The cabinet containing Chinese rose medallion porcelain stopped me on my way to the bar. Not caring who was around I released an audible you’re kidding that quickly morphed into an excited, though stunned, grin. It was another serendipitous moment, one triggered by my friend William. He recommended I stop by San Antonio’s Menger Hotel this week while attending a work-related conference. Though I too meandered many miles each evening alone along the impressive, if not slightly Disneylandish, Riverwalk Trail, I needed a quieter space. William hadn’t mentioned china, but thought I’d be interested in visiting this oldest of San Antonio hotels – opening in 1859. Its lobby walls decorated with photos of yesteryear’s San Antonio, and characters like Teddy Roosevelt and Carrie Nation, the temperance movement radical who attacked the hotel bar with a hatchet. The hatchet marks still remain, although I forgot to seek them out when I did finally sit, for an anticipated contemplative beer alone. Time that turned into yet a conversation as I found myself next to a conference attendee, he too, a writer – novels and poetry for him – stealing moments around his day job. We talked about writing and agreed that serendipitous moments rev up when you take the time to notice. What are the chances in a sea of 8000+ safety and health professionals?
Before visiting the hotel, I had squeezed in an hour to tour the Alamo across the street. (How did I not know Alamo is the Spanish translation for cottonwood?) A bit embarrassed to be reminded how little I knew about Texas history. Yet still identifying parallels between it and Oregon: missionaries intent upon – though failing – to bring a Christian God to Native Americans; land disputes across today’s country lines. And differences: Spanish inspired Catholics in Texas and Methodist missionaries in Oregon; cattle and geography influencing Mexico’s Texas interests v. Canadian trappers representing UK’s desire for our own Oregon. Although Catholic and Protestant missions differed in many ways – theology, history and structure – both produced long-lasting consequences that shaped the Native Americans’ future.
But what about the dishes? It just so happens I have a stash of Chinese rose medallion dishes in my garage – plates, teacups, saucers – rescued from Mom’s last downsize. Dishes passed to us through Dad’s grandparents (J.K. Gill’s daughter Georgia and William Montgomery) long ago. Place settings my brothers and I grew up eating Sunday dinners on, not worried back then about ingesting lead along with our pizza, spaghetti or pot roast, strange partners for old time dishes from China. I have never seen another piece from this pattern other than in photos on Ebay and antique websites.
Up until the 16th century, only Chinese artisans perfected the creation, craft and design of hard-paste porcelain. This type of porcelain was originally made of feldspathic rock and kaolin (a clay mineral) and fired at temperatures as high as 1400 degrees C. It wasn’t until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) did the Western world discover it, with Western Europe first developing a fervor for its collection. In the 17th century, different porcelain patterns were designed to meet the demand, with the Rose Medallion china of the popular patterns beginning in the mid-1800’s, imported first in Europe, but spreading to the United States soon after.
Thanks to Oregon City’s Vintage Nest, I learned last year that our china, while sentimental, isn’t particularly valuable. Our set is marked on the back with the word “China,” meaning they were likely made between 1890 and 1915. The earliest Rose Medallion china crafted before 1890 – and valuable – carry no mark of origin, a mark created when a new tax was imposed on imported goods as part of the 1890 McKinley Tariff Act. No, our china may not be particularly valuable on the market, but sentimentality sometimes overrules market value. Yet, the china has continued to sit in my garage on my lower priority list of determining what to do with it next.
I was pleased to arrive home last night – back to cooler temperatures, our Willamette River and hopefully (sorry friends) some rain soon. Although I hadn’t spied the ghosts some say spiriting the Menger hotel – from “blue ladies” haunting the second floor to phantom chambermaids and spirits at the bar – I did have my own personal visitation from the past. An apparition encouraging me this weekend to pull out those rose medallion pieces into full, daylight viewing.