Soup plates have been an essential part of dining traditions for centuries. From the basic wooden trenchers of medieval Europe to the finely crafted porcelain and silver designs favored by royalty, soup plates have evolved remarkably.
Trade, cultural exchanges, and technological progress across the globe have influenced them. While soup itself has been a staple dish for thousands of years, the vessels used to consume it have been equally impacted by the era and region.
This blog post takes you on a journey through the rich history of soup plate design from the Middle Ages to the present day. You'll have a newfound appreciation for this humble yet vital part of the dining culture by the end. Read on!
Medieval Europe – History of Soup Plates
In medieval Europe, soup was a staple dish consumed daily by all classes. The wealthy ate soups made with meat and vegetables, while peasants ate simpler soups. Trenchers, circular hollowed-out bowls made of bread, were used by all to soak up liquids.
Wooden bowls were also common, especially for poorer families. Pewter alloy became more prominent for making plates and tankards in the 14th century, though still too expensive for most.
As the soup was essential to the medieval diet, unique 'sop bowls' were created with a rounded hollow to make it easier to scoop soup with fingers or a spoon. Soup was a central part of meals and culture during medieval times, so much so that specific tableware was designed for consumption.
The Rise of Pewter
Pewter is an alloy of tin and copper that became an affordable alternative to silver for making plates, bowls, and other tableware during medieval times. Though used since the Roman and Egyptian eras, pewter grew popular in 14th-century Europe due to the increased availability of tin.
While costly, pewter was less expensive than precious metals, allowing middle-class families to own matching tableware sets. Pewter soup plates were valued for their durability and silvery luster. As pewter resists cracking and breaking, plates and bowls could sustain repeated heating and cooling for serving foods like soup.
Pewter was seen as a practical yet dignified material for dining. Some pewter soup plates featured engraved decorations for a more ornate appearance. Introducing pewter at the dinner table allowed families to invest in a quality set of matching plates and bowls at a relatively affordable price.
Glazed & Painted Designs in Asia
While European soup plates focused on shape and material, Asian soup bowls emphasized decorative flourishes. In China and Japan, colorful glazes and hand-painted designs were used to create ornate works of art bowls.
Each dynasty and region developed distinct styles. Under the Song dynasty, ceramic glazes were perfected, resulting in greens and browns. Ming dynasty bowls often featured blue and white designs. Edo-period Japanese Imari ware was known for vibrant orange and red hues.
Asian soup bowls incorporated symbolic imagery like seasonal flowers, natural landscapes, and spiritual symbols conveying a philosophical meaning. The exteriors of Chinese soup bowls were sometimes left undecorated, with intricate designs only visible inside the rim where soup was consumed.
Made of ceramic, lacquer, or wood, spoons came in various shapes tailored to specific soups. Like the bowls, spoons were painstakingly decorated. For Asian cultures, dining was far more than just sustenance. It was a sensory and spiritual experience.
The Influence of Queens and Kings
As standards of living improved in the 16th and 17th centuries, the nobility had the means and motivation to influence styles of dining that impressed others. Rules of etiquette emerged, including proper utensils and table settings for each dish.
Soups became more elaborate, served in tureens, and consumed from specialized soup plates. In the lavish court of Louis XIV, service a la Francaise was introduced, where many dishes were served at once.
This new serving style popularized a range of plates and bowls for individual portions, including those for soup. Gilded porcelain and silver soup plates were used for special palace banquets.
Elaborate soup plates reflected the occasion's grandeur and the host's generosity. Royal families set trends that nobles emulated. Queen Elizabeth received exotic porcelains from merchant ships, which sparked porcelain's popularity.
Charles II brought the 'sop bowl' to England. Marie Antoinette's elaborate table settings inspired new decor. Tsar Peter the Great taxed nobles for the number of copper kettles they owned to fund wars, so the Russian elite boasted silver soup tureens and plates.
20th Century Casualization
The early 20th century brought major upheavals to everyday life, including dining habits. Traditional mealtimes and etiquette gave way to quicker, less formal routines. Elaborate table settings were eschewed for casual, functional wares.
These cultural shifts drove the design and production of new soup vessels for modern living. Standardized, mass-produced soup/cereal bowls emerged, made from stoneware, earthenware, and Pyrex glass.
Bowls in modernist styles matched the pared-down forms of homes and kitchens. Some featured bright glazes and patterns influenced by the postwar optimism of the 1950s. Size, stackability, and affordability were vital attributes.
New manufacturing enabled more innovative forms. Electric slow cookers came with matching inserts for serving at the table. The iconic Cafetiere or 'French press' brewed and served coffee with flair. Modern fondue sets and ramekins enabled casual dining with friends.
While soup had been an upper-class dish for centuries, it became popular for people of all walks of life in the 20th century. Canned soups fed soldiers and nourished homemakers between world wars. New casual and electric vessels meant hot soup could be made quickly and served when needed.
Modern 21st Century Soup Plates
In the 21st century, stoneware and porcelain remain popular materials for soup plates and bowls. Porcelain is valued for its artisanal, handcrafted quality and natural look. Porcelain makers produce soup plates with an earthy, organic style.
For example, brands like MALACASA are famous for casual porcelain soup bowls decorated in whimsical patterns. Fine porcelain soup plates offer a sleek, polished appearance for more formal dining.
White porcelain soup plates showcase the translucent quality of the material. MALACASA's porcelain plates create minimalist dishes and those hand-painted in traditional white designs.
Soup plates have a remarkable history, from crude trenchers to lavishly gilded wares to sleek modern designs. For centuries, they have been more than mere serving dishes, reflecting the era's cultural norms, economic factors, values, and lifestyle.
The vessels used to eat such a staple food as soup are a window into dining habits across all classes over time. Check out MALACASA's premium-quality soup plates with excellent durability, stylishness, and designs.