I think of them as the Melmac years. That makes them sound like a lifetime — my lifetime — ago. In fact, only about twenty years have passed, and the whole thing began innocently enough with the purchase of an already ancient class C motorhome. It might be kinder to describe the vehicle as “retro”— its upholstery, curtains, and decorative exterior stripes all in the orange and brown so characteristic of its early 1970s vintage. Typical of its class and age, our GMC Aristocrat had a small gas-powered stovetop and oven, a small refrigerator, a small furnace, and a small bathroom with a shower hose. To bathe, you locked yourself into a space the size of a telephone booth, ran the plastic curtain across the door, plugged the rubber hose into the tap in the sink, and sat on the closed toilet lid. The water ran down through a drain in the floor into a tank under the chassis. We also had a little microwave oven, which, like the shower, was very rarely used.
We almost never stayed at sites with electric plug-ins, much less water hookups. And we didn’t travel far, despite our initial fantasies of long road trips down the West Coast. Our old motorhome struggled up even the mildest of hills, and so, after a couple of nail-biting excursions to the mountains, we restricted ourselves to exploring campgrounds within a three-hour radius of Edmonton. We did our best to turn the camper’s limitations into an only semi-ironic virtue, practising what we called “the way of the motorhome.” This involved a leisurely pace and a blind eye to the lineup of cars inevitably growing behind us. It was a kind of highway Zen, interrupted only by the sound of one of our dogs vomiting discreetly behind us. (Our dear old Jessie loved the road, but her stomach did not.)
Our routine never varied. We would find a spot in a campsite, making sure that our biggest window faced the best view. Next, we would level the motorhome. This was a complicated exercise that involved placing a can of Coke on the floor and then inching the Aristocrat backwards and forwards, sticking blocks of wood — essentially large shims — under one wheel or another, until the can stopped rolling. Finally, we unpacked. Out came the metal candlesticks and the wax candles. Out came the bottle of wine. Wherever we were, we were probably the classiest act in the whole campground, though, to be honest, we were often the only act to be found, since we much preferred off-season outings. Some of our best times involved wandering across a frozen lake with our dogs, peering into the holes that had been hand augered by ice fishermen, then coming back to the motorhome and cranking up the heat on its little furnace.
What our GMC lacked in oomph it made up for with a pretty good sound system, albeit one that was limited to playing cassettes. So, after walking the dogs, we’d slip in a tape, pour a glass of wine, light the candles (it gets dark early in the off-season), and set about making dinner — which we served on Melmac plates.
Motorhomes are rollicking affairs, and china and glassware don’t survive the road. In the beginning, we invested in a new set of inexpensive Canadian Tire melamine dishes in watermelon colours. They were fine, they were functional, but they were . . . unromantic. Then one day, wandering in a thrift shop, I saw a couple of old Melmac mugs, a couple of cereal bowls, a plate or two. Ooh, I thought, that’s more like it. And so it began: My Melmac obsession. My Melmac addiction. I began to haunt the thrift shops, but finding decent Melmac at Goodwill or Value Village or the Bissell Centre was pretty hit-and-miss. Luckily, or unluckily, those were the relatively early days of eBay. That online auctioneer — my accomplice, my enabler, my supplier.
I soon built up a sensible collection of roadworthy Melmac. Some of the items were familiar from my childhood: The sturdy Canadian-made GPL mugs with the art deco edges, which meant they were easily stackable. The matching salmon pink or mint green or pale blue cereal bowls and plates, all satisfyingly heavy. The insulated raffia-ware drinking glasses — lined with burlap beneath a clear plastic surface, the rims turned gently outward in sunshine colours of coral, yellow, and aqua — designed for chilled colas and lemonades on the patios of new suburban developments. Little Melmac juice glasses, standing up straight like child soldiers in the cupboard. Then it became necessary to have serving bowls, a variety of serving bowls, some of them covered, some shaped like a fat number 8 with a dividing line down the middle — carrots on one side, peas on the other. And why not a water jug? Two water jugs? Creamers and sugar bowls? Salt and pepper shakers? Butter dishes? A speckled green salad bowl set with built-in handles? Ice cream sundae cups? A tiered cake plate? Why not?
The packages arrived from all over the continent, and my Melmac collection grew quickly, very quickly. Soon it outgrew the motorhome.
In time, my taste became more discerning, and, without abandoning the GPL and raffia ware of my childhood, I began to concentrate my efforts on Melmac designed by Russel Wright, a well-respected mid-century industrial designer who focused on domestic environments. With his wife, Mary, Wright published the influential Guide to Easier Living in 1950. The book’s main argument was that — in a postwar, post-servant world —“formality is not necessary for beauty.”
Russel Wright was the William Morris of plastic and spun aluminum, leading the newly and increasingly well-off middle classes to a modern life that was family focused, casual, low maintenance, and unbreakable. While he is now perhaps best known for his line of American Modern ceramic dinnerware, it was his Residential line of Melmac dishes that won the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design Award in 1953.
