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Discover Mid-America— October 2010

Classic Collectibles of the Kitchen

As the weather gets colder and fall descends, the outside grill gets cleaned and covered, and people retreat back into the kitchen. It can bring to mind kitchen collectibles as a matter of décor and, yes, even function.

Classic kitchen cast iron

Types of cast metal have being used in cooking for centuries, however true cast iron did not have a major role in the kitchen until the 1860s.

An early cast iron favorite was the muffin pans. In 1859, a Boston merchant obtained patents on a number of cast iron muffin pans, many of which would remain remarkably similar to others for more than 50 years.

In the 1860s, there was a great demand for cast iron cake pans to bake gem muffins. Gems was actually the brand name of a commercial baking powder used in muffin making, however the name became standard and was soon applied to the cast iron pans themselves.

Ironically, the original gem muffins or Wisconsin cakes, were “hardly gemlike” according to William Woys Weaver, author of America Eats. They were instead, “a coarse wheat-bran muffin introduced by abolitionist cooks to avoid having to use ingredients produced by slave labor.”

The legendary Griswold company existed only as the Selden & Griswold Manufacturing Company in the 1860s and provided just a limited number of cooking items including a square frying pan.

Wagner no. 8 cast iron waffle maker, ca. 1915.

For the most part cast iron cooking ware, or hollow ware as it would be known commercially, produced during the third quarter of the 19th century, came from stove companies. Their ware naturally was specifically designed to fit their stoves. The products of non-stove makers tended to work on all stoves. Among the early makers were Brown-Bowman, Read’s Pan, Jos Bell and Company, and George Starrett.

In the 1880s, the Griswold company was producing cast iron cooking ware on an extensive scale, first using the name Erie and later the full firm identification.

The catalogs of leading hardware stores offered an amazing selection of the “hollow ware,” including Yankee bowls, teakettles, spiders (small frying pans), griddles and pans. The Simmons Hardware Company, for example, listed baking pans of every shape including round, square, oval and even oblong.

In 1895, the Montgomery Ward mail-order catalog drew from a growing number of foundries in the United States to present customers with the widest variety yet of cast iron cooking ware. Listed were lots of gem pans and a waffle iron produced by the Wagner Manufacturing Co. in Sidney, OH. However one of their biggest sellers was Schofield’s Patent cake griddle. The catalog proclaimed these griddles “make better cakes than any other griddle ever invented, because the little pans are deep and hold the batter and prevent it spreading out, getting thin and drying out.” Depending on size the pans were billed as providing six to eight cakes per minute. Cost was 65 cents per pan.

By the dawn of the 20th century cast iron kitchenware was extremely popular and was being eagerly produced in factories from Connecticut to Missouri and New York to Alabama. Colorful titles among the makers included Favorite Piqua Ware, Charter Oak Rangers, Wapak Hollow Ware (with the Indian head trademark) and Vollrath Ware. However, a major portion of the early 20th century market was controlled by such producers as Griswold and Wagner Ware manufacturing.

Sears and Roebuck got caught-up with their own brand too and declared in 1908 that Imperial Stove Hollow Ware was “as easy to keep clean as china.” Moreover, the gray cast iron and pure white porcelain were “united at an intense heat, thereby forming a perfect union of the two.”

There were some innovations. A few years after the Sears ad, Griswold offered the public their delightful Colonial breakfast skillet. Compartments provided for bacon, hash browns, and eggs according to author Weaver. “In this unique skillet, an entire colonial meal was condensed and frozen for time in iron,” adds the researcher. “It was America’s first TV dinner, long before TV.”

Six-cup heart gem pan, ca. 1920s, attributed to Martin Stove and Range Company

Yet for all the competition and occasional innovation, the cooking objects themselves generally remained remarkably similar. In 1918, the Griswold catalog presented a cake griddle almost exactly like the Schofield’s cake griddle depicted in the Montgomery Ward catalog more than 20 years earlier.

“It is interesting to note by comparison how very few changes were made in products manufactured during these decades,” observes Ronald Barlow in Victorian Houseware, Hardware and Kitchenware. “An 1870s meat grinder looks very much like its 1900s counterpart, and cast iron cookware hardly changed at all.”

Griswold continued its prominence in the field into the 1920s with everything from fryers and fruit presses to waffle pans and Whole Wheat Stick pans. The company also developed a series of imaginative magazine advertisements featuring Aunt Ellen. This Betty Crocker-type figure was actually a Griswold employee, Etta Moses.

“When folks praise my fried chicken I smile and think of my Griswold skillet with its close-fit iron cover,” wrote a kindly Aunt Ellen in a 1926 ad for Good Housekeeping. In another she noted, “When I give my guests waffles, they invariable come to the kitchen to see my waffle iron.” Today even the ads themselves are sought by Griswold collectors.

During the 1930s, Griswold products were so popular that the company even offered cast iron toy replicas of the firm’s cooking ware.

After a half-century of production, Griswold was acquired by rival Wagner Manufacturing in the 1950s. In the late 1960s, General Housewares Corporation obtained all rights to both Griswold and Wagner products. Today, Griswold in particular and kitchen cast iron in general enjoys a renewed appreciation.

Typically marked cast iron such as Griswold, Wagner, G.F. Filey, Martin, Wapok, and Waterman is considered more collectible than unmarked examples.

In the book Kitchen Collectibles author Diane Stonebeck relates the story of a collector who came upon a Griswold waffle iron in a San Francisco shop. The bug bit and in the 15 years that followed the collector acquired 2,000 pieces of cast iron kitchenware.

Black Americana kitchen collectibles

From products and salt and peppers to cookie jars and cookbooks, the appeal of the kitchen has generated more than a century of Black Americana collectibles.

