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Advice & More January 2016

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Dish Night

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

Today we call these colored glass plates, bowls – everything from cups to the butter dish –  Depression Glass. At the time, it was just “free dishes for the ladies.”

“Dishes for the ladies,” read the small square ad for the feature playing at the “second-run” movie house. This theater was called the Bijou, and though this particular Bijou newspaper ad in 1940 was located in a New England factory town, we could count probably hundreds of Bijous in this country at that time.

Right next to it was an ad for the feature playing at the Majestic — again, we have more than our share of Majestics in this movie-going land as well. Below the western with Jack Holt and Harry Carey, and below the B-movie with Tex Ritter, it was noted that on the Friday matinee and evening showings there would be “Free Glass Ware for the Ladies.”

And so thousands of young brides-to-be acquired their dinner place settings by getting them free at the movies — one piece at a time.

Today we call these colored glass plates, bowls – everything from cups to the butter dish –  Depression Glass. At the time, it was just “free dishes for the ladies.” Depression glass was brightly colored, cheaply manufactured, with bubbles and seams and flaws in the heavy glass. The distortions and imperfections that made the glassware an inexpensive premium as an inducement to attracting patrons to movie theaters in the Great Depression, made them so easily tossed out when replaced in more affluent times in the 1950s. Incongruously, they are valuable collectors’ pieces today.

Also called carnival glass, these platters and cups and bowls came usually in pastel-tinted colors of pink and yellow, green and blue. Manufactured from around the middle of the 1920s to the around the end of World War II, they are most commonly identified with the theater-going experience of the Great Depression.

In 1944, this same Bijou theater published a bit larger ad with a photo announcing that starting Wednesday and Thursday in February “to our Lady Patrons — Fire-King Oven Glass.” The first piece in the set to be given away was a large glass pie plate. It was “the modern scientific baking ware, heat resisting, endorsed by Good Housekeeping.” This stuff was so special it wasn’t given away entirely free: a five-cents service charge was added.

“Attend the Bijou Theatre every week and obtain this beautiful set.”

Funny, but they forgot to mention what movie was playing. The pie plate stole the show.

It’s amazing to think that such inducements were thought needed to attract patrons. To be sure, these were the days where any good-sized city had several theaters downtown, but before television and computers, that’s where most people spent their time and their money. Though the Bjious and the Tivolis and the Majestics and the Capitols might have had to compete with each other, surely there was enough audience flocking their way every matinee and evening performance not to really need to pull them in with Dish Night, or Bank Night, or Win a Turkey night.

That would be a live turkey taken home on a leash. No, really. But that’s another story.

At least the pink soup bowl was easier to get home.  However, more than one cartoon and newsreel was interrupted with the sound of shattered glass as somebody dropped her prize.

“Awww!” went the audience, half in sympathy, half mirth.

No one seemed to have questioned the unfairness of bestowing these freebies only to female patrons, when there were plenty of men around who liked to eat off plates too. More than one bachelor at the time was likely eating his sandwich over the sink. Apparently, civilized dining was the territory of the ladies, the keepers of the green cake plates and amber punch bowls and cups.

It is astonishing that single pieces of these sets, cups or a plate, will sell for 8 or 10 or 15 dollars today – even much more than that, on eBay and from dealers in collectibles. That fact certainly might be astonishing to those long-ago theater managers who handed them out for free.

For many young and struggling families, the one-piece-at-a-time dinner set was the first dinnerware they owned. “Dish Night” was a distinctive part of the experience of going to the movies in the 1930s and 1940s.

Serving bowls, blue candy dishes, pink creamers and sugar bowls, with Art Deco geometric beveling along the sides were machine-made and churned out like just so many widgets. But today, even with their imperfections, they are beautiful, fanciful, color messengers of a time when hope came in a rainbow of glass, and the future could be built one day at a time — if one were very careful, and very frugal.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century, available online at Amazon, CreateSpace, and the author. Website:

Meet Jacqueline