Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Let’s Eat: Oval Wood Dish’s Riteshape

The Oval Wood Dish Company was founded in 1883 in Delta, Ohio. Four years later, the company relocated to Mancelona, Michigan. There they manufactured wooden dishes, made of a single piece of wood, scooped out to form a bowl a sixteenth of an inch thick. The bowls were disposable containers used by butchers as temporary containers for the ground beef and other meats purchased by customers. Eventually, the company replaced the wasteful method of scooping out the bowls with a wood veneer, cut and stapled to form a bowl.

In 1892, the Oval Wood Dish management moved operations again, to Traverse City, Michigan. The firm was successful; by 1899, the plant was using thirteen million feet of lumber annually, and its wooden bowls were in “every grocery store in the nation.”

Success had its price, as the local timber supplies began to run out. Oval Wood Dish planned to move again, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Those plans took a turn in 1913 when two of the company’s executives vacationed in the Adirondacks. Seeing the vast amounts of local hardwood, the company moved instead to Tupper Lake, New York in 1918.

The community welcomed news of the company’s arrival. The local newspaper reported that the firm would employ 300 men and 200 girls. New construction would be needed to house the influx of workers and their families. Oval Wood Dish revitalized the small logging town. Its owners held company picnics, built the first ski hill, and donated land for the Tupper Lake Country Club golf course. Oval Wood Dish also employed large numbers of women (unusual for its time), advertising that “Tupper Lake Girls Do Better Here.” Female workers were offered “light pleasant work…the factory is clean, light, well ventilated, and warm in Winter.”

Although the firm struggled during the Depression, the company rebounded with the introduction of the “Ritespoon” and “Ritefork” in 1937. The equipment needed to manufacture the new products was designed and tested in the Tupper Lake plant. The Tupper Lake Free Press announced the new line of Riteshape products: “They are the only wooden spoon on the market with a bowl, and the only ones shaped like a metal spoon. Both products are made from selected white birch, and are smooth and sanitary. There are no rough edges or splinters, and they are not rendered useless by heat, oil, or moisture…even when used in hot drinks.” The Ritefork was shaped like the spoon, but with three short tines—the equivalent of the modern “spork.” Both utensils were “packed in cellophane packages which display the contents but prevent contamination.”

The Riteshape line of wooden tableware proved a success. By 1940, Oval Wood Dish employed 539 workers in Tupper Lake, fulfilling predictions that the new line would revitalize the company: “The equipment already in service to turn them out is being worked 24 hours a day.”

Until it went out of business in 1964, Oval Wood Dish manufactured clothespins, bowling pins, tongue depressors, furniture pieces, commercial veneer, hardwood flooring, ice cream and popsicle sticks, and, well into the 1960s, the small, flat spoons many remember from childhood: “Five hundred million wooden spoons alone are produced annually, and the chances are that the wood spoon that comes with your cup of ice cream …brings silent greetings from Tupper Lake.”

Come see the Oval Wood Dish Riteforks (84.51.3) (“The True Shape of Tableware”) and more, in “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions” at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. Opening for the season on May 28, 2010.

Laura Rice

Laura Rice is Chief Curator at the Adirondack Museum.

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