Yikes—could I be eating off of burned cow bones?

Maybe the name should have tipped me off. But I was shocked to learn that what is called “bone china,” (a form of fine dishware commonly offered as a wedding gift) is comprised of actual bones, burned into ash.

Excuse me?

It’s truethese pieces of china contain between 25 to 50% bone ash, usually from either cows or oxen.

Bone china was created first by English potter Thomas Frye in 1748. Frye used bones from a nearby slaughterhouse to make his pieces, but the “fine dishware” didn’t catch on immediately. A few years later, a fellow Englishman named Josiah Spode perfected the formula, and rebranded the product “bone china.” From there, the product took off, quickly becoming the staple in high-class dining that it remains today.

Currently, the only licensed U.S. creator of bone china is Lenox (which is based in North Carolina). The company manufactures over 15,000 pieces of bone china every day. Lenox has a long history with presidential ceremony: they are frequently contracted by the White House to manufacture presidents’ personal dishes.

We’ve adopted bone china into our culture as a normal (if fancy) product, so it’s hard to think of it as strange. But the question needs to be asked: why would anyone want to put bone ash in pottery?

Benefits: Durable, Pretty, & Resourceful

There are a few key benefits that keep potters making plates a little humerus:

1. The end product is stronger

Bone ash has long been considered to be stronger and more durable than regular china. (Although, I should be clear: “durable” is a relative term, when considering fine china.)

As that’s the case, bone china may be more suitable for long-term use than regular fine china. If you’re not needing to buy more dishware every few years, you’ve got a sustainable set of dishware.

2. The full animal is used

Of course, the fact that cattle bones are used in bone china means that slaughterhouse bones (and their ashes) aren’t just being thrown away—they’re being repurposed for something new. This is a way to make full use of an animal that’s already been killed.

3. Bone china is beautiful

Bone china is largely seen as a high-class dishware material, and its finish (after firing) allows for beautiful hand-painted decorations. Historically speaking, bone china is a symbol of status and class—and many families have used sets of this china as heirlooms.

Drawbacks: It’s a Vegan’s Nightmare

Although bone ash does make a stronger product, its treatment of animal remains makes a strong case for animal cruelty—which is important for two reasons:

1. The Ick Factor

Of course, practically speaking, it’s a bit creepy to think that you’re literally dining on the bones of some creature.

For vegans and others concerned with animal rights, this issue is particularly salient. If bones don’t need to be in dishware, why would you include them?

2. Uncertain Origins

Bone china makers aren’t exactly common, these days. But while the market is small, there’s little regulation, meaning that bone ash may not have been gathered ethically. Frequently, bone ash is gathered from slaughterhouses—and objectors to animal cruelty may feel uncomfortable eating off dishes that helped contribute to demand for animal deaths.

And if you’re curious about the horror-story potential in this fact, read on: In a few cases historically, fragments of human bones have been found in bone china pieces. A company exists today that can use your deceased loved one’s ashes to create a piece of artwork pottery—either humans or pets are accepted.

The Bottom Line

If you’re in the market for dishware and are uncomfortable with bone china, never fear! There are several bone china alternatives available today: consider porcelain, ceramic, earthenware, or glass dishes.

Luckily, there’s an easy way to tell if fine china contains bone ash. Bone china has a warmer color than regular pottery, and is both thin and transluscent (allowing light to pass through). AboutHome has suggestions for testing a dish:

“If you hold up any piece of bone china up to a light and place your hand behind it, you should be able to see your fingers through it.”

All things considered, bone china doesn’t seem to be a daily issue that you’re likely to encounter. (Unless, of course, you’re headed to dinner at the White House.) But you’d be surprised: coffee chain Starbucks frequently uses bone china in their in-store mugs, some of which you can purchase online.

What do you think? Are you a fan of bone china, or does it creep you out? Let us know in the comments!

Kelsey Ryan is the editor of Groundswell’s magazine. She’s a linguist, fledgling Tolkien scholar, knitter, Oxford comma proponent, and firm believer in the use of stories for social good. Explore her website, or connect on Twitter: @kryanlion.