State Plates

A Special Exhibition by The International Museum of Dinnerware Design
at Gifts of Art Gallery, Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan Taubman Health Center North 3D Gallery, 1500 Medical Center Drive, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109
September 5 – December 1, 2023, 8 am – 8 pm | 734.936.ARTS (2787)

Link to the State Plates on-line gallery

State Plates – Introduction

One might wonder how a couple collected the 50 earthenware State Plates in this exhibition. Did they visit all 50 states, acquiring the plates one state at a time?  Robert E. and Mary T. Wortman were high school sweethearts who lived in Nebraska, were together for 61 years, worked hard their whole lives, raised twelve children, and traveled later in life in connection with Mrs. Wortman’s volunteering on her local church council, which provided “quite a bit of travel and adventure.” It was then that they began collecting these commemorative plates manufactured mostly in the 1940s by Vernon Kilns in California. They collected these as they found them until they had over 400 plates. There are many variations for each state, including shapes, colors, and design elements. Many have descriptive commentary about the state on the back of the plate. The International Museum of Dinnerware Design is pleased to share the joy of these two avid collectors through this exhibition. While looking at the plates, and searching for your own home state plate, note the illustrations of historic places and notable people of interest based on the views of mid-century Americans. 

Vernon Kilns State Plates

The Story of State Plates from the Wortman Family
Robert E. and Mary K. Wortman, Donors

Mom and dad were lifelong residents of Hall County, Nebraska primarily in the Wood River area. They were high school sweethearts and were married in Norman, Oklahoma where dad was in the Navy and was preparing to ship overseas.

After the service, Dad returned to the area and farmed with his family for a while but took off- the-farm employment after a while because the farm wouldn’t support them all. He worked at the Army Ammunition Plants in Hastings, Nebraska, and Grand Island, Nebraska for many years and finished out his employment career at the Veterans Hospital in Grand Island for quite a number of years. Mom was a homemaker for most of the years of their marriage. When Dad left the VA hospital, Mom went to work as a volunteer for St. Francis Hospital in Grand Island for many years amassing over 20,000 volunteer hours in the Oncology Unit.

Over the years, the folks managed 12 children and lived 61 years on an acreage they purchased early in the marriage. Dad never really made much money at his job and we were lucky that the 7 acre place they lived on supported two large gardens and three cows, a bull, and numerous goats, cats, ducks, and geese.

The folks did not get much opportunity to travel in the first forty or so years of their time together, but as the children grew up and graduated school and moved on to college, Mom became active in the Church, spending many years on the Diocesan council, which provided quite a bit of travel and adventure. In the latter years, Dad would go along and they would drive whenever they could. Being avid antique collectors, they would frequent the antique shops wherever they went. I’m not sure when they decided to collect Vernon Kiln plates, but they looked for ones they did not have wherever they travelled.

Mom and Dad are both gone now, but they left a collection of over 400 Vernon Kilns plates for the family. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any collectors in the group and that is why we were able to offer you these VK state plates we brought to you. We were pleased to be able to donate the plates to you, and hope that they bring you many years of interest and joy. We would be overjoyed if you would be able to honor Mom and Dad whenever you display their plates.

Jerry Wortman
November 16, 2022 via email

A Brief History of State Plates

The history of collector plates isn’t unique to Vernon Kilns.  Even the history of collector plates featuring each state in the United States, isn’t unique to Vernon Kilns.  The general consensus is that the first truly collectible plate was Denmark’s Bing and Grondahl blue and white Christmas plate Behind the Frozen Window, issued in 1895, as the first known limited edition plate.

Among the earliest of the souvenir specialty plates featuring the U.S. states is The Arkansas Traveler issued in 1936 by Vernon Kilns, located just outside of Los Angeles, California. Vernon Kilns utilized many different plate shapes for these specialty plates, including Ultra, Melinda, San Fernando, Montecito and occasionally the San Marino. Between the 1930s and when Metlox acquired the company in 1958, hundreds of these specialty state plate designs were created.  They not only featured each state in the U.S., but also featured cities, monuments, universities, churches, and more.  These were souvenir plates and American travelers loved to collect them.

The plates were generally 10.5” in diameter, though other shapes included ashtrays, spoon holders, and miniature plates. The transfer ware designs were issued in maroon, blue or brown. Less common were green, black, and purple. Some multi-colored plates were “hand-painted” which meant they were printed and then the colors filled in. 

The backs of the Vernon Kilns state plates might have descriptive paragraphs, a state seal, or “by Vernon Kilns, U.S.A.” Some of the descriptive paragraphs, written in the 1940s or 1950s are cringe-worthy in retrospect. 

Vernon Kilns Alaska state plate designed by Orpha Klinker.

Some of the state plates designs issued by Vernon Kilns were comprised of illustrations by known designers.  One example on display in the exhibition is the Alaska state plate, designed by Orpha Klinker. (illustrate) Orpha Mae Klinker (American, 1891-1964) was known for her California plein air landscape paintings and etchings, as well as an illustrator and graphic designer. It is documented that starting in the 1930s she created more than 100 illustrated historical plate designs for Vernon Kilns.

While Vernon Kilns was the forerunner of manufacturing state plates, another notable contributor to the market, was the Homer Laughlin China Company, located in Newell, West Virginia. The HLC Company issued many state plates in various sizes and on their various shapes beginning in the 1950s, continuing into the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the Vernon Kilns plate, the HLC Company issues often have solid color borders or even gold trim and accents.

Manufacturing records regarding specialty issues such as state plates are scarce or lacking entirely. Perhaps that adds to the challenge for each collector making unique discoveries at every thrifting opportunity.

Catalogue of the Exhibition

Vernon Kilns, Vernon, California (1931-1958)
50 commemorative Vernon Kilns state plates, ca. late 1930s-1950s
earthenware, with decals, glazed
IMoDD 2022.126 Gift of the Estate of Mary T. Wortman