The earliest cutters for pastries and cookies, or "biscuits" as they were called in England, imprinted designs on the surface of dough. These “imprint cutters,” first made in Italy, were used in England kitchens starting in the 1400s to make gingerbread figures in the shape of celebrities like Queen Elizabeth I or Lord Wellingtion the First. These were followed by outline cutters, made from a flat piece of bent wood like pear, walnut, or beech, with a cutting edge and handle.

Beginning in the 1600s, Dutch and German settler housewives in Pennsylvania were known for producing large batches of cookies around Christmastime. Their wide array of cookie shapes included doves, cockerels, human figures such as Belznickel (a pre-Santa character), and the bald eagle.

Pennsylvania Germans also brought their honey cakes, marzipan, and gingerbread to America. They patterned their cake dough and almond paste with “springerle” or hand-carved marzipan molds that are minor artworks in and of themselves. Cheaper handmade tin cutters were offered by rural tinsmiths in commons shapes of people, animals, stars, spades, and hearts. The more unusual the shape, the more collectible the cookie cutter, like those in the form of reindeer, mounted figures, and clowns.

Old tin can be identified from modern metals as it is relatively heavy and thick, usually darkened in color. These cutters make 3/4-inch to 1 1/8-inch deep cuts. The back of antique cutters are flat and may or may not have strap handles. Because tinsmiths tried to conserve every possible inch of metal they could, older backs are more or less cut to the shape of the cutting edge. These also have “air holes” or “push holes,” which helped detach the cookie dough from the cutter.

In the mid-19th century, metal cookie cutters were mass-produced, and by the mid-20th century, they were also made of plastic. Vintage cookie cutters from the last century may have handles made of wood, metal, or plastic. Aluminum cutters can date to 1900, but are far more common from the 1930s. Metal cookie cutters with “bullet” handles are especially sought after by collectors. In general, figurals like chickens and elephants tend to be more valuable than geometric shapes.

Cookie cutters in the shapes of the four suits of playing cards were often sold as sandwich cutters—which have deeper edges than regular cookie cutters—designed to add whimsy to a poker or bridge party. Some of the more clever cookie cutters, like the “In-Genia Rotating Cutter” from West Germany, made several different designs with one rotating tool.

In England, Tala first offered its pastry-cutter sets in the early 1930s in painted tins. These tins can be dated by their colors: In the 1930s, they came in pastels, while the o...

Plastic cutters from the 1940s make deep cuts and come in transparent red and green colors. Opaque plastic cutters didn’t really show up until the 1960s, and they tend to make shallower cuts. Shapes include Santas and bunnies for Christmas and Easter, popular cartoon characters, flags for the Fourth of July, and profiles of the Statue of Liberty. Licensed cookie cutters from more recent decades include Looney Tunes, Mario Brothers, Barbie, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Top American makers of cookie cutters are Ekco, Midwestern Home Products, and Hallmark, whose cutters from the late '70s and early '80s are relatively collectible.

Recently, collectors have gravitated toward plastic cutters that advertise businesses. The vintage American cutters are marked “Made in the U.S.A.,” while new ones are generally made in Hong Kong.

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