Collectible kitchen items span a wide range of objects, from teakettles and toasters to skillets and stoves. Aside from their aesthetic appeal, many of these items are still usable, which makes them both functional to use and fun to own.
Few kitchen items are as cheerful and welcoming as a cookie jar. Decorative cookie jars as a category of vintage kitchenware came of age in the United States in the early 1930s. McCoy Pottery is one of the most sought-after names in this category. McCoy’s first figural cookie jar was Mammy with Cauliflower (Blackamoor figures were associated with good eating during the ’30s). Other Mammy jars featured large women whose equally spacious dresses formed the bases of the jars.
Many manufacturers, including American Bisque of West Virginia, produced countless jars in the shapes of animals. Pigs were especially popular—American Bisque is known for its “paws in pockets” jars. Other pink-cheeked creatures included elephants, kittens and puppies, lamps, and rabbits.
Another popular ceramic kitchen collectible is a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers. In the 19th century, Staffordshire potteries produced salt-and-pepper shakers as parts of cruet sets. Many of these were novelty characters with pink cheeks and big hats.
In 20th-century America, square salt-and-pepper shakers made of milk glass and capped by threaded, metal lids were every bit as popular as ceramic ones made by companies like Homer Laughlin, whose Fiesta shakers were shaped like small, footed balls. McCoy made shakers that looked like vegetables, Enesco favored tiny creatures like mice and snails, Parkcraft made shakers in the shapes of states, while Lefton excelled at bluebirds and a bonneted kitten character it called Miss Priss.
Another collectible kitchen item is the mold or mould, as it is also spelled. During the Victorian Era, copper molds were the preference of well-heeled cooks; tin molds were found in humbler kitchens.
For collectors, copper molds are perhaps the most appealing because they make wonderful decorative objects for kitchen walls when not in use, but for cooks tin was more versatile...
Mid-19th-century cooks also used ceramic molds, such as those made out of Wedgwood creamware or a more common form of earthenware known as ironstone, which was glazed a gleaming white and produced by numerous Staffordshire potteries.
Another form of ceramic mold was designed for cookies and gingerbread. To use these molds, a cook would press dough into the top of the mold, whose inside would leave an impression of a gingerbread man or Santa Claus on the outside of the cookie. Those who celebrate Easter also embraced molds, especially when it was time to make mass quantities of homemade chocolate bunnies and eggs.
Bowls are another common collectible kitchen cooking tool. Yellowware bowls from Jersey City Porcelain and Earthenware Company, as well as firms in Kentucky and Pennsylvania, were as wide as 18 inches across. They were often pressed into molds, producing vertical or horizontal ridges, basketweaves, and other designs. Single or multiple blue, white, or pink stripes were usually added as a highlight. Yellowware bowls were also marked by thick rims, which allowed the cook to grip the side of the bowl with one hand while mixing vigorously with the other.
Another type of vintage ceramic mixing bowl employed a technique called spongeware, which was practiced by Red Wing Stoneware, among others, in the early part of the 20th century. Its yellow and rust dappled bowls with modest rims and utilitarian feet are quite collectible, especially if the bowl features an advertising message at the bottom of its inside surface.
Homer Laughlin took a different approach with its nested sets of Fiesta mixing bowls, produced from 1936 to 1943. Fiesta bowls were taller than they were wide, featured lips that were less handle-like, and came in a range of bright colors, some of which were literally radioactive, albeit at extraordinarily low levels.
Kettles or teakettles, as they are also called, are also collectible. Some of the most common teakettles of the 19th century were made out of copper or cast iron. They were designed to last, which is why they can still be found today.
A typical copper teakettle from this period would be tinned inside, have a gooseneck spout, a brass lid, and a hinged handle—on nicer teakettles, the handle’s outline resembled a chef’s hat.
In the 1920s and ’30s, electric teakettles gained acceptance. Some manufacturers that had excelled in copper and cast iron tried to move into this new market, as did firms like General Electric, but the company that became synonymous with electric teakettles was Russell Hobbs, which introduced its K1 electric kettle to English tea drinkers in 1955.
