Tips of the Trade
This Seneca Indian doll was made around 1900.
Proctor & Gamble gave away this corn-shaped pitcher in the 1950s and 1960s.
Coupons from Corn Flakes once got you these cloth doll patterns.
Bakers take note: antique corn molds are still useable.
Corn—it began as a Mayan dietary staple and now it is a crop grown and eaten all over the world. For ROADSHOW appraiser, Richard Wright, the vegetable is not a food but a motif that appears in every variety of antique and collectible, from ceramics and dolls to postcards and kitchenware.
Everything you need to know about corn-inspired collectibles
"Corn evokes happy memories of summertime," says Richard, owner of Richard Wright Antiques, in Birchrunville, Pennsylvania. "And the colors are great. That beautiful green, that beautiful yellow . . . " We asked Richard about the kinds of antiques and collectibles that have been inspired by this All-American crop. Here's what he told us.
People have long used corn and cornhusks in the folk arts to make objects such as woven amulets and dolls. "The corn dolls are a tradition among many Native American groups," Richard says. "The face or the body can be made from husk. Sometimes you'll see a cornhusk body and a bisque head: they're quite rare." It is important to note, however, that Seneca dolls traditionally do not have faces; Richard postulates that the face on this doll was most likely added by a subsequent owner, not the doll's original maker.*
The doll that Richard showed on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in Omaha, Nebraska, was made by a Seneca Indian sometime around 1900. The miniature beadwork around the doll's neck is spectacular, giving the doll a value of $1,500 to $2,000, Richard says.
In Omaha, Richard also displayed a stuffed brown doll, its legs formed from corncobs. Like many corn-related novelties on the market today, it was made during the Victorian era, which lasted roughly from the 1850s until 1901. "The Victorians loved stuff shaped like fruit, flowers, and animals," Richard said. "They loved oddball shapes."
One of the most common places to find the corn motif is in ceramics. The small majolica maple syrup jug with the pewter lid was made about 1870. Like so many corn ceramics, it features the signature green of the corn husk and the bright yellow of the corn kernels.
The corn-covered dish made by Shawnee Pottery, a Zanesville, Ohio pottery company, was part of the Corn Queen line of pottery given away as a promotion by Proctor & Gamble from 1954 to 1963.
"I bought it at a flea market for $45," Richard says. "Normally, they sell for $75 to $100." The serving bowl is big enough to hold a dozen piping-hot ears of corn served on a summer afternoon. The corn motif also is common in milk glass, which looks like white porcelain, or in ironstone, the hard white pottery first produced in England. Richard notes that such corn-related ceramics, made in both Europe and in the United States, are most popular in corn country—in the Midwest and along the East Coast of the United States.
The corn theme also turns up again and again in advertising. In 1927, Kellogg's gave cloth templates of Goldilocks and the three bears to those who sent in coupons from their corn flakes cereal boxes.
"You'd cut them out, sew them up, and you'd have a doll," Richard says. "Uncut, they're worth $400 to $500 for the set."
Where to start?
If you're a fanatic for corn, you can start collecting with just a modest amount of cash. One place to start is postcards—Richard has seen novelty postcards that show giant ears of corn being carried by a railroad car or pulled on a cart by a donkey that you can get for just a few dollars. For a similar price, you can purchase corn skewers that you stick into either end of your corncob to keep your hands free of buttery drippings.
If you're a cook, you might want to consider the corn molds made out of cast iron that are used to bake corn bread. Most were made from about 1900 to the 1920s. The larger ones usually sell for less than $30 and Richard confirms that "they're very easy to find." The ones featuring smaller cobs are more rare, and more expensive. They can sell for up to $80.
To find these corn-inspired collectibles, Richard recommends you scour the usual places: flea markets, eBay, and antique malls. "Corn collectibles are out there," Richard says. "They've always been out there."
Correction—April 4, 2006: This article was updated to clarify a point about faces on Native American corn dolls. The corn dolls were not typically made to have faces, though faces were sometimes added later. (Return to the updated paragraph)
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Collectibles category:
Space "Junk": Buying, Owning, and the Law (Houston, 2006)
Is This the Real Rudolph? (Providence, 2006)
An Audience With "The King"
On Track With Railroad Ephemera
Calling All Elvis Fans! ... Got This Photo? (Memphis, 2005)
Cornucopia of Crate Labels
Raging for Roadmaps
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.