Family Archivist: Caring for Heirloom China

By Denise May Levenick Premium

Nothing says “family” quite like Grandmother’s pickle dish or a holiday dessert served with an heirloom cake knife. But when it comes to doing the dishes, do you know how to care for that family treasure?

Heirloom Preservation Cups Dishes Kitchen China

  1. Go low-tech. Vintage china and crystal were made before automatic dishwashers and grime-cutting detergents. Gently wash pieces by hand in warm water with a sponge or soft cloth, separately from heavier, modern dishes or flatware. Use a small amount of mild liquid dishwashing soap; never use powdered cleanser or dishwasher detergent. Wash the least-soiled dishes first, typically crystal or glassware, followed by plates, serving ware and flatware. Be careful not to rub the metallic rim of gold- or silver-edged dishes.
  2. Create a cushion. Place a thick terry cloth towel in the bottom of the sink for washing, and another on the counter for draining. Dry china and crystal by hand with a clean soft towel.
  3. Take the gloves off. A rubber-coated drying rack also will help protect items from bumps and damage. Rubber dishwashing gloves grip better than fabric gloves, but bare, clean hands (remove jewelry) will give you the most control.
  4. Careful with cups. Protect fragile handles on china cups by gently stacking no more than two cups. Never hang teacups by the handle.
  5. Keep it dry. Unglazed or hand-painted china and porcelain should never be washed like standard tableware. Instead, dust it carefully with a microfiber cloth and store it in a glass display cabinet away from direct sunlight.
  6. Handle with care. Take care when washing and drying crystal. The delicate rims of glasses can break from finger pressure. Avoid twisting the bowl of your stemware in the opposite direction of the stem—the stem could snap off. To remove hard water spots from crystal, fill glasses with white vinegar; let it sit for a few minutes, and rinse.
  7. Moderation is key. Crystal and glass are temperature-sensitive. If you pour hot liquid into a cool glass or cold liquid into a warm glass, it could shatter. Never wash crystal in the dishwasher, where high temperatures can cause breakage, and don’t use it in the microwave or conventional oven.
  8. Take time for tea. Minimize stains by washing teacups and saucers soon after use. To remove stubborn stains, rinse teacups with warm water and let stand a few minutes. Empty and sprinkle a small amount of baking soda over the stain; gently rub with your finger.
  9. Stack short. Store heirloom china plates and bowls on a sturdy shelf with padding between pieces. Paper plates, felt discs and folded paper towels work well. Avoid stacking plates too high—the weight can buckle your shelves and crack the dishes on the bottom. Set cups and bowls upright, not upside down on fragile rims. Avoid bumpy or creased shelf paper, which could cause your dishes to sit unevenly and tip over.
  10. Think inside the box. Go ahead and store china in its original boxes if they’re sturdy. If not, replace them with sturdy plastic or cardboard boxes that are strong enough to support the weight of the contents and large enough to allow for packing material on all inside walls of the box. Heavy-duty boxes and sheets of polyethylene cushioning are available at most moving centers and shipping facilities. U-Haul’s Dish-Saver Kit, available for under $12, has both.
  11. No news is good news. Never wrap heirloom dishes in newspaper, which risks stains from ink transfer. In long-term storage, newsprint quickly becomes brittle and loses effectiveness as packing material.
  12. Get out of the way. People and pets are the greatest hazards to china and crystal. You can store them in boxes in your garage, attic or basement, where they won’t be jostled or dropped, but do avoid locations with extreme heat or cold.
  13. Display in the shade. Avoid displaying china in direct sunlight or a location with extreme temperatures, such as near a heating vent or large window. Porcelain will yellow and fade over time if exposed to direct light. A glass-front display cabinet away from windows will protect your collection from accidental bumps and damage.
  14. Fix it up. Accidents happen. Professional china and crystal repair firms can reattach broken cup handles, fix cracked plates and repair chipped rims. Search online for “china and crystal repair” in your area, or locate an expert conservationist through the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works directory.

Do you have a good story or a family recipe that goes with Grandma’s pie plate or pickle dish? Snap a photo of the crystal dish at your next family gathering and print it out with our Family Heirloom Memory Card, a free download from. Preserve the memory by storing the card and special dish together.


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