Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Detroit Historical Museum and Dish Night

After my very successful research trip to the Detroit Public Library, I went across the street to the Detroit Historical Museum. The museum was offering free admission last weekend as an enticement to get people to come see their six new exhibits. Of the new exhibits the one I was most interested in was the one about Detroit's building boom in the 1920s. The decade from 1920 to 1929 is known as Detroit's "Golden Age". It was an exciting time to be in Detroit. Every year the population grew in leaps and bounds. People needed houses, new businesses needed office space, and the transportation industry was booming.

The 1920s building exhibit was smaller than I expected it to be but it was still packed full of photos and items of interest from that era. So much of Detroit was born in that time, architecturally speaking. The Ambassador Bridge was completed in 1929, followed shortly thereafter by the Detroit-Windsor tunnel in November of 1930. Theaters, hotels, hospitals… the city grew rapidly. Much of it is documented in this exhibit. Worth a visit.

My favorite exhibit at the museum is titled Detroit: The "Reel Story". It's a collection of memorabilia from Detroit's old movie palaces and theaters. I enjoyed seeing old photographs of these movie houses in their heyday as well as marquee signs, old movie posters, ushers' jackets, and more. As I was making my way through the exhibit I came upon a collection of dishes. I wondered what that was about. Did they use to serve meals at the movie houses? I'd never heard of such a thing. It wasn't until I sat down to watch the continuously running movie clip that told the story of the old movie houses that I learned about " dish night".

Evidently, back in the 1930s and 40s, when the economy was still struggling through the Great Depression and the pre World War II years, some movie theaters tried a marketing idea to bring more patrons in to see their movies. Once a week they held a "dish night" where each single lady in attendance at the movie was given a free piece of dinnerware. One week it might be a dinner plate, the next week a soup bowl, another week it might be a cup and saucer. Times were tough back then and ladies treasured these pieces of dinnerware.

This got me thinking about the dinnerware I recently inherited after my mother died. My mother's "good" dinnerware isn't very good. As I unwrapped it a few weeks ago I got to wondering how she ended up with it. Given that my mother's family was pretty well off, I would have expected her to have received some nice dinnerware as a wedding gift when she was married in 1944. But her dinnerware would best be described as poor quality or "seconds". Before seeing the exhibit at the museum I thought perhaps the reason she had the dinnerware she had was because she was married during World War Two. There certainly wouldn't have been much in the way of fancy imported dinnerware from Europe making its way to the U.S in those days. So it made sense that she would have dinnerware stamped "made in USA" and not being first quality. After learning about " dish night" however, I began to wonder if maybe her dinnerware came from a movie house!

In addition to my mother's "complete" set of dinnerware, there were also a few odd pieces of dinnerware I inherited. They have no stamp on the back indicating where they were made. They match each other but not the complete set. Perhaps they came from a movie theater?
I finished touring the museum by strolling through the basement and visiting an exhibit I always enjoy, " The Old Streets Of Detroit". The replica buildings and cobblestone streets are the closest I'll ever get to walking the streets of Detroit in the old days. I always enjoy looking in the old store windows at the clothing and household items of yesteryear. But this time when I looked in the window at Kresge's five and dime store I noticed something I never noticed before. There in the window display were the odd pieces of my mother's dinnerware! This was just too weird.

It makes sense that the same dinnerware that was handed out for free in the movie theater would be the type sold at the five and dime store. But it was still kind of a shock to see it there in the store window. I was very excited and began wondering how I could verify if in fact this dinnerware was given out at movie theaters. It didn't match the dishes on display in the "Reel Story" exhibit but then those might have been samples of the type of dinnerware given out but not the actual dishes.

First resource: ask family! I'll tell you more about my conversation with my sister in law on this subject tomorrow. I'm very curious about "dish night". I did some searching on the Internet but didn't come up with much information. A few people had written up their remembrances of those days but I couldn't find any actual photos of dishes given out on "dish night". If anyone reading this has information about or samples of dishes from "dish night", please leave a comment. I would really like to learn more about it!