Wright’s Melmac gems are unadorned, fluid, and organic; the bowls and creamers extend on one side to small, open, almost wavelike handles, while the oval dinner plates are framed by shallow indented tabs. They feel wonderful in the hand. Produced mostly in the lightly mottled colours of Lemon Ice, Turquoise, Salmon Red, and Sea Mist Gray, the line takes full advantage of one of Melmac’s primary qualities: its mouldability.
Melmac was, in fact, the brand name of the melamine resin produced by American Cyanamid. The company was founded in 1907 as a maker of fertilizer and eventually became one of the most diversified chemical manufacturers in the world, with a particular emphasis on pharmaceuticals. When various moulders, who actually made the sundry plastic products that later filled our motorhome, purchased their powdered melamine resin from American Cyanamid, they were permitted to use the trade name Melmac (the one that manufactured Wright’s line was the Northern Industrial Chemical Company). These outfits could also participate in widespread Melmac advertising campaigns that featured in department store displays and magazines like Life. “A new high in beauty . . . a new low in breakage.” “For Christmas Day and Every Day: Boontonware break-resistant Melmac dinnerware!” “You can be good and carefree . . . when it’s dinnerware molded of Melmac.”
When reading these tag lines today, it’s difficult not to think of DuPont’s famously hopeful slogan, “Better things for better living through chemistry.” Such optimism dominated the 1950s and 1960s in North America. Is this what attracted me to Melmac? A nostalgia for the postwar promise of easy living, casual elegance, carefree homes? The promise of unbreakability?““
The Melmac years were not easy ones for me. I was chairing a large and complex university department with seventy tenured or tenure-track faculty members, a graduate program with some 140 students, and an untold number of contract instructors. I had a supportive dean for the first year of my appointment and an antagonistic one for the remainder; he and his associate dean carried an animus toward the study of literature, in general, and my department, in particular. In spite of that, my colleagues and I accomplished a lot: we concluded a complete overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum and a highly successful external review of the graduate program; we made over a dozen new hires; and we effected a strategic reduction in the teaching load to bring us in line with our peers in the social sciences. It was stressful. Some of my decisions and assessments cost me friendships. The workload was crushing. At home, I was a half-time stepmother to a middle schooler. She was an uncommonly easy child — cheerful, smart, outgoing. But the week-on, week-off zigzagginess of it all — accommodating her vegetarian diet, preparing school lunches, keeping track of laundry and schedules — was . . . well, zigzaggy. My immune system is normally robust, but I had never been so sick so often as I was during those years. I was not unbreakable.
I guess this might be the time to confess that the Melmac years overlapped with the Occupied Japan years. Not all of the packages arriving from all over the continent contained Melmac. Some contained small figurines, cheaply produced and schmaltzy. Scottie dogs wearing tams and smoking pipes, mallard ducks flying across the wall, cowboys strumming guitars or carrying lassos, tiny planters shaped like carts drawn by mules: these little trinkets were produced between 1945 and 1952, when Japan was under the Allied occupation led by General Douglas MacArthur. As part of the economic recovery plan, munitions factories were repurposed, though the goods they produced for overseas markets had to be stamped with “Made in Occupied Japan” on their base.
I can, with a straight face, justify the Melmac obsession through an appeal to mid-century aesthetics. But the Occupied Japan obsession — what was that all about? On the one hand, both Melmac and Occupied Japan figurines are mass-manufactured goods of the immediate postwar era. On the other hand, they are at opposite ends of the industrial design spectrum. One is sleek, practical, innovative; the other is derivative, intended only for shallow display. Was I identifying with Japan, constrained to produce sentimental ephemera for distant markets? Writing long reports for external review committees or even detailed annual assessments of seventy colleagues sometimes felt like that. Or was it something about my childhood: those memories of standing on tiptoe in the five-and-dime store, dreaming of buying a little porcelain lady for my mother for Christmas? Or visiting great-aunts and breathing in the smell of doilies and lavender water and admiring the fancy figurines on coffee tables and bureaus?
In his 2008 book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the physician Gabor Maté describes his collecting classical music CDs as an addiction. It is, of course, a controversial claim, but he maintains it seriously. His obsession, he says, meets the criteria: it is compulsive; he has little control over his behaviour, even heading to the music store in the middle of a patient’s labour; he relapses in spite of the harm it does to his bank account and his marriage; and he experiences intense craving when he is unable to indulge his passion. By these criteria, I admit, mine was not actually an addiction. Nonetheless, by the time the Melmac years came to a natural end, there were a half-dozen big tubs of pieces in the basement, along with a couple of boxes of Occupied Japan figurines. When we packed up and sold the house, I did feel a little pang as we carted evidence of that period off to the neighbourhood charity shop — most of the evidence, anyway. As I type this, I look up to admire the succulent — a little zebra plant — growing in a pot shaped like a black Scottie. And, especially when outdoor entertaining season rolls around, I am glad I kept the turquoise Russel Wright dinnerware.