If You Find This Thrift Shopping, Buy It

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Vintage American Modern dinnerware by Russel Wright
EvergreenPlanet / Shutterstock.com

Shopping thrift stores, flea markets and estate sales can be overwhelming. With the sheer volume of stuff, how do you know where to start? How do you spot gems amid all the junk?

As a professional reseller who has been combing through thrift stores for the better part of 30 years, I can help. If you’re ready to cut your shopping time in half, score bigger bargains or walk away with brag-worthy finds you can flip for cash, read on.

From hard-to-find household items to resale money-makers, everything featured in my “Thrift Shop Like a Pro” series qualifies as a BOLO (“be on the lookout” for) item. When you find it, buy it!

Featured find: American Modern dinnerware by Russel Wright

Born in 1904, Russel Wright was an industrial designer and the creative force behind successful lines of furniture, dinnerware, flatware, and other household products.

His work was part of Good Design, an artistic movement focused on making well-designed goods more available to everyday consumers.

In 1939, Steubenville Pottery of Ohio began manufacturing a Wright-designed dinnerware collection. Dubbed “American Modern,” the inexpensive earthenware pieces were revolutionary for their time. Consumers loved the line’s sculptural forms, smart design and unique mix of accent materials like bamboo and rattan.

Originally, the line was offered in six mix-and-match colors that included:

  • Chartreuse
  • Seafoam green (also referred to as “Seafoam blue”)
  • Bean brown
  • Coral
  • Grey
  • White

More color options were added later. These included:

  • Black chutney
  • Cedar green
  • Glacier blue
  • Cantaloupe

After a 20-year run, production ended in 1959, and Steubenville Pottery closed that same year.

With approximately 250 million pieces produced, American Modern is widely considered to be the most popular dinnerware ever sold.

Pieces can be found in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art and, with a little luck, your local thrift shop.

Vintage American Modern dinnerware by Russel Wright
Underawesternsky / Shutterstock.com

Why buy it?

Wright’s American Modern dinnerware is as popular today as it was decades ago. With its organic shapes and sophisticated color palette, the collection still feels modern — cutting-edge, even.

Though it may take years to amass a complete set through thrift shopping alone, I pick up miscellaneous pieces whenever I can. Mixed with my everyday white china, they add a burst of color and style.

If you’re more interested in reselling thrift store finds for profit, take note: American Modern dishes are a hot midcentury collectible.

This lidded butter dish in chartreuse recently sold for $175 on eBay, and this rattan-handled relish dish in seafoam green sold for $188. On Etsy, this seafoam green water carafe is listed for $250.

Pro tip: American Modern dinnerware should be washed by hand. High heat and heavy detergents from dishwashers can damage the finish and make vintage pieces more vulnerable to chipping.

What to look for

Wright’s dinnerware stands out on thrift store shelves. The biomorphic shapes and unexpected colors never fail to grab my attention.

Pieces can be further identified by an impressed maker’s mark on the underside. Look for “Russel Wright” in italicized script followed by “MFG. BY STEUBENVILLE.”

Shopping for pieces to resell? Maximize your profits by paying special attention to:

  • Color: Chartreuse seems to be the most popular color in the resale market, followed by seafoam green and white.
  • Form: As with most vintage dinnerware, serving pieces are the hardest to find and the most valuable. Look for water carafes, relish dishes, teapots and sugar bowls.
  • Condition: American Modern pieces chip easily, so vintage examples in pristine condition are becoming rarer. Sugar bowls and teapots with intact, chip-free lids are particularly hard to find and sell for a premium.

Reissue alert: American Modern dinnerware has been reissued by Bauer Pottery of Southern California. The updated collection retains the original Russel Wright logo on the underside. You can tell these pieces apart from vintage American Modern pieces by looking for the words “By Bauer Pottery California, USA” after the logo.

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