Keeping our hands in the cookie jars
The craze for collecting cookie jars may have passed,
but their appeal is universal
story and photos by Leigh Elmore
When Elizabeth Oram was perusing a flea market years ago she encountered a vintage cookie jar dating from the 1950s that reminded her of scenes from her childhood in South St. Louis.
"Toothache Muggsy" is a cookie jar made by the Shawnee Pottery Co. of Zanesville, OH in the 1940s. Today it is one of the prized possessions of Lee Sturgill, a dealer at the Mission Road Antique Mall. (photo by Leigh Elmore)
"My grandmother lived with our family and she was always making cookies for my siblings and I. And she would store them in a pottery cookie jar. When I saw that jar it just brought back memories of those days. I just had to have it," Oram, now a resident of Fairway, KS, said.
Sometime later, Oram found another cookie jar of the same design and she snapped that one up too. She proudly displays both jars in her home along with other vintage items. She doesn't collect cookie jars, per se, but the jars help her collect memories.
And in the world of cookie jar collecting, Oram's story is very common. People associate the objects with pleasant memories of growing up. With such good memories attached it's no surprise that many people choose to collect the decorative kitchenwares.
Two related cats at Mission Road Antique Mall
Interest comes and goes
As trends and fads go, perhaps cookie jar collecting has seen its heyday as several dealers have
An ABCO designed cow/bull at Lone Elm Antique Mall, marked $35
commented that the hobby seemed more popular around the turn of the current century.
"They used to be real popular," commented David Youngman, who owns and operates the Lone Elm Antique Mall in Olathe, KS, along with his wife,
Jana. "Twenty years ago, they used to be real popular. The good ones would just fly off the shelves," he said, noting that intense interest in cookie jars has subsided, at least in the Midwest.
So, while a cookie-jar-craze may have subsided, "serious" collectors can still find plenty of the playful and amusing containers in just about any antique mall. And, there are some real "finds" lurking among the other kitchen-related memorabilia for sale.
Prior to the 1930s most cookie jars were made of glass or metal. They were sparsely decorated, usually with flowers or leaves. "After the Brush Pottery company in Zanesville, OH began producing decorative ceramic cookie jars many other companies followed suit," writes Barbara Crews for the website thoughtco.com. "Ceramic cookie jars tended to be much more ornate and decorative than their glass and metal predecessors."
An antique lamb in a basket at Mission Road Antique Mall, marked $65
The earliest known decorative cookie jar is a 10-inch-tall ceramic jar shaped like a trash can from Brush Kolorkraft of Roseville, OH, which was dated to 1929. Early cookie jar manufacturers include McKee Glass Co. of Pennsylvania, glassmakers keen to capitalize on the new cookie jar trend, and Louisville Pottery, which made lidded jars for the Harper J. Ransburg Co. of Indiana.
Ransburg has been credited with hand painting up to a quarter-million jars per year during its peak in the 1930s. Popular designs ranged from floral motifs, Davy Crockett style coonskin caps, and classic nursery rhyme characters such as Humpty Dumpty and Mary and her little lamb.
The "Golden Age"
In America, the period between 1940 and 1970 is considered to be the "golden age" of cookie jar manufacturing. Most pickers will find cookie jars come from this era.
Many manufacturers, including American Bisque, made numerous cookie jars in the shapes of animals. Pigs were especially popular, and American Bisque is well known for its line of "paws in pockets" jars. Other popular creatures included elephants, kittens, puppies, lambs, and rabbits.
Humpty Dumpty jar at Mission Road Antique Mall
Character cookie jars come in all shapes and sizes, so there is something for every type of buyer. Whether it's Blues Clues, Cat in the Hat, Disney characters or Harry Potter, a character cookie jar can be found for just about any pop culture category. Classic characters, such as Betty Boop, The Flintstones, Garfield, Looney Tunes or the Pink Panther continue to be popular and are found in both vintage styles and newly produced versions.
Founded in 1910 as the Nelson McCoy Sanitary Stoneware Co., the Roseville, OH firm produced many highly sought-after collectibles, especially its cookie jars, which the company started producing in the 1930s. McCoy closed in 1990, but the company's decorative stoneware continues to be a favorite among collectors.
A bear and bee design by McCoy (photo courtesy Pinterest)
While not the first, McCoy is arguably one of the most important and sought-after names in this category, according to Collector's Weekly. 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. The words "Dem cookies shor am good" on the outside of
one jar from 1944 were replaced in 1946 with the far less offensive "Cookies."
