Over the holidays, you got a big surprise from your family: a gift of heirloom china. Or you killed time during the week between Christmas and New Year’s by going thrifting and found a great antique silverware set. Maybe you scouted the endless vintage listings on Facebook or Craigslist and gave into temptation simply because the prices were so cheap. But then you realized you have absolutely no idea how to take care of those treasures, and you’re tempted to leave your newly acquired items in the box or stick them in a cupboard.
Fear not. Lots of help is available.
Why you should use your nicest dishes
In her 2023 book Joie: A Parisian’s Guide to Celebrating the Good Life, Ajiri Aki offers multiple ideas for using everything from linen tea towels and tablecloths to silver serving pieces and all kinds of kitchen objects that are often only stored or displayed. Aki, an American living in Paris, sells these types of items on her website, Madame de la Maison.
In 2020, Aki published a post titled “Do Use The Good China,” which told how her mother spent a lifetime collecting a dinner service, but never used it because she was waiting for a special occasion. The headline became a metaphor for “living our best lives and sharing experiences and rituals that we find beautiful and that bring us moments of joy,” Aki writes in her book.
That definitely resonates with me. My first department store job was selling gifts and china, ranging from modest everyday stoneware to china patterns that cost hundreds of dollars per place setting. I was schooled since birth by my mother and aunt, from whom I inherited four sets of dinnerware and multiple patterns of sterling.
Here’s how to use all those wonderful things and not let them become dust catchers.
Don’t be afraid of breaking something
Be fearless in using your treasures. Thanks to aging baby boomers downsizing their homes, it’s easy to find replacements and additions to any commercially produced patterns. You can search eBay, Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, websites such as Replacements, and local resale shops. When I lived in New Orleans, I regularly scouted places such as The Occasional Wife, which also holds estate sales, and Consign, Consign. As an auction salesman once told me, “There’s always another one.”
How to care for fine china
Vintage china might seem delicate, but much of it is stronger than it looks, otherwise it wouldn’t have lasted this long to be handed down to you. Store plates with a piece of paper or a paper towel separating each piece in the stack (some china manufacturers sell liners that are cut to fit between each piece). If the pattern has a gold or silver rim, it will need to be gently hand-washed, because the trim can flake off in the dishwasher or with the use of abrasive scrubbers. But other fine china can go in the dishwasher on the delicate or shortest setting. To avoid cracks from temperature fluctuations, let china cool down before putting it away.
How to care for sterling silver
Most sterling silver can go in the dishwasher, but avoid using “high powered” detergents and make sure you dry it thoroughly as soon as possible after the cycle is complete. If you decide to hand-wash these pieces, make sure it is thoroughly rinsed. Keep an eye out for knives whose blades are attached to their handles, not all one piece. These should not go in the dishwasher, because their handles can come loose.
I happen to love polishing silver, as does my friend Liz Williams, the founder of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans, who hauls out all her tableware for holiday meals. My favorite polish comes from As You Like It, an online shop which sells a full line of silver cleaning products.
I wear kitchen gloves and use old washcloths to polish silver, and I keep a soft toothbrush handy to get at intricate designs. Again, use hot water to rinse off polish, then buff and dry it with a tea towel or much-used kitchen towel (the flatter kind, not the waffle variety). Silver polishing is satisfying work, and a fun activity with kids. The sparkling results might even encourage you to set a shiny table.
How to care for crystal glassware
If your crystal goblets and wine glasses have a thin rim, it’s better to hand-wash them, but sturdier glasses can go in the top rack of the dishwasher and cleaned on a gentle cycle. To store them in your cabinet, place glasses upright on their bases, not upside down on the rims. If you happen to chip one of your glasses, stop drinking from it, but don’t throw it out right away. Visit an antique store or an antiques market; there will often be a craftsman or dealer who is able to repair it. Alternatively, you can turn the chipped piece into a vase or fancy display piece.
Getting the most out of your serving pieces
Many china services and silver flatware sets come with big serving pieces, like tureens, gravy boats, and teapots. Think of all the items that line the shelves of the butler’s pantry in Downton Abbey, or the glittering array seen during formal dinners on The Gilded Age. Some of these irregular pieces can be a challenge to store, so it helps to deploy them as storage containers themselves. Place coffee and tea cups inside a serving bowl, for example, which is probably safer than stacking them. just try not to weigh down serving platters and cake plates by piling too much on top of them. For bigger pieces, some silver shops sell anti-tarnish bags and specialized storage wrappings.
Mix and match fine serving pieces with normal ones
There’s no need to haul out all the fancy stuff for every occasion. Instead, you can mix a few inherited items in with the stuff you use every day. For Christmas this year, I used my mother’s Wallace Grand Baroque silverware, but my own La Rochere drinking glasses and vintage Pyrex bowls. On other occasions, I’ve gotten out my Royal Doulton Arcadia china and paired it with plain chopsticks. Think of these items as guests at your table. That way, your mother can join you, even if you’re eating takeout.