More recently, a new class of designer teakettles, most of which are of the whistling variety, have gained prominence. In 1985, post-modern architect Michael Graves produced an even more famous design, the Alessi bird kettle, which today is sold in regular, electric, and cordless versions.
Teapots are not constrained by the need to endure direct contact with an open flame. Thus, some of the most treasured teapots are made out of delicately glazed porcelain and china. Late 19th-century transferware and glazed designs from famous makers of Staffordshire pottery are prized, as are Art Deco Fiesta teapots from the 1930s.
Tile trivets are also favorites of kitchen collectors. They have insulating properties that metal trivets do not (thus they don't need legs), which is why some people like to place decorative ceramic squares rather than dark ironwork on their dinner tables before supper is served.
Everyone from the Homer Laughlin to Pfaltzgraff made tile trivets. The former’s Fiesta trivets are brightly colored discs that match the Fiesta family of teapots, dinnerware, and other objects. Pfaltzgraff produced trivets with patterns that recalled its early salt-glazed stoneware.
Makers of fine china and porcelain also made trivets, from Wedgwood to Rosenthal to Limoges. Some were beautifully hand-painted and glazed while others were decorated using equally eye-catching transferware techniques. There were also majolica style trivets designed to nest within wrought iron or metal bases.
Many antique cast-iron trivets have long handles since they were used in fireplaces—often such trivets have a hole or holes at their ends where long-gone wooden handles were once attached. Hearts, spokes, scrollwork, and star designs set within circular trivets were hugely popular, as were trivets that resembled lacy doilies.
Skillets are frequently placed on trivets, with cast iron being a favorite medium for manufacturers. In the second half of the 19th century, one particularly legendary cast-iron cookware maker was Griswold Manufacturing Company. Based in Erie, Pennsylvania, Griswold made its first skillets in 1865.
Dating Griswold skillets, which were produced in a range of sizes (from #6 to #12), can be tricky because so many different marks on the bottoms of Griswold pans were produced concurrently. For example, the word ERIE or “ERIE” was stamped on the bottoms of Griswold skillets through 1909, but in 1874, Griswold also began to combine the stamped word ERIE with a depiction of a spider in a web.
Two other pre-1900 Griswold logos were launched in 1884. One squeezed the word ERIE inside a horizontal diamond, while the other branded the skillet as GRISWOLD’S “ERIE.” And then, in 1897, the first of the famous Griswold cross logos appeared. These were produced until 1957, in a slanted font until around 1920 and a blocky font thereafter.
Another major manufacturer of cast-iron skillets is the French firm Le Creuset, which was founded in 1925. Production was interrupted during World War II (the German army seized the foundry to make hand grenades), but by the early 1950s Le Creuset was a major exporter of cast-iron cookware. Le Creuset skillets were enameled in bright colors on the outside (orange is the classic) and matte black on the inside, giving them a more polished appearance than Griswolds.
If you are cooking with a vintage skillet, you might as well do your cooking on a vintage stove. Most Victorian-era stoves were made from cast iron and designed to burn wood, coal, or both. Manufacturers generally sold regionally, so the brands are not as important from a collecting standpoint as the level of ornamentation—in short, the more the merrier.
Pennsylvania-based manufacturer Floyd, Wells & Co. made a host of ranges under the Irving brand. Other manufacturers included Majestic Mfg. Co. of St. Louis and Pennsylvania’s Buckwalter Stove Co., whose New Adonis was a veritable kitchen altar.
The 1930s and 1940s were the glory decades for vintage stoves. This is the era when brands like Chambers, Dixie, Gaffers & Sattler, O’Keefe & Merritt, Roper, Tappan, and Wedgewood dominated. Taking their collective inspiration from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne design, these stoves were gleaming battleships of porcelain and chrome, with polished handles, built-in clocks, and colors that ranged from hospital white to royal blue to candy-apple red.
