The Hunterian Museum is the oldest public museum in Glasgow, Scotland. The museum is fittingly home to an Etruscan black earthenware tray said to date from the 7th or 6th century B.C.E., in pre-Roman days. There is no certainty the Etruscan tray is the oldest in existence, but it does suggest the concept of a tray was developed in ancient times.
The serving tray as we know it today likely evolved from the “salver,” a term used in England in 1661 to denote a flat tray, usually made of silver. The word derives from the Latin “salvare,” meaning “to save.” Originally, use of the salver signified that the food and drink served upon it was fit to consume by royalty, as a small portion of it had been tested for poison. Salvers were basically trays without handles, some footed. English, Irish and Scottish silver salvers date back to the 1600s. English diarist and secretary of the admiralty, Samuel Pepys, who lived from 1633 to 1703, was among the elite owners of silver salvers, which signified social standing.
Papier-maché trays were manufactured in Asia and Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Paper, glue, chalk, and other ingredients were molded and baked to produce a hard material. Elaborate patterns of flowers and fruit graced papier-maché trays, and during the 19th century, mother-of-pearl inlays were added.
In Zhostovo, a suburb of Moscow in Russia, the tradition of hand-painted, lacquered metal trays originated as folk art. Artists first painted brightly colored flowers on papier-maché trays around 1825, and by 1830, they had begun to paint on metal trays that were manufactured in the Ural Mountains. The original repertoire of flowers on a black background expanded to include images of fruit, landscapes and folk scenes. Each tray is a hand-painted work of art signed by the Zhostovo master artist, with hand-turned edges and gold-highlighted borders.
From the 1940s to the 1960s, melamine products became popular in the United States, including melamine trays. Melamine, or “Melmac,” tableware was favored over china and other materials because it was modern and durable. During World War II, the U.S. Navy reportedly utilized melamine trays manufactured by the Commonwealth Moulding Co. of Australia. These waterproof, durable trays were ideal for use as mess trays on ships. This period of time also saw the appearance of the TV tray in 1952, which has remained popular since.
In 1970, new designs of serving trays and complementary crockery in the first-class cabins of the Italian airline, Alitalia, maximized the use of tray space to make passenger meals as pleasant as possible within the confines of a limited dining area.
Old and New
In recent years, tray manufacturers have combined conventional materials with innovative designs. In China, Thailand and other Asian countries, teak wood, bamboo and rattan trays are now available with sleek, modern styling. In England, pottery companies like Royal Albert have designed specialty tea trays made of wood and inset with painted porcelain tiles. Other options today include plastic as well as monogrammed acrylic trays.