Tips of the Trade
At the museum at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, appraiser J. Michael Flanigan talked with ANTIQUES ROADSHOW host Mark Walberg about culinary collectibles.
A cherry pitter like this one, from the late 19th century, would go for less than $100, even if found in mint condition.
Not surprisingly, many kitchen collectibles, such as this wrought-iron toaster for the fireplace, became worn out from everyday use.
Mix childhood memories together with the warm feelings associated with kitchens, and what you have is one of the most desired—and accessible—categories of antiques and collectibles: culinary ones.
Memories from your childhood kitchen
While in Providence with ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in 2005, Baltimore appraiser J. Michael Flanigan made a stop at the Culinary Archives & Museum at Johnson & Wales University. Since the museum opened in 1989, it has amassed tens of thousands of kitchen utensils and appliances that core, cut, chop, pare, pit, mash, cook and chill food. To learn about the ins and outs of culinary collecting, we talked to Michael and also to Erin Williams, collections manager at the museum. Our first question: How do people usually pursue collecting old kitchenware?
"Most people find their favorite item to collect and then just run with it," Erin says. "It might be one object, like toasters, skillets, or waffle irons, and it's usually linked to some experience in their youth. There was something in their kitchen that was meaningful." Erin says that she tapped into this affection for old kitchenware after her mother-in-law broke a valued glass fruit-juice reamer about 10 years ago. The next Christmas, Erin knew just what to get her mother-in-law: a replacement reamer.
Sometimes, an obsession
Sometimes, though, the search for the beloved object doesn't end when it's found. After one hunt is finished, collectors are onto another, and soon they're infected with the collecting bug. "An interest becomes an obsession," Erin says, "and before they know it, they're writing a book about egg beaters." The museum is often offered collections of just one kind of object, like the donation it recently received of oven thermometers.
Sometimes a collector will try to recreate a kitchen from a certain time period. "People want the 1950s kitchen they remember, or they want the kitchen their grandmother had in Omaha," Michael says. "A lot of what drives kitchen collectibles is that kitchen and that smell." Less frequently, people will recreate kitchens from favorite historical periods. "They might try to recreate a colonial kitchen," he says. "They're not just getting the first or the best, they want to give you the sense of what it's like to cook and serve in the 18th century. ... It can become like a movie set. They want to walk into that place and get hit by that moment."
Almost too much to collect
Still, notes Erin, beginning collectors are often overwhelmed by the volume of culinary collectibles available. "We have a book just about egg beaters," Erin says. The amount of kitchenware is so vast because most of it was mass-produced, unlike antiques and collectibles such as antique paintings or fine furniture, which are often one-of-a-kind. For this reason, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of varieties of nutcrackers, apple parers, and even nutmeg graters, and each appliance has at least one collectible book of its own. A look at one of the classic books in the field, 300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, by Linda Campbell Franklin, gives you an idea of the breadth of the subject. The book includes chapters on "Trivets and Stands," "Implements that Turn, Spoon, and Flip," and "Coffee, Tea, and Chocolate." What you may assume are simple categories—toasters, for example—really aren't. In his book Early American Electric Toasters, 1906-1940, Charles Fischer divides them up into four categories: Proto-toasters, Perchers and Pinchers, Turners and Floppers, and Swingers and Sidewinders.
The most popular culinary collectibles are those that were made when today's collectors, usually between age 30 and 60, were young. They're looking back to the kitchens of their youths, from the post-World War II period through the 1980s. They're not looking for cherry pitters or cast-iron meat grinders, but for electric kitchen appliances, such as blenders, microwaves, or Cuisinarts.
Because there's less demand for them, objects made before the 1940s are less expensive. "They're not just useless, in the sense we don't use cherry pitters anymore," Michael says. "The problem is that people haven't lived on the farm for so long they don't even recognize what it is." That's why, he says, "there's practically nothing over 150 bucks" among the older culinary items. Generally, culinary collectibles are cheaper than those meant for the dining room, or any other room in the house. "The stuff in the kitchen is considered everyday," Erin says, "and the numbers of items produced was much higher. The dining room was a much more formal space. Grandma wouldn't consider the cherry pitter equal to the fine china."
Objects in the kitchen were also used much more frequently, so collectors aren't finicky about purchasing yesterday's kitchenware in mint condition. "On the whole, people are collecting it for sentimental reasons," Erin says, "so it doesn't have to be pristine." Prices only rise when someone is looking for an incredibly designed kitchen piece or the first-of-a-kind design—the first tin-plated electric toaster, for example. "You might pay $1,500 for an incredibly rare toaster," Michael says. If a piece is a prototype and its provenance can be documented, that also adds to its value.
Finding favorite culinary collectibles
One of the ways to identify the culinary collectibles from your youth is to go back through magazines of the era and see what's featured and advertised. You can also try to look up catalogues from certain eras to see what's being sold. "If you're collecting modern stuff, the first thing to do is get the design magazines of the time," Michael says. "If you're 35 years old, and your mother was a serious chef who used a blender, but you're not sure what the model was, at the next flea market you should buy Gourmet or Good Housekeeping magazines from the early 1980s. They cost a couple of bucks and they'll show you everything."
Michael says that an even easier way to research collectible cookware is to rent old episodes of TV shows popular during certain eras, such as The Donna Reed Show or Leave it to Beaver for the 1950s, or Miami Vice in the 1980s. "That's what's great about the modern age," Michael says. "You can freeze frame and fast forward and find out what's in the room."
To learn more about culinary collectibles see:
The Web site of the Culinary Archives & Museum at Johnson & Wales University
300 Years of Kitchen Collectibles, by Linda Campbell Franklin, 1998.
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.