Doing the Dishes: Institutional Ceramics from the Service Road Collection

Doing the Dishes: Institutional Ceramics from the Service Road Collection

Construction along Service Road in 2020 found a mid-20th-century midden. The artifacts found were associated with the history of temporary post-World War II student housing on Michigan State’s campus. After the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, or the GI Bill, became law, college enrollment increased in the United States (Dressel 1987). This required more housing on campus, especially for married students, many of whom had families (Offices of Board of Trustees and President 1944).

During the summer of 2021, I worked on the Campus Archaeology summer crew. On rainy days, we worked in the lab, cleaning and cataloging materials from Service Road. While cataloging, we noticed a lot of underglaze, decal-decorated institutional-ware ceramics with similar patterns. By the end of the summer, we identified four distinct decorative patterns, which we named MSU Green Band, Esquire, Mobile, and Cross Stitch. These would have been used in dining halls, and their decorative styles allowed us to learn more about the places on campus where these ceramics would have been used. Additionally, we were able to find distinct dates for the ceramics based on the maker’s marks and date codes, when present. Date codes allow for a level of granularity in our analyses that is rare with other kinds of artifacts, providing a means to trace shifting patterns of institutional requisition.

Maker's mark with red arrow pointing to the date code.
Ceramic plate with the Shenango China Company maker’s mark. The date code is indicated by the red arrow.

MSU Green Band

The MSU Green Band design is named for the single green line just below the rim. Additionally, on some vessels the institution’s seal is located just below the green band. This pattern was used on dining hall dishes for much of the 20th century. Based on our preliminary analyses, it appears this design may have been gradually replaced by the Esquire pattern.

Two versions of the MSU Green Band design are pictured. As Michigan State shifted from College to University in 1955; the MSU Green Band design shifted as well, which can be seen reflected in the two distinct seals pictured in the examples provided above. MSU seems to have ordered this design from multiple companies, and the examples in the Service Road collection were produced by either the Shenango China Company or the Mayer China Company. MSU Green Brand was the most enduring ceramic style in the Service Road collection, with maker’s marks indicating a date range of 1950 to 1963. The MSU Green Band design is the most represented of the four ceramic types, comprising the majority of ceramics recovered from the site.


Mug with a broken handle, the Esquire design runs below the rim.
Mug with a broken handle, the Esquire design runs below the rim.

A second decorative pattern identified in the Service Road collection has been named ‘MSU Esquire’. The Esquire pattern takes its name from a similar Shenango China design called “Esquire.” Relative to the original Shenango design, the vessels recovered from the Service Road landfill had rectangular spiral designs rather than squares, and the laurels extend along longer stretches of the design (Replacements 2021). It seems likely that MSU commissioned a distinct version of the Esquire pattern for the university, though we have not been able to locate records to corroborate this. Our preliminary analyses suggest this design may have gradually replaced the MSU Green Band design.


Cup with the Mobile design running from rim to the center of the body.
Cup with the Mobile design running from rim to the center of the body.

The Mobile design consists of a fading grey band along the rim and a singular black and grey baby “mobile” motif that then extends from the rim to the larger undecorated portion of the vessel. The Shenango China Company created these ceramics, and the dates for this vessel range from 1951 to 1961. This pattern was created specifically for MSU’s new Kellogg Center for Continuing Education (Pratt 2003:116).

Cross Stitch

Cup with the Cross-Stitch design running below the rim.
Cup with the Cross-Stitch design running below the rim.

The last design found was Cross Stitch (Arthus 1955). The pattern consists of squares arranged in a floral motif, resembling traditional cross-stitching patterns. The stems and leaves are green, with blue and red alternating flowers; these designs run below the rim. The Cross Stitch design had Shenango and Mayer China maker’s marks. Compared to other designs discussed here, we recovered substantially fewer examples of the cross-stitch pattern. The few finely-dateable examples of this pattern in the Service Road collection were produced between 1958 and 1959, though we know from the archival photo below that use of this pattern at the university extends back to at least 1948.

Women being served on Cross-Stitch design ceramics, which are circled in red.
Women being served on Cross-Stitch design ceramics, which are circled in red. Dated January 15th, 1948. Photo courtesy: MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

This archival photograph of dining service at Landon Hall features this pattern, suggesting that it was used in women’s dining halls alongside other patterns like the MSU Green Band (also pictured). Given this photographic evidence and gendered imagery incorporated into the design, this pattern may have been exclusive to women’s dining halls (Michigan State University 1960; UAHC 2021).

Final thoughts

The ceramics found in the Service Road midden were used in several distinct areas of campus, ranging from dining halls to the Kellogg Center. The abundance of complete and near-complete dishes in the Service Road collection allowed us to begin serializing ceramics used on campus in the mid-twentieth century. Being able to identify different ceramic designs utilized across MSU’s campus supports future CAP research efforts, as we now have a better sense of when and where on campus they were utilized.


Arthus, Gerard (1930) Mayer China: Illustrated Book of Decorations, No. 10. Mayer China Company, Beaver Falls, PA.

Dressel, Paul (1987). College to University: The Hannah Years at Michigan State, 1935-1969. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI.

Michigan State University (1960) “The Helot: Student Handbook”, Michigan State University Publications, East Lansing, Michigan. Available online,, accessed December 23, 2021.

Offices of Board of Trustees and President (1944) Meeting Minutes, December 21, 1944. UA 1. University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Pratt, Michael E. 2003. Mid-Century Modern Dinnerware: A Pictorial Guide: Red Wing to Winfield. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Pub.

Replacements (2021) “Esquire”, Webpage, Replacements Ltd., accessed November 4, 2021

University Archives and Historical Collections [UAHC] (2012) “Quonset Village”, blog, Archives @ MSU, July 9, 2012., accessed December 29, 2021.

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