Vintage enamelware, also called enameled ware, became popular in the 19th century, when manufacturers of kitchen staples such as pots and pans coated everything from heavy cast iron to lighter steel with enamel. When fired, the enamel glazed, creating a non-porous surface that was easier to clean than exposed metal. White was a standard color on enamelware since that gave plates, mugs, ladles, and coffee pots a bright, sanitary appearance. The rims of lightweight steel enamelware were often trimmed in a solid band of red or blue, while enameled cast iron, designed for the stovetop and oven, was usually white on the inside but colored on the exterior, most classically in orange.
An important variation of lightweight enamelware was graniteware, which had a speckled surface (the effect is sometimes described as mottled, but mottled pieces are not considered true graniteware). Patented in 1848 by New York inventor Charles Stumer, graniteware—also known as agateware and speckleware—enjoyed a long run in the United States, filling kitchen shelves and cabinets from the 1870s until the end of World War II.
Among the many U.S. manufacturers of graniteware were the St. Louis Stamping Company, which marketed its products under the Granite Iron Ware brand, Lalance and Grosjean, whose Peerless Gray Ware was sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company, the Bellaire Stamping Company, and Vollrath. A parallel enamelware industry developed in Europe, particularly in Czechoslovakia, whose manufacturers tended to use bold colors like blue and white and simple patterns such as plaids and polka dots.
The advantages of enamelware were its low cost, light weight, smooth surface, and glossy finish. Unfortunately, enamel surfaces were also prone to cracking, which would expose the metal beneath, causing it to rust. This tendency was so widespread, a company called Mendets did a brisk business in the 1930s selling patch kits.
In general, enamelware can be dated by the heft of the piece. For example, an enamelware coffee pot from the beginning of the 20th century is noticeably heavier than one made after World War II. Sound can also be a clue. If you tap the bottom of a brightly colored enamelware mug with your fingernail and it sounds tinny, it was probably made in the 1970s.
The enameling of cast iron goes back as far as the enameling of steel, but the popularity of enameled cast iron did not take off until the early 1950s, when a French company from the 1920s, Le Creuset, began exporting its pots, pans, and casseroles to the United States. An orange color called Flame was Le Creuset’s first hue; yellow followed in 1956.
In the 1960s, a Belgium line called Descoware (called Bruxelles Ware when the company was founded in the 1940s) gained acclaim when Julia Child used the cookware on her TV show. In addition to orange and yellow, Descoware made pieces in Descorama patterns based on maple leaves, tulips, and ivy, while the Markley series had a classic ’60s-graphics look.