Rolling pins are perhaps the earliest known kitchen baking utensils, documented in the hand of a baker in a 17th century illustration, although the concept may go back to ancient times. That 1600s image depicted a basic design that has not altered much in hundreds of years.
Early rolling pins were made of turned wood. Sometimes the ends were tapered like a sailor’s belaying pin (used to secure rigging on ships), while others had one or both ends turned to form handles. The Shakers were particularly known for their elegant wooden rolling pins. In France, pastry chefs still prefer wooden pins without handles, which they say gives them a better feel of the dough. Over time, rolling pins have been made from nearly every kind of wood possible, including sycamore, walnut, pine, cherry, mahogany, boxwood, beech, fruitwood, and ash.
The best and most popular woods for rolling pins were maple and lignum vitae, thanks to their weight and density, which helped these pins resist moisture and cracking. They were also less likely to absorb ingredients and become stinky and unsanitary. Lignum vitae is unusually hard and as dense as iron, so those rolling pins were designed to last a lifetime.
The size and shape of a rolling pin, as well as its handles, often gives a good indication of its purpose. Long, convex wooden rolling pins with tapered ends instead of handles, similar to the pins prefered by French bakers, are often used for pie crusts. Short, straight rolling pins were meant for candy makers.
Springerle molds, which are similar to cookie cutters, were used to impress designs of fruit, animals, or flowers on German gingerbread and fancy Christmas cakes, as well as flat British cookies called biscuits. These patterns were sometimes carved into wooden rolling pins to save time and trouble, as the patterns could be quickly rolled into the dough.
Perhaps because of their similarity to sailors’ belaying pins, rolling pins became associated with seafarers and romance. It is said that sailors bored at sea would carve unique rolling pins out of lignum vitae and attach whale bone handles to make a gift for their lover back home. Rolling pins, along with potato mashers, were popular wedding gifts.
Starting in the 18th century, glassworks in English port towns like Bristol, London, Sunderland, and Newcastle began producing hollow glass rolling pins that sailors would give t...
These glass rolling pins were often painted, gilded, and, later, printed with images of sailors and ships and phrases such as “be true to me,” “for my mother,” and “may the eye of the Lord watch over you.” They were usually filled with goods like bath salts, vinegar, cocoa, or baking powder. In theory, once emptied, these glass rolling pins could be filled with water or crushed ice to keep the dough cool and prevent it from sticking to the pin. Such pins would have an opening at one or both ends that closed with a cork or metal cap. While this sounds like a good idea, many bakers complained that such pins sweat condensation all over their pastry dough.
Other glass rolling pins, also called “love tokens,” were produced as parlor conversation pieces, and not used in baking at all. Love tokens often contained salt, a particularly popular gift because the high tax on the preservative made it very expensive and valuable until about 1845. These glass rolling pins were often hung by a fire to keep the salt dry.
The glassworks at Bristol was known for its deep-blue cobalt-colored glass, which was quickly copied by other glass makers in the region, but this beautiful flint glass was highly taxed. Bottle glass was cheaper, but generally drab to look at. The glassworks at Nailsea came up with methods of festooning, mottling, and flecking its bottle-glass rolling pins to achieve bright ribbons of color. Like “Bristol” cobalt glass, “Nailsea” glass was also made at other regional glass factories in Stourbridge, Newcastle, Warrington, and Yorkshire. While glass rolling pins were common at one time, their fragile nature has made them quite collectible.
The earliest Nailsea glass rolling pins were dark green with ribbons or splashes of white. After 1810, the base glass was clear with stripes or loops in colors like white, pink, and blue. By 1830, the ribbons of color were so close together, the clear glass was obscured.
Porcelain and ceramic rolling pins became popular in the 19th century when people were becoming more interested in the germ theory of disease and hygiene—porcelain was easier to clean than wood. Like glass rolling pins, these could be filled with cold water to add weight to the pin and keep the dough from sticking.
Top china potteries like Delft and Meissen made rolling pins long before they became popular, though. Delft's windmill and sailboat designs were widely copied, while Meissen’s blue-and-white 1739 “blue onion” Oriental motif was another coveted style.
In the 19th century, stoneware and yellow pins were introduced. These large, sturdy tools were made of a heavy, coarse yellow pottery. These are among the most scarce antique rolling pins today. A particularly coveted non-absorbent glazed stoneware rolling pin, revolving on polished wooden handles, was offered in the 1912 Seastrand catalog in an ad that read, “A rolling stone gathers no moss. Our new rolling pin gathers no dough.”
American potteries like Red Wing, established in 1870, continued to produce rolling pins well into the 20th century. Thanks to the turn-of-the-century concept of novelty advertising, ceramic rolling pins were often printed with advertisements for grocery stores, five-and-dimes, banks, and flour mills. “Save Your Dough” was a common pun in these printed slogans.
Despite the sanitary appeal of ceramics, wooden rolling pins were mass-produced during the 19th century. In the United States, in 1902, the Sears Roebuck catalog offered the first manufactured handled rolling pin with a revolving barrel. These were not the first rolling pins with such revolving barrels, though. Previously, the Pennsylvania Dutch hand-made their own wood handled rolling pin known as “draalhus,” whose revolving barrel was attached to two handles connected by two wooden dowels, intended to give the baker a good grip.
Turn-of-the-century inventors, of course, patented all sorts of clever takes on rolling pins, including Harlowe’s 1903 “Do Not Stick” rolling pin, which had a separate mesh cylinder for dusting flour. Taylor’s 1867 Combination Rolling Pin had two rollers, which was asserted to do twice the work in the half the time.
Metal was another popular material for rolling pins. It is thought cast-iron rolling pins were used by candy makers, as they chilled unusually well. Tin rolling pins often came with a tin pastry sheet, like the rolling pin combination tool set offered in the 1912 Seastrand catalog. Tin chilled so well that flour was not needed to keep the dough from sticking to the surface. In the 20th century, aluminum was also used.
Other rolling pins had marble barrels, and these are collectible today. Be wary of reproductions, which generally look too good to be true, with turned wooden handles and a highly polished finish.
Rolling pins with length-wise ridges were used for crushing oats, salt, or bread crumbs. The ridges can give a clue as to the age of the rolling pin. Before the 1930s, oats were generally less refined, so the ridges on the pins were very sharp and close set. After that time, the ridges got flatter and farther apart.
The emerging American taste for noodles in the 20th century meant pie-crust rolling pins were used for homemade pasta; pins with ridges around the circumference were used for cutting noodles out of dough.
When collecting rolling pins, look for rare or special features like abnormal lengths, or handle knobs of turned maple or unusual woods. These pins were likely hand-made as gifts. Of course, stay on the lookout for reproductions of early 20th-century designs, like the wooden rolling pins offered by the Cumberland General Store. Damage can diminish a pin's value. Examples include the crazing and discoloration of porcelain; warped or split wood; chipping on painted handles; or rust on the metal rod running through the pin.
Items that could be mistaken for rolling pins include a rolling device used for pressing handmade lace, as well as leather-tanning tools and antique spot reducers.