Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Red Barn Plates

The huts we saw that day were far more rusted and rickety
It started on a motorcycle trip to upstate New York.  We weren't married yet and it was in either Poughkeepsie or Peekskill that I found the mother lode of junk. Three Quonset huts stacked to the rim with stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Open steel shelving, plastic etageres, bookcases lined up row by row with barely space to walk between, loaded down with pots and pans, glasses and knick-knacks, books and batteries, coffeepots, crockpots, boxes of cutlery, postcards, costume jewelry and just about any other thing you could think of.  Shelf after shelf after shelf, bowed by the weight of all those glorious "one-man's-trash-is-another-man's-treasure" objects.

It was then I spotted the first plate.  Even though blue isn't my color, there it was a white plate with a red barn on a mostly blue background.  I sifted through the stack of dishes and all together there were five plates, each representing a different month, each with a different red barn.  Even though barns aren't my thing they were very compelling.  They were heavy china, gold-rimmed, and I really considered getting them but they were two or three dollars each and after all, we were on a motorcycle and Manhattan was quite a ride away. And it was cold.  We had to get back on the road to be where we were going before dark, so I passed them up.  I left the Quonset hut — too soon and empty-handed.  Still, the whole ride back I marveled at this magnificent triple-mounded mausoleum of junk we'd only skimmed and I thought I'd have to go back there one day and just really DIG in.

And then it was my birthday — and my Chris surprised me with four of the plates!

March tilling the soil
July baling the hay

September  surveying the land
December bringing in the tree
They were beautiful! He'd driven back up on his motorcycle and bought me those plates...though I immediately asked, "Where's the fifth?"

"What?" he asked.
"The fifth plate — there were five plates."
"No there were only four."
"You left the other one behind."
"NO! There were only four!"
"Well, maybe someone bought the other one or moved it to another stack where you didn't look, but there were five." [How ungrateful of me!]
For years I mourned that missing plate.

The plates were marked 
The Red Barn, Service Plates, designed by Dale Nichols B. Altman & Co. New York.
made by Adams China in England,  First Edition limited to six hundred sets
I began trying to find out more about my plates. I knew about Altman's because I used to occasionally shop in their flagship store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York, with my mom.  Then in 1989, B. Altman & Company — which started in 1865 — went into bankruptcy and closedafter 124 years in business.  It was 1989, the year my children were born.
Then I researched regional artist Dale Nichols (1904-1995) who had a penchant for painting barns— stark, realistic barns of his Nebraska youth. And after calling Altman's and asking to speak to the oldest employee in the china dept, spoke to a gentleman who recalled that these plates were sold as decorative plates (not meant to eat on) in the 40s. 

Over the years, a plate at a time, slowly the red barn plates appeared for Valentine's, Christmas, Mother's Day and then the bonanza when the last five all were gifted at once.
August  with its magnificent tree
May  — with the hay crop in orderly rows
June with cattle grazing and dog

October — with its beautiful striped barn and...

January with its gorgeous snow and star

I love my plates, these and many others I've collected over the years.  They bring me comfort and beauty and peace — and always remind me how much my husband loves me.

And — tell me, what do you collect?


  1. I'd love to spend a day (or 3) at Poughkeepsie or Peekskill myself. I mostly collect pottery, furniture and fabrics from thrift places.

  2. I am interested to see that your plates are coloured. I have four plates of the original six hundred sets, or so it says on the back of the plates, but mine are all blue as in the willow pattern design. Were some sets blue or are my plates copies?

    1. Gee I wish I knew, I have only seen plates like mine...I did a Google images search for "the red barn plates" and didn't see what you described...but maybe you can check it out...good luck!

    2. Hi...I have only one plate and thought you would like to know that mine is all blue and says the edition of 600 sets!! I was researching this plate when I saw your reply and have not found any other reference at all, in the US or here in England

    3. Hi Pauline....I don't know if you'll get this reply but I'm's a link with something about those wonderful plates!

  3. Crazy about these plates!
    I was just given 6 as a gift and ordered three more online.
    Have you ever used yours for dining?

    1. CONGRATULATIONS! I love them as well but have never eaten off them! They're hanging on the wall in my dining room, around the wide opening to the living order! Which three are you missing?
      PS heck out my other set in The American Scene post...

    2. HI Denise...I hope you get this! My parents were given this set for their wedding in 1941. mom was from PA and Dad NY. Every so often Mom would take them out and we'd eat Christmas dinner on them. Most of my life they lived in her buffet. As she got older, she started hanging them in order along the wall. Mom and Dad have passed and now the plates are mine. i am missing February and have periodically searched and searched to replace it. if you have any tips...please pass them on. Oh...and mine don't say "limited edition".

    3. BETH..I hope you get this message's February on eBay...good luck it's a great story!

  4. Hi
    I've just been given 2 of these plates by my mom-in-law - I'm in England.
    My plates are different to yours as instead of the smooth edge and gold rim, my border is embossed with leaves. I've got March Nd August and the back states that they are First Edition Limited to 600 sets. I think they might have been test items as hand painted in red on them both it says Shop Pattern 5.5.1945.
    Do you or any other of the commentators on this page know anything more about these plates?
    Thanks, Clare Rowley

    1. Hi Clare...I've never seen the ones you have! I don't know more than I wrote here but a painting of Dale Nichols entitled After the Hunt hangs in the Lauder wing of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC...