Why Vintage Melmac Dishes Are Mid-Century Classics

If you loved playing with your plastic tea sets as a kid, you'll be obsessed with vintage Melmac dishes.

Published April 17, 2023
Two empty plastic yellow melmac cups

By the 1950s, people had finally gotten tired of dealing with replacing broken plate after broken plate. The plastics age remedied the porcelain plates' cost and fragility problem, and one of the most memorable of the early plastic dinnerware types is Melmac. Vintage Melmac dishes are cheery in the way that mid-century modern products tend to be, and they're an awesome collectible for newbies with a small budget.

Melmac Dishes Were Colorful and Cheap Dinnerware Alternatives

Mixed Lot of Vintage Pastel Melmac Dishes and Cups

Melmac dishes are a mid-century modern designer's dream. They're beautifully colored in bright pastels and are child-proof thanks to the unique melamine plastics they were made out of. Every family could afford a set of Melmac dishes, making them a mass-produced phenomenon that you can find in thrift stores across America.

Despite being just as useful as other vintage dinnerware brands like Pyrex, Melmac dishes don't have the same cult following. While this is great for people trying to collect the perfect set for their neo-vintage kitchen, it doesn't always mean there's a big profit coming for people selling their old sets.

What Makes Melmac Dinnerware Special?

Melmac wasn't a brand of dinnerware like Corningware or Pyrex. Instead, it was the name for American Cyanamid's branded melamine powders that were molded into the iconic plastic dishware. Any manufacturer who bought the melamine powders from American Cyanamid could legally label their products 'Melmac.' Those that didn't use American Cyanamid powders skirted the issue by branding their dinnerware "made of Melmac" or something similar.

Melamine was also incredibly cheap to make, meaning that the dishes were super affordable, which was really important to continue bolstering the post-war consumer.

What Does Vintage Melmac Look Like?

1950's Melmac Aqua Dishes

Vintage Melmac dishes are pretty easy to pick up on thanks to their uninventive molds. These pieces look exactly like child playsets or cafeteria trays in the sense that they're sturdy, thick, and not flashy. Since there are so many different manufacturers who made Melmac dishes, it's hard to know every design off the top of your head. But these are some of the most popular brands.

  • Aztec
  • Branchell's Colorflyte
  • Boontonware
  • Brookpark
  • Texasware
  • Prolon
  • Royalon

How Valuable Is Vintage Melmac?

Stetson Melmac Melamine Dinnerware Set

On the whole, because they were manufactured in the millions and so many of them survive, Melmac dishes aren't worth a lot of money. You can occasionally find full sets of 50+ pieces selling for $100-$200, like this 80 piece Futura set that sold for $150 online. But most pieces are worth around $20-$50, depending on your piece(s) and how unique it is.

Because there's so much vintage Melmac on the market, the gavel prices are really dependent on people's individual interest. This is where you find iconic mid-century colors like avocado green and pale pink selling for more than neutral colors like brown.

Melmac was also primed for cartoon licensing, because the demand was high, the markup higher, and the cost to make them incredibly low. You can find loads of pieces bearing illustrations of 1950s/1960s cartoons on them. Yet, their popularity doesn't translate into higher prices. For example, this Disney Cinderella bowl and plate only sold for $12.95 on eBay.

Caution! Melmac Isn't Totally Perfect

Unfortunately, Melmac isn't without its faults. The early plastic isn't made to be microwaved (especially in modern high-voltage microwaves) and will burn when placed near high heat. So, if you find vintage Melmac in the thrift store with some browning, you might not be able to clean it up with a scrub and rinse.

Make Your Home a Mid-Century Paradise Using Melmac

Since Melmac is so cheap to get and immediately evokes a mid-century modern vibe, you shouldn't limit yourself to the number of pieces you bring home. But you probably only have so much room in kitchen cabinets. In that case, there are other ways you can use Melmac dishes to turn your house into a groovy paradise.

  • Use the small saucers as jewelry dishes. Give yourself a place to set your jewelry when you take it off.
  • Plant teeny plants in the plastic mugs. If your kids are trying to sprout baby bean plants, or you're germinating small flowers, you can use the plastic mugs instead of pots or planters.
  • Set up a few patterned pieces on some floating shelves. Turn the large, patterned dinner plates into decorative centerpieces and surround them with fresh flowers, vintage cross stitch art, vintage patches, and more.

Time Travel During Every Meal With Melmac Dishes

Melmac dishes have been around for 50+ years, and they're the perfect entry point for newbie dinnerware collectors. Work your way up to fine china by thrifting these cheap old plastic plates, cups, and bowls when you've got a handful of pocket change. Not only will you be able to use them for years to come, but they'll probably turn into the plates you pick up first when you're setting the table.

Why Vintage Melmac Dishes Are Mid-Century Classics