When I was a boy, I spent many a weekend with my Granny at her house, just a street or two over from my parents’ house, but miles away from my usual life. Hours would pass with her telling me stories of her life, specifically her childhood – some stories I had heard 10 or more times. We played games, worked in her flower garden, went on long walks, and made and ate many meals together. She infused the love of cooking into my soul because it was something she and I did together. It was something special. Even today, there is a little Granny in every meal or dish I make. Looking at The Chopping Block’s class schedule, I dream about how fun it would have been if she and I could have taken one of our classes, such as the Mother’s Day Brunch or Take Your Mom to Paris – both being held at both of our locations on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13th.
Sitting at her dinner table on those weekends, the food changed and the stories changed (sometimes) but the one constant was her set of dishes. I always loved her dishes. They were the only thing I actually would have loved to have when she passed away in 1987. Where Granny's set of dishes eventually went is anyone's guess.
Back then, Granny bought her dishes a piece or two at a time from a traveling salesman who would come to the house on a regular basis (this is how most things were purchased for the home in those days). I don't know how she bought them - all plates first or all one color, etc - but I know it was in pieces, not all at once like we do today. That's how Granny bought a lot of things. I remember as a kid watching her talk to visiting salesmen who were selling just about anything. That's how things were done back then. I mean, with 9 kids, it wasn't like she could just go shopping. And there weren't many department stores in her very rural neck of the woods.
Eventually resigning myself to never actually owning her set, I decided to just buy a set for myself. All I knew from my mother was that the dishes were melamine dishes from a company called Melmac. So, I set out to find them. And I learned that my mother was half right. The company that made the melamine dishes was actually named Kenro, one of the great melamine manufacturers that outlived most. One may argue it was their timing or their keen ways of marketing and management that sustained them during economic change.
Kenro was named for its owners and inventors, Kenneth Welch (president) and Roger Sacia (vice president). Their first plant, in Freedonia, WI at 200 Industrial Drive (established in 1953), turned out 24 hours-worth of plastic products, and 2 million dollars in annual sales by 1958. The company was so overwhelmed, a second location in Galesville, WI was in swing by the end of 1958, set to open in February 1959. By 1959 a lot of earlier plastics companies were on their way out due to rising production costs and a general lack of love for melamine by consumers. Kenro's successful lines were Holiday by Kenro, Debonaire Melmac, and various kitchen plastics. Granny's dishes were the speckled Holiday by Kenro line, specifically red, turquoise, yellow, and white.
Kenneth and Roger decided to patent their technique for METHOD AND COMPOSITION FOR THE PRODUCTION OF SPECKLED PLASTIC WARE on April 6, 1954. This patent would technically prove them being "first to patent the speckled ware" although they weren't exactly first to invent it. This diagram is the patent for the set's sugar bowl, considered futuristic in its day. I personally own several of the sugar bowls and give them out as host or housewarming gifts.
Identifying Kenro items is easy since most items are clearly marked on the bottom. What may be confusing is dating. Some will list patent numbers on them, and some will say patent pending. The patent pending is obviously older and scarcer because the company had applied for a patent, which wasn't granted for the items before production began. Later items show the original patent which does not necessarily mean they were produced on that date of the patent, but is simply referring to their original patent. You will see script and print backstamps for Kenro.
So recently, after several years of scouring Etsy, eBay, and just about every vintage retail shop in every city we've visited the last few years, not to mention the numerous times I made a bid on eBay only to lose out at the last minute, I was FINALLY able to purchase a large set of Kenro Holiday dishes for my very own. They are instantly among my personal treasures. They aren't Granny's, but they remind me of her.
When the dishes arrived, I was struck by the similarity between the Kenro Holiday line and the Biobu line The Chopping Block currently carries. The colors are strikingly similar. Both lines are dishwasher safe. However, where the Kenro melamine dishes are made of plastic, the Biobu line is eco-friendly and is made with bamboo and cork – both renewable natural resources.
Biobu is just a really cool, modern upgrade to my beloved Kenro line. If it were not for the sentimental attachment to the melamine, the Biobu line would be in my cabinets as we speak.
I’m still not completely sure if these will be everyday dishes, used for special occasions, or never used at all. They’re plastic, after all, and the sheen has long-since been washed off of them. They are dull and a little scratched here and there, but I am in love with them.
I do plan on adding to the collection - not insanely, just a piece here and there as I find it. So much of the Kenro Holiday dinnerware was made that it's hard to know what all is out there and available. I’ve searched for an inventory list of some kind to let me know what pieces were initially created. But going forward, I'll just buy what I like when I see it.
And as for now, I'm just going to sit at the dining room table and enjoy the view.
Do you have any Kenro dishes in your family? I'd love to hear your stories in the comments!