Another popular kitchen appliance was the toaster. G.E. patented the first commercially successful electric toaster in 1909 (sliced bread wouldn't be invented until 1933). Thus began a great run for toaster collectors, who seek out everything from Art Deco toasters to streamlined and even porcelain toasters that match dinnerware flower patterns. There are hundreds of varieties to collect, with chrome, wood, wire, and Bakelite components.
Corkscrews are an even smaller collectible. Antique and vintage corkscrews come in a wide variety of shapes, including novelty corkscrews that take on fun forms like animals or people. Handles are made from a range of materials, such as metal, bone, or wood. Nice corkscrews can be relatively affordable, especially 20th-century advertising-type corkscrews.
Even more fun were lunch boxes. The genre as we think of it today was born in 1935. That’s when a Milwaukee, Wisconsin company called Geuder, Paeschke, and Frey licensed the likeness of a new cartoon character named Mickey Mouse for the top of its oblong-shaped “Lunch Kit.” Disney would go on to produce two-handled picnic-basket-shaped lunch boxes with Owens Illinois in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and in the 1950s, ADCO made a Disney lunch box with Mickey on one side and Donald Duck and his mischievous nephews on the other.
Television characters and movie heroes proved perfect fodder for lunch boxes. Aladdin made Hopalong Cassidy lunch boxes throughout the 1950s, while American Thermos made nine styles of Roy Rogers lunch boxes between 1953 and 1957. During the same period, kids were also given space-age choices such Aladdin’s “Tom Corbett Space Cadet” boxes in red or blue (1952).
The 1960s were even better for space imagery, from the imagined, cartoon future of “The Jetsons” (Aladdin, 1963) to the domed “Star Trek” containers made by Aladdin in 1968—these lunch boxes are much sought-after by Trekkies and lunch-box collectors alike.
Echoing, perhaps, the look of vinyl go-go boots, many vinyl lunch boxes from the 1960s featured pop stars on their outside surfaces. Especially collectible are lunch boxes emblazoned with likenesses of the Monkees (King Seely, 1967) and the Beatles (Air Flite and Standard Plastic Products, 1964; Aladdin, 1965).
A final category of kitchen collectible is anything to do with coffee. Coffee grinders in the 19th century ranged from box-type grinders designed to grind coffee from one-to-four servings to wall-mounted grinders, some of which could hold a pound or more of beans at a time.
In England, Kenrick & Sons was a major maker of box coffee grinders—the oval brass nameplate on the front of Kenrick box grinders makes them easy to identify. Imperial, Favorite, and None-Such were important U.S. brands. And in France, Peugeot Frères made metal and cast-iron box grinders with wooden handles.
Enterprise Manufacturing of Philadelphia made heavy-duty grinders for grocers, retailers, and wholesalers. Many of these wall or table-mounted machines had side crank handles, but its largest grinders had handles that attached to flywheels, sometimes two.
Once you had your grounds, the question was then how to brew it. At the beginning of the 20th century, the enamelware, aluminum, or tin pot used for boiling water and brewing coffee was usually one and the same. After setting the pot on a stove and bringing the water inside it to a boil, ground coffee would simply be measured into the pot, where the grounds would swell and mostly sink to the bottom, producing a gritty, unfiltered brew.
Soon, though, a 19th-century invention known as the percolator was widely embraced. The first percolators were designed for stovetops (electric models came a bit later), but their chief benefit was a filter to separate the caffeinated liquid from the soggy grounds.
A variation on the percolator was the moka pot, which was the 1933 brainchild of an Italian engineer named Alfonso Bialetti. Instead of forcing water up through a tube and then over the grounds as in a percolator, a moka pot forced water through the grounds first and then into a separate holding tank. Today these ubiquitous little pots are used primarily for homemade espresso.
Of course many coffee pots were made just for serving, in the same way that teapots are made for brewing tea rather than boiling water. Some early 20th-century coffee pots had a thermos built right into the pot, whereas similarly tall and elegant Fiesta coffee pots from the late 1930s through the early ’40s kept coffee warm only as long as the insulating properties of ceramics would permit.
Other coffee pots, such as those made by Wagner Ware and Chemex utilized the circa-1800 Biggin method of brewing coffee, which is essentially the drip method most of us use today.