In the postwar era, countless ceramics companies made cookie jars. Sought-after producers include the previously mentioned Brush Pottery, whose cows with cat finials and circus horses from the 1950s are tough to find in good condition. Purington Pottery made jars shaped like Howdy Doody heads, while Red Wing Stoneware produced Dutch girls, bunches of grapes, and chefs in assorted colors. Those are all collectible, but the prizes for Red Wing are the cinnamon-colored King of Tarts jars and any color of cabbage jar available, according to Collector's Weekly.
Regal China Company cranked out umpteen versions of Little Red Riding Hood, made an entire series of "Alice in Wonderland" products for Walt Disney, including an Alice cookie jar, and even made a jar shaped like the head of Harpo Marx.
As for Shawnee Pottery, it is best known for its Smiley and Winnie Pig jars, each of which was made from the same mold but featured different colored scarves and articles of clothing.
A churn shaped jar by American Bisque at Lone Elm Antique Mall, marked $22.50
Because every cookie jar takes up a fair amount of shelf space, many collectors are challenged to display their entire collection all at once. For that reason, many collectors choose a theme to narrow their finds, allowing them to display more of their favorites. Some popular themes for a novelty cookie jar collection include:
- Advertising cookie jars, including brands such as Coca Cola, John Deere, Pillsbury or Nabisco
- Cartoon jars with images such as Snoopy, Garfield, Betty Boop or Disney characters
- Nursery rhyme jars with characters from Mother Goose or Little Red Riding Hood
- Holiday jars for Christmas and Easter
- House shaped jars
- Lighthouse shaped jars
- Pop cultural icons, such as the Beatles
Two similar cookie jars owned by Elizabeth Oram of Fairway.
She bought them because they reminded her of her grandmother's cookie baking prowess. (photo by Elizabeth Oram)
Another way to solve the dilemma of adequate space is to own only a predetermined number of cookie jars at a time. "If your predetermined number is 50 cookie jars, you will need to sell one if you discover a 51st jar that you simply must have," said Kathleen Roberts, writing for www.lovetoknow.com.
If you just can't bear to get rid of your jars, or you have trouble deciding on one theme, consider rotating the collection. This only works if you have room to store cookie jars that are packed in boxes.
"You could display fruit-shaped cookie jars in the spring; when summer rolls around you would then box up your fruit-shaped jars and display advertising cookie jars. In the winter you may decide to display only your Christmas cookie jars," Roberts states.
If you want to add to your collection the first place to look is your local thrift and antique shops. They're a common item at most flea markets or tag sales as well. Cookie jars often end up in the for-sale pile as they have fallen somewhat out use as kitchenware. It's much less common now for most homeowners to own one, let alone a collection.
This sad news is great for collectors because it means there's less competition. If you're a serious collector, auctions are a great way to find unique or valuable pieces. Buying online is always an option, but online auction sites come with their own warnings. If you see something that looks too good to be true it probably is.
At the Mission Road Antique Mall in Prairie Village, KS, dealer Lee Sturgill brought in one of his favorite objects, a rare cookie jar in the shape of a dog with a bandage around its head and jaw dating from the 1940s. "Toothache Muggsy" was made by Shawnee Pottery, has been in Sturgell's possession for 30 years, he said.
And with prices for the piece ranging from $200 to $500 on several websites, no wonder Muggsy is one of Sturgill's favorite companions.
A sliced grapefruit jar by California Pottery dating from the 1940s at the Mission Road Antique Mall
Finding the value
The following are several online resources to help determine the value of an antique or
collectible cookie jar:
Examples of helpful guidebooks include:
- The Complete Cookie Jar Book by Mike Schneider is considered by many to be one of the most complete cookie jar books ever published. With more than 2,000 full color cookie jar illustrations, the book includes information on popular cookie jar manufacturers such as McCoy, Hull and American Bisque; information on retailers, distributors and importers; condition guidelines; information on production techniques and tips on spotting counterfeits
- Warman's Cookie Jars: Identification and Price Guide by Mark F. Moran
- Although An Illustrated Value Guide to Cookie Jars by Ermagene Westfall was originally
published in 1983, it was updated in 2003 and includes the market prices of that year. This book is a valuable resource for identification as it includes hundreds of color photographs.
- The Ultimate Collector's Encyclopedia of Cookie Jars: Identification and Values by Joyce and Fred Roerig includes more than 1200 photographs.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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