Pie birds, also called pie funnels, pie ventilators, pie cups, or pie chimneys, are small ceramic or glass kitchen tools used to vent steam when baking pies. After a dish is lined with pastry crust, the funnel is placed into the center, the filling is added, and the top crust is molded around the figurine. While baking, the hollow center of the pie bird allows steam to escape the filling and prevents juices from overflowing in the oven.
Even though British cooks have used ceramic funnels to release steam from pies since the late 1800s, the tools didn’t develop their distinctive name and shape until the 1930s. The earliest pie birds were often plain white earthenware objects used to advertise established kitchen product manufacturers, with company names, logos, patent numbers, or instructions printed directly onto them. Most came in a basic cylinder or hourglass shape, like those made by the Gourmet Pie Cup company, while rare versions had a pair of vertical “wings” dividing the pie in half to allow for two different filling flavors. Mass-produced successors of these advertising ventilators were typically solid-colored ceramic chimneys with a round base and slender funnel-shaped spout.
Taking inspiration from the popular “Sing a Song of Sixpence” nursery rhyme, which mentions “4 and 20 blackbirds, baked in a pie,” ceramic designers eventually reconceived the utilitarian pie ventilators as a playful new form. One of the earliest registered blackbird-shaped pie funnels was Australian Grace Seccombe’s Pie Crust Lifter from 1933.
Meanwhile in England, ceramic artist Clarice Cliff designed pie birds for well-known English pottery AJ Wilkinson. Even high-end British porcelain companies like Spode and Royal Worcester included pie birds in their product lines. Royal Worcester complicated the traditional design by producing a two-part set with a delicate blackbird that perched on a separate white base.
As the pop pottery movement spread across the United States following World War II, manufacturers churned out trendy new items that were both figural and functional, like cookie jars and head vases, and suddenly flocks of pie birds flew out their doors. Large American manufacturers like McCoy and Shawnee created their own variations in pastel color schemes.
Betty Cleminson started her famous California Cleminsons line in the garage of her home beginning in 1941, and included a series of pie birds in her earliest designs. These funnels take the shape of crowing white roosters with bright two-tone trim, and are some of the most desirable pie vents today.
Though blackbirds were the most widely produced, other popular forms included farm animals like roosters and cows, or African American chef caricatures. The English company Nutbrown, known for its unadorned pie funnels, created a popular elephant design, using its upturned trunk as the steam vent...
As women moved out of the kitchen and into the workplace during the 1960s and '70s, fewer home cooks had time for baking, and most pie birds were put away. The creatures lay forgotten at the back of kitchen drawers and cupboards until a new generation of collectors and lifestyle bloggers revived the trend in recent years. Today, pie birds are still made by individual artisan potters as well as respected kitchenware companies, like Le Creuset.