Over the years black kitchen collectibles have been the subject of a generally positive focus. Black Collectibles author Jackie Young, for example, recalls in her book, “I became a devotee of mammy collectibles because of the warm, happy memories I associated with them. Growing up in the 1950s, I can remember many pleasant times spent in kitchens, including my grandmother’s, decorated with friendly, smiling, motherly black mammy images.”

In the early 1880s, the British humor magazine Punch published a cartoon of two black children washing in a tub. “Warranted to wash clean and not fade,” said the caption. In Chicago the N.K. Fairbank Company, already marketing soap products for the household, developed the idea into a package for the Gold Dust Twins.

The Gold Dust Twins trademark was registered in 1884, and by 1890 it had become one of the best-known images in America. During the World’s Fair of 1904 in St. Louis, two black twins were used by the company to pass out booklets and samples.

Southern Cookbook was first published in 1939, which remained popular through the 1940s

Both the product and the promotions continued until the early 1930s when the company was sold and the soap was discontinued. Gold Dust items remain prized according to syndicated columnists Ralph and Terry Kovel, who reported a rare embossed, lithographed tin sign picture the Gold Dust Twins sitting in a washtub sold for $5,700 in 1984.

While the Fairbank Company and the Gold Dust Twins were prospering, the Diamond Milling Company was barely alive in 1893. Employees decided to create a cereal from the leavings of wheat, and package it in handmade cartons with the image of a black chef stamped on each.

Cream of Wheat became a Hollywood-type success story in the 1890s, and by 1900 the company had relocated in Minneapolis, MN. Reportedly, owner Emery Mapes was in a Chicago restaurant when he saw a striking black waiter and asked him to pose for a new Cream of Wheat logo. The man was paid $5 for posing but was never otherwise noted or identified. It was this second image that remained part of the company’s standard for more than 50 years.

Today items bearing Cream of Wheat’s black chef logo are highly collectible. Magazine advertisements from the early years are also collectible. Signs, mirrors, and other items are even more difficult to find.

Not surprisingly it was during the era of the Gold Dust Twins and Cream of Wheat, that the image of the most recalled and most sought kitchen collectible of all was created.

The idea for the fictional yet commercial landmark Aunt Jemima came in 1889 when a newspaper reporter came up with a concept for a self-rising pancake mix in St. Joseph, MO.

Apparently part of the inspiration for the name came from a song performed by a visiting vaudeville team that season. At any rate the R. T. Davis Mill and Manufacturing Company purchased the whole idea just in time for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Much like the producers of The Gold Dust Twins would do at the 1904 exposition, the Davis Company hired a black woman to be the “real” Aunt Jemima.

“Initiating a dynamic concept that scores of advertisers have used ever since,” notes Charles Panati in Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, “the company sought to bring the Aunt Jemima trademark to life.

“The company found warm, affable Nancy Green,” adds Panati. He concluded she more than anyone “helped establish the pancake in America’s consciousness and kitchens, touring the country as Aunt Jemima until her death in 1923, at age 89.”

Classic black figural cookie jars, both made by McCoy Pottery

In the 1920s, the company, then known as Aunt Jemima Mills, produced a set of oilcloth black dolls as a premium for buying the cooking product. Besides Aunt Jemima, the set included Wade, Diana and Uncle Moses.

During the 1950s, the Quaker Oats Company, which had acquired the rights to the firm shortly after the death of Nancy Green, hired Edith Wilson to be the “real” Aunt Jemima once again.

Wilson was already an established actor who had starred in radio, TV, and such films as To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart. Her fond likeness then was used to provide a vast number of promotional products including cookie jars, plastic creamers, and kitchen clocks. At one point in the 1950s, Scripto produced Aunt Jemima corn meal mix lighters to be given away by Quaker Oats sales representatives.

Aside from all the official Aunt Jemima-related items of the early and middle 20th century, there was a wide range of kitchen setting things produced elsewhere. There were ceramic salt and peppershakers, cast iron doorstops, made in Japan spice sets, and kitchen memo pads.

Many of these black kitchen collectibles were mistakenly identified with Aunt Jemima by many sources in the early days of their marketing. However such books as Jackie Young’s Black Collectibles: Mammy and Her Friends (Schiffer Publishing) have helped make clear the distinction.

Additionally, other commercial firms made use of the image of the black woman as Aunt Jemima began to gain fame. Gold Medal Flour used an actual photograph in some of their advertising rather than a drawing. Luzianna Coffee did use a caricature on both coffee tins and other promotional products.

England Black Americana Golliwog ceramic cereal bowl (photo courtesy Squirrels Nest, RubyLane)

A striking ceramic cookie jar identified as Sambo the Chef was advertised in the Sears and Roebuck Catalogue during the early 1940s. Both mammy and chef cookie jars were sold by National Silver Company during that period in New York, and they were manufactured by just about every cookie jar-producing pottery in the country.

As late as the 1950s, the Hampden Novelty Manufacturing Company of Holyoke, MA was producing both composition and plastic mammy kitchen memo pads with colorful paper for making notes. In the book Salt and Pepper Shakers (Collector Books) author Helene Guarnaccia devotes a whole chapter to depicting those that were black-related.

Speaking of kitchen collectibles and other items, P.L. Gibbs explains how production was slowly altered during this century in Black Collectibles --Sold In America (Collector Books).

“During the period form 1950 to 1970,” she comments, “the images of black-related material changed from caricature to more naturalistic figures. Ceramics, mammy dolls, and caricature advertising prints slowed in most industries. This time period in America marked a change in our history. “

Robert Reed can be contacted at

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