Collecting Vintage Enamelware

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 20 June/July 1994

Enamelware, the first mass-produced Technicolor kitchenware, first appeared in American dry-goods stores and mail-order catalogs in the 1870s, and continued to be produced through the 1930s. Items such as biscuit cutters, baking tins, and ladles were stamped from thin sheets of iron, steel, or aluminum, then coated with enamel, which was fused to the metal in a very hot oven.

Enamelware came in blue, red, purple, brown, green, and pink, plus gray and white. Patterns were as varied as the colors; besides the familiar swirls, mottles, speckles, shades, and solids, there were designs that looked like chicken wire, checkerboards, and pickle relish. Some pieces sported a festive jumble of colors collectors call "end of day," because it was made with a mix of leftover glazes. Enamelware was much lighter-weight than the average kitchenware, cleaned easily, and was less fragile than china, which added to its popularity.

Made by several manufacturers, enamelware was known by many names. Lalance and Grosjean coined Agate Iron Ware for one of its products; the St. Louis Stamping Co. marketed a line called Granite Iron Ware. Shortened to agateware and graniteware, these names caught on and came to be used interchangeably with generics such as porcelainware and speckleware. In fact, graniteware remains the name most widely used by collectors today.

Many pieces that survived home life at the turn of the century were lost to World War II scrap-metal drives, so the once-plentiful kitchenware is much harder to find now, and its rarity adds to the value. A muffin pan intended for use a century ago rarely arrives on the market in perfect condition today; it can be worth more than $1,500 if it also has a rare shape and color or the original label intact. Teapots and mixing bowls in near-mint condition are more common and might cost $30 or $300 each. Worn ladles, funnels, and pie tins can sell for a quite reasonable $5 to $10. Rare colors and patterns -- purple, red, cobalt-blue swirls -- are the priciest; solid and shaded pieces are much more affordable.

Enamelware was manufactured again in the United States during the 1960s, and is produced in various locations around the world today. A genuine antique may have its maker's name fired into the glaze on the bottom; some pieces have the date fired in as well. "You can tell the old pieces by the smoothness of the finish, riveted handles and spouts, and handles or knobs made out of wood instead of plastic," says Helen Greguire, author of "The Collector's Encyclopedia of Granite Ware" (two volumes, Collector Books).

Caring for Enamelware
Grimy enamelware should come clean with hot, soapy water and a soft cloth. Never use steel wool or sharp objects, since they can scratch the surface. Instead, apply an oven-cleaning spray according to label directions, being careful to protect tin lids and painted wooden handles with plastic wrap before spraying.

Any cooking utensil with stains of unknown origin, white lime deposits, or brown discolorations from mineral-heavy water may come clean if you boil peeled potatoes or a teaspoon of baking soda in it. (If the stain is on the outside or the piece isn't a cooking vessel in the first place, boil it in a bigger pot.) Enamelware with stubborn stains may benefit from an overnight soak in one part white vinegar mixed with three parts water. If that doesn't work, soak it in chlorine bleach and water until the stains disappear. After any such vigorous cleaning, give the piece a hot, soapy bath.

For everyday cleaning, experts recommend washing enamelware by hand. If you choose to use a dishwasher, be sure to arrange the pieces so they won't bang against other dishes and chip. After washing, dry enamelware thoroughly inside and out, because water can encourage corrosion.

Pieces with rust along a seam or on spots that have chipped will benefit from an application of naval jelly left on for 10 minutes. To stop further rust, coat with cooking oil. Enamelware intended for display only can be sprayed with clear lacquer or aerosol wax. If you intend to eat or cook with vintage enamelware, just be sure that all surfaces that come in contact with food are intact.

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