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Sardine boxes were special dishes to hold special food

Jul. 14, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Sardine boxes made of porcelain, pewter and silver are interesting fare to collect. Made specifically as a serving piece to hold sardines for the dinner table, they were quite the status symbol for the Victorians. Remember those Victorians had a fork or plate for every conceivable food but especially for expensive foods.

We often think of sardines as lunch box food to be served with crackers, which has been the case for almost 200 years. But, think again. Sardines have gone through cycles from being relatively inexpensive to quite the gourmet treat. Part of this is due to an area being fished-out which causes temporary shortages and part of it is to people acquiring a special taste for sardines from particular areas.

Sardines have a following much like fine wines. Some say, like wine, a well-aged delicate can of sardines is cuisine for the Gods. For example, there are those who collect specially canned sardines, shelve them, turn the cans occasionally and then, just like a bottle of expensive wine, let them age to perfection. Some of these sardines are kept for 10 to 20 years before serving - one author noted a tasting of 40-year aged sardines that he thought to be excellent. It would be interesting to know the expiration date on the side of that can.

To present food of such status, a special dish and fork were created to house and serve them. Often the dish will have a lid to keep the fish moist until served. If it is a metal dish such as silver or pewter, there will probably be an interior dish to hold the fish. Most dishes will probably have a rendition of mini-fish on the lid. Sometimes it will serve as a handle, and sometimes it will just have decorative purposes.

Majolica presents several sardine dishes, many by noted 19th Century designer George Jones. Majolica is the Italian earthenware with an opaque tin glaze that often comes in some very festive whimsical designs. Other important potters of the day also had their versions of the sardine dish and that includes such names as Wedgewood and Limoges to name a few.

Prices for these little gems can sift above a $1,000 or fall to below $100. Much depends on condition, brand and rarity of an individual box. Majolica sardine dishes particularly those traced to Jones bring very hefty prices.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.