03/27/2014 01:35 pm ET Updated May 27, 2014

In Praise of Old Restaurant Ware

Picture arriving at a mom and pop café in a small American town in the 1930s - 1950s. You drop in, slide into a booth and order breakfast. The coffee arrives in an instant, steaming in smallish, sturdy cups that can stand up to the tender mercies of ex-con dishwashers. And soon deliciously fragrant ham and eggs are plunked down in front of you on sturdy yet beautiful industrial-strength plates no waitress or trencherman trucker can destroy.

Years ago, Americans used to know how to make things that would last. We seem to have forgotten that skill and for decades now have adopted the practice of just buying something new from halfway around the planet and throwing the old into the landfill -- without calculating the long term value of anything or the economic (local jobs!) and environmental costs of this practice.

But as we transition into a more relocalized, sustainable society, it's worth rediscovering what our grandparents knew: it's smart to buy once and buy something sturdy that will be useful for decades -- hopefully something made by fellow Americans not too far from home. Forget about fashion -- go for what's lasting.

In downtown LA, as in many cities, there was once a warehouse full of sturdy restaurant ware (also sometimes called hotel china) made by American companies with names like Syracuse, Buffalo, Homer Laughlin and Wallace. It was being sold at an attractive price because the restaurant, hotel, business, railroad or military facility whose label adorned the china had gone out of business.

That's where my husband and I grabbed up a whole kitchen's worth of great dishes that have lasted many decades. An eager salesman, from the same vintage as the crockery, showed us why they were worth having: he took a cup and hammered a nail into a board with it -- it was that tough! Guaranteed not to break.

A couple of years ago a friend gave us some new china pieces -- from China. They were so pretty -- seemingly a lot more glamorous and up to date than our sturdy old restaurant ware. But sadly, they lasted one year and then started to chip and crack, while the fifty-plus-year-old restaurant pieces we bought in the 1970s are still going strong.

In fact, the dishes we bought so cheaply at the restaurant china warehouse have now escalated in value. In recent decades smart people began to wise up to the value of that sturdy old American crockery. It became increasingly "collectible," perhaps not for its utility but rather for the aesthetic appeal of its simple, industrial-strength beauty -- and sheer nostalgia.

The good news is that because this stuff is tough, quite a bit of it has survived. The bad news is that now it can be pretty expensive -- but still worth it, in my view.

You learn a lot from this old crockery about how our grandparents lived and what they valued. They were practical people. They didn't want to keep paying for basic furnishings over and over. Once was enough -- so they wanted things to last a lifetime and to hand them down to their kids and grandkids. (Of course those grandkids often had no desire for them, having watched millions of commercials brainwashing them into believing that only the new has any value). Also, our grandparents lived in the era when people paid cash rather than using credit cards, so had less temptation to keep updating their furnishings "no money down."

It's also interesting to note that they favored moderate-sized coffee cups, not the big gulps we demand today. Maybe coffee was a slower affair, with time for leisurely refills rather than the need for giant adult-sized sippy cups that can be drunk in the car or on the run. Many dinner plates were also moderate in size, making me wonder if, cowboy fantasies aside, people actually ate smaller portions. Certainly it's true that fewer suffered from the ubiquitous obesity that bedevils modern society.

If any of this sounds intriguing, I encourage you to explore what the internet, antique stores and thrift shops have to offer in the way of old school restaurant ware. This can be part of the greening up of your lifestyle as you work to reduce, reuse and recycle.

But be warned: you won't buy just one!

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