Gladding McBean.

Gladding McBean was a historic California company, founded in 1875. The white clay deposits in Lincoln, CA, gave rise to terra-cotta pipes, tiles, and building fronts, essential to the development of major California cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.  Known for their design and manufacturing expertise, old-world craftsmen were brought in from Italy.  Acquisitions and new-world industrial ingenuity helped Gladding McBean flourish for nearly 50 years before the Great Depression ground the great American expansion to a halt. 

As we all know, necessity is the mother of all invention, and faced with the expense of multiple factories and little sales, Gladding McBean was pushed to diversify. After two years of experimental dinnerware production, a fledgling division known now as Franciscan Ware was founded.  Attractive but not cost-prohibitive pottery made the tough years a little less dreary. No one could have predicted the popularity and success to come over the next 50 years thanks to dinnerware and art ware production.

Franciscan Desert Rose Dinnerware. Image: Malinda Romine.

Countless designers, potters, and creative promotional campaigns created the emergence of a new category of design, known collectively as California Pottery. Acquiring a “nice” set of dinnerware was seen as a step-up into the middle class, and abundant production made it possible for average families to invest in “good dishes”. Pottery companies popped up all over California.  In addition to Gladding McBean, Bauer, Pacific, Metlox, Vernon Kilns, and others, were making solid-colored dinnerware as early as 1935. Gladding McBean created the breakout, hand-painted, embossed, Desert Rose pattern in 1941. Other popular hand-painted Franciscan Ware patterns include Ivy and Apple. 

World War II halted most dinnerware production, however, the post-war years saw a rebound in design and production. A huge variety of patterns have been produced and if you don’t like flowers or country apples, you don’t need to look far to find something to collect that suits your taste. The elliptical patterns with Mid-Century decal design elements, Franciscan Starburst, and Oasis remain popular patterns today. Once a pattern has become popular with collectors it isn’t unusual to see resale prices soar. Perhaps you have some valuable California Pottery stashed in a box in the garage along with treasured heirlooms long forgotten.

Image: Malinda Romine.

Now is a great time to get into collecting these precious pieces of California history. Older Americans appreciate and need somewhere for their treasures to go. As our population ages, Grandma’s dishes can be a source of continuity and connection between generations. The economic recession of 2008 caused a huge drop in the value of collections built up during the 1980s and 90s, and collectors are sitting on large stashes, looking to recoup some cost—and more importantly—for the collections to go to a friendly home, where they will be appreciated.

Many patterns have fallen to the wayside in popularity, or were never long in production and little known. These pieces can be collected easily, and great deals are to be found in online listings.  Other Franciscan favorites from the 1950s and 60s include Autumn, Woodlore, and Daisy. Patterns from the 70s are plentiful, offering earthy and grounded thicker designs. From the 30s and 40s, bright solid colored El Patio, and pastel Coronado are also fun to collect. Mix and match colors or keep to one, there are so many interesting shapes and colors to choose from.

Image: Malinda Romine.

The older and more established online trader, eBay, is the most reliable source for California Pottery and Franciscan Ware. The newest pottery commerce scene is Facebook Marketplace, where collectible dishware can be picked up in your local area or shipped across the country. Other websites to search for pottery include Poshmark, Mercari, Etsy, and Shop Goodwill. Antique malls are perfect for an afternoon outing, and local estate sales can occasionally turn up pieces as well.

The best reason to collect California Pottery now is its timelessness. High-quality production yielded pottery that often looks brand new, despite being 30 to 60+ years old. Made from California clay deposits, these beauties have too much life in them to be discarded to a landfill. The story of California Pottery is part of our collective history, a treasure to enjoy daily and pass on to future generations.

This article was originally published July 28, 2021 exclusively on Edible San Diego Weekly. Want to join the club? Support the region's only dedicated, local, and independently-owned food media company by signing up for a digital membership or subscription today.

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