Lead Testing Vintage Dishes: Cathrineholm, Red Wing & More

Did you know that some dishes—especially older ones—contain lead? If you’re a vintage collector like me, this might send you into a panic.

Luckily, it’s cheap and easy to test your dishes for lead. Here’s how to do it, and the results I got from lead testing my mid-century Red Wing, Melmac, Arabia Finland and Cathrineholm dishes.

Note: This article contains affiliate links. See my disclosures for details.

Why Test Your Dishes for Lead?

I never worried about lead poisoning from dishes until I read this article.

It turns out some dinnerware contains lead. Dishes can even be labeled “lead safe” as long as they’re finished correctly so the lead doesn’t leach out.

Lead testing vintage dishes including Cathrineholm

But if your dishes were not finished correctly, they could be leaching lead. Here are some common risk factors:

  • Dishes that are brightly colored, because lead is sometimes used to enhance colors.
  • Dishes that are chipped, scratched or worn, possibly exposing the lead in the glaze of the dishes.
  • Older dishes that were made before there were a lot of regulations.

So if you use vintage dinnerware for preparing or serving food, you should probably test your dishes for lead.

How to Lead Test Your Dishes

You can pick up lead test swabs like these approved for dishes. Then follow the directions for your swabs to find out if your dinnerware contains lead.

My test kit says to wet the swab tip in water and shake off the excess liquid. As soon as the swab turns mustard yellow, rub it on the dish for 30 seconds. Then if the swab turns red, violet or pink, it detected lead.

Using lead test swabs to test vintage dishes

Keep in Mind…

These lead test swabs did not stain any of my dishes, but they did stain the flat paint on my wall, which turned pink from the presence of lead. You might want to test in an inconspicuous area if possible.

Also, with vintage dishes there’s a chance the use of lead may have varied over the years. Even if one dish doesn’t have lead, that doesn’t guarantee that different pieces from that brand couldn’t have lead.

And if lead is properly sealed in the glaze now, it won’t show up on the lead test, but it could start leaching later if the piece gets scratched. So it’s a good idea to retest or stop using a damaged dish.

Okay, let’s see if my dishes passed the test!

Lead Testing My Mid-Century Dishes

Red Wing (Ceramic)

Testing: Speckled dinner bowl and quail salt and pepper shakers

I love my Red Wing dishes and shakers. These were made in the 1950s and ‘60s, and we use the plates all the time for dinners and snacks.

I’ve also been wanting to expand my collection to include more of the quail pieces, if they don’t have lead.

Vintage Red Wing ceramic bowl, plate and quail shaker

Results: Pass – No Lead!

Melmac & Boontonware (Melamine)

Testing: Melmac appetizer plate and Boontonware bowls

I don’t think melamine generally contains lead, but as long as we’re doing this, I decided to test them out.

We have a lot of vintage melamine dishware, including these Melmac appetizer plates and Boontonware bowls that we use every day.

Vintage melamine Melmac plate and Boontonware bowls

Results: Pass – No Lead!

I didn’t detect lead in the melamine, but I should mention that melamine dishes can have other toxins. Using them in the microwave or with hot or acidic food can cause the melamine to leach into your food, especially with older, scratched up pieces.

Read More: What are the health risks of melamine dishes?

Arabia Finland (Ceramic)

Testing: Ceramic fish trivet

This cute little ceramic fish trivet was designed by Kaarina Aho for Arabia Finland. I only use it for setting pots and pans on, but some people use it as a cheese plate or cutting board.

So let’s test it out…

Lead testing Arabia Finland ceramic fish trivet

Results: Pass – No Lead!

Cathrineholm (Enamelware)

Testing: Butter warmer and saucepan

I was very nervous about testing my Cathrineholm dishes. Since I started collecting CH, I’ve been telling myself I’ll use these bowls, pots and pans for serving food, not just for display.

It has clearly been a practical investment, right?

Testing Cathrineholm dishes for lead

Results: Pass – No Lead!

Read More: Cathrineholm collector’s guide

Positive Lead Test

I wanted to make sure the swabs were working, so I found the one room in my house with old paint from the 1960s. There was a good chance my laundry room would have lead.

Sure enough, the swab detected lead in the paint. After rubbing the wall for 30 seconds, it took about 20 more seconds for the color to change, but then the swab turned to an unmistakable red.

A swab that didn’t detect lead (yellow, left) compared to a swab that did detect lead (red, right)

Here’s a swab that didn’t detect lead (yellow, left) compared to a swab that did detect lead (red, right).

Safely Collecting Vintage Dishes

I was relieved to find out that my dishes passed the test! But it’s definitely a good idea to test yours out if you’re a vintage collector.

Also avoid chips or scratches, as well as heat and acidity that can cause lead to leach out.

Best of luck in your vintage collecting!


2 thoughts on “Lead Testing Vintage Dishes: Cathrineholm, Red Wing & More”

  1. I am glad all your pieces have tested lead-free! That’s cool they have a kit to test them. We used Melmac and melamine dishes for many years and I do remember when I took a microwave cooking class the teacher stressed not to use them in the microwave for the reasons you stated. You have acquired an awesome collection of vintage pieces and it’s great that you use them and not just “display” them!! (So fun to comb the antique and thrift stores and the excitement when you find a piece for your collection!!)

    • Yes I was surprised and happy to see my dishes aren’t leaking any lead! They are mostly in good condition and I love serving food in them. And this means I can keep growing my Cathrineholm collection. 😀 It is fun hunting for them in antique stores and on eBay.


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