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No one knows for certain when the first fish dishes surfaced, but one speculation is that the items were tamer takes on quirky Victorian majolica, richly shaded earthenware depicting scenes from nature, including underwater vignettes. From these colorful depths emerged simpler pieces that celebrated a single creature: the humble fish, long a symbol of life and fertility. These dishes, manufactured from the mid-nineteenth century through the twentieth century, were ceramic, porcelain, glass, silver, cast iron, or cast aluminum. Many were souvenirs from coastal cities. Others carried goods -- spirits from Portugal, wine from Italy -- produced by areas celebrating their maritime heritage. On the other side of the world, in Japan, fish-shaped china appeared on tables, a serving idea still in good use. And one of the most enduring designs, a bottle whose neck protrudes from a fish's gaping mouth, was manufactured on the Delaware River, in Philadelphia, in the late nineteenth century.
To start your own collection, cast a line at yard sales, flea markets, or online auctions. Although a devoted collector might spend thousands on a complete set of well-preserved plates, the casual buyer can procure a single dish for a few dollars. Seek out streamlined shapes, and group them by color. Then consider mounting the collection against a marine-inspired backdrop, such as blue-green wallpaper or cool-colored tiles. The pieces also will look right at home with all kinds of sea-associated specimens and delights. Surround them with beach shells, antique nautical knickknacks, or decorative coral in hefty lumps or spindly branches. And before you know it, you'll be hooked.
Wines and spirits from nations close to the sea, including Italy and Portugal, came in bottles shaped like fish (this page); the small, round vessel once held perfume, while the white one is a reproduction of an 1860s bitters bottle.
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Fish MoldsAn Art Deco platter from the 1930s coasts above fish-shaped dishes and molds gathered on an entryway shelf; the handled cup near the center is a creamer.
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SeascapeWallpaper in subtle shades of ocean blue is the swimming space for a trio of fish dishes secured with plate hangers. The blue ones were manufactured in Japan; the green one, in California.
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Fish DinnerThree sizes of ceramic fish plates from the early to mid-twentieth century are the settings on a marine-green table; silver-plated, fish- shaped salt and pepper shakers, antique fishing floats reminiscent of giant bubbles, and decoupage seaweed-motif trays are all part of the theme.
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Fish Place settingA close-up of the ceramic fish place setting.
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Baking DishSkimming an end table under a coral fern are a ceramic baking dish roomy enough for a whole fish and a reproduction bitters bottle.
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Under the SeaMultiple dishes, a bronze sculpture, a giant clam shell, and a nineteenth-century French table with legs cast as mythical dolphins capture a cat's attention; the two small fish floating in from the top right are Victorian milk glass, while the top round plate was part of a 1940s tuna company promotion.