Last summer, I cleaned out the house where my Grandma lived for 60 years.
Every nook and cranny was filled with something — papers, mugs, old photographs, knickknacks, furniture. There were also two complete sets of Johann Haviland china, from plates and platters to an ornate coffee pot.
What to do with all these fancy dishes?
The reasons not to keep Grandma’s china were many. My family is casual, not traditional. We live in a small home outside Boston and have moved four times in the last decade. Most importantly, I’m kind of a minimalist. I just don’t like having a lot of unnecessary things.
As it turns out, a lot of 30-somethings like me face this quandary.
“Multiple generations of china in one house (or, more specifically, basement) seems to be a common American condition,” said Adam Minter, who wrote the new “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019).
The book follows what happens to possessions once they’re donated. Minter was inspired to write it after dropping off his mother’s china at Goodwill. It was the last of his mother’s possessions that he and his sister dealt with.
“We put it off, mostly because we know my mother loved it,” Minter said. “But neither of us actually wanted it.”
The five enormous boxes I filled with Grandma’s blue garland china, which she purchased in the 1980s from the grocery store where she worked, sat unopened in my basement months after they arrived.
Acquiring a set of china isn’t the rite of passage it was decades ago. Some people still collect it, but nowadays it might not even end up on a couple’s wedding registry.
“More and more younger people don’t see the need to use their space for things that are ceremonial,” said Cecilia Jones, a personal organizer and productivity coach in Silver Spring, Md.
Neda Ghaffari , a 37-year-old San Francisco doctor who married last summer, opted to register for modern dinnerware she could use daily or for entertaining. China feels outdated, Ghaffari said, and difficult to maintain, as it normally has to be hand-washed.
“We didn’t register for china because we live in a relatively small condo in San Francisco and generally only entertain small groups at a time,” she said. “We also have limited storage space in our kitchen.”
Moving more frequently and living in tight quarters means people are less likely to accumulate things.
Deidre Bryant, a 32-year-old teacher from Aurora, Colo., registered for off-white plates from Crate and Barrel ahead of her 2017 wedding. As for china, “the thought didn’t even cross my mind,” she said.
For Maya Brook, a 39-year-old working mother in the Denver area, china just seemed impractical.
“I have three young boys, and the thought of having a bunch of super delicate china in my home just sounds stressful, and like more unneeded clutter,” she said.
Brook said that if she inherited a loved one’s china, she would probably keep a piece or two to hold on to history and memories.
Many people are donating china sets or selling them online. China is a mainstay at garage sales, secondhand stores or flea markets.
Style has changed, but so have demographics, Minter explained.
“Two very affluent generations, the ‘Greatest Generation’ and the boomers, that acquired stuff at historically high rates are now downsizing and dying,” Minter said. “So that’s creating a surplus of all kinds of secondhand stuff, heirlooms and otherwise.”
In the last few years, Beverly Solomon has been scooping up antique china sets for her Dallas-based business, Beverly Solomon Design, which provides interior design services to restaurants and other businesses.
“I’ll find boxes of beautiful sets for next to nothing,” Solomon said. “It’s quite amazing.”
What to do if you inherit
The two organizers with whom I spoke said that what I did with Grandma’s china would depend on my priorities and values. For instance, is it important to me to keep the sets together? It’s not. Do I want to save a set for each of my children? I don’t.
“If it sits in the basement and gathers dust, it isn’t honoring your grandmother,” Jones said. “The question becomes how to keep it alive.”
MJ Rosenthal, a Newton, Mass., personal organizer expressed a similar sentiment.
“If I’m saving something, I’ll keep it in the condition it deserves,” Rosenthal said. She noted there are specialized storage containers to hold china and protect it from things like mold or corrosion.
But I was not about to invest in a new china storage system. For me, it is a priority not to be encumbered by possessions I don’t need or use.
Yet the thought of not knowing where it ended up gave me pause.
Both Jones and Rosenthal suggested I keep a few pieces I’d use, and donate the rest.
“In letting it go and knowing you don’t have control of it, you are releasing it to the universe,” Jones said. “It served its purpose, it had its moment and meaning.”
With that bit of wisdom, I pulled out 12 dinner plates, a platter and a few bowls. We used them for our Thanksgiving dinner. The rest of the china is boxed and headed to Goodwill, where I hope another family can love it like we did.