Monday, January 13, 2014
Kolorful Kitchen Kollectibles
QUESTION: I have been cleaning out my grandmother’s house after her death. In the kitchen drawers, I’ve found dozens of quirky looking utensils, most with colorful wooden handles. Some of these I’m sure I can use today. Should I use them or put them aside as collectibles?
ANSWER: Every American kitchen had a least some of these handy-dandy doodads. Each utensil had one use, so housewives had to buy a large number of them to take care of all the tasks a typical kitchen required. And, yes, some of them may be somewhat valuable—at least the rarer ones.
These early 20th-century kitchen gadgets have a strong relationship to today’s “As-seen-on-TV” gadgets, advertised on many of the retro channels. Take the one-hand blender. Except for its streamlined shape and lack of a colored handle, it’s very similar to the one-handed eggbeater that worked with an up-and-down motion, similar to a top, created in 1909 by Benjamin T. Ash and Edward H. Johnson of upstate New York. It puts a new spin on the old saying, “What goes around comes around.”
But why the colorful handles? Brightly painted cooking utensils of the 1920s brought the first dab of color into American kitchens. Apple green led the cutlery color wheel, followed by Mandarin red. But manufacturers also produced wooden handles in white, blue, black, or yellow, and sometimes two-toned with ivory stripes.
All these utensils—from food mincers, pitters, and corers to spiral whisks, ice picks, and jar lifters—eased even the most basic of the housewife's culinary chores. Ingenious kitchen gadgets made exacting tasks—such as defining the outer edges of a piecrust with a pie crimper—a pleasure. Colored handles only added to their attraction.
Kitchen gadgets, from spoons to mashers, were originally all-wood, simply carved, and shaped to meet various purposes in the kitchen. Pie crimpers are a good example. Whalers often carved them of whale ivory for their wives and sweethearts back home. By the 20th century, makers introduced metal with the wood and a sea of new items appeared in homes.
Black was the first "color" used to paint wooden handles, then white, just prior to 1920. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that other colors began to appear and continued in use through 1950, when plastic handles took over.
The history of colored cooking aids directly parallels that of the emerging automated kitchen. Prior to the industrial revolution, agateware offered lackluster, all-white kitchens their only hint of color. Kitchenware, dishes, pots, and other items were also plain and unimaginative. Utensils—in their bare steel frames plated with tin, nickel, or chrome, and later stainless steel were just as pallid until color came along.
It happened around 1927. Competition was everywhere, especially in real estate. To attract buyers, builders resorted to gimmicks such as using pink and blue tiles, instead of the traditional white, in bathrooms. The tiles were a hit—an indication that America applauded merchandisers' efforts to add vibrance to homes. Houseware manufacturers quickly responded. A color revolution in the kitchen had begun, and it hasn’t let up yet.
By the end of the decade, the "Color Craze" had replaced the "White Enamel Era," so-called by women's and home-fashions magazines. Department stores such as Abraham & Straus, Macy's,,and Wanamaker's led the market selling utensils and other kitchen paraphernalia in color. Sears Roebuck, Kresge, Spiegel, and F. W. Woolworth—also retailers catering to middle class housewives—offered serving trays, canisters, spice sets, breadboxes, clocks, scales, garbage cans, dishes, and even dustpans to eager homemakers.
Kitchen-tool manufacturing was widespread in the early part of this century. Many small businesses produced all types of labor-saving devices with and without color. Acme Metal Goods Mfg. Co., of Newark, N.J., and Bromwell Wire Goods, in Cincinnati, Ohio, were only two.
But antiques dealers say the name on utensils that probably pops up more often than others is A & J Mfg. Co., of Binghamton, N.Y. Colored utensils from A & J are widely available at flea markets and antiques shows and shops simply because these products proliferated nationally and internationally in the kitchen-cutlery market for about 40 years. Stamped into the tool's metal, their trademark is a diamond shape with the Monogram "A & J" superimposed on the utensil.
A & J began humbly in 1909 in the homes of Benjamin T. Ash and Edward H. Johnson, who lived in rural upstate New York. After creating and marketing their first product—a one-handed eggbeater—they added numerous other kitchen gadgets with natural wooden handles to their product line. By 1918, A & J had moved to a commercial building and employed 200 workers who cranked out some four million tools annually.
A & J was the first to offer knives, spatulas, ladles, and other items in one package. In 1923, the company entered the toy market, producing its regular kitchen items in miniature, with the same colored handles, for young girls. The half-sized eggbeaters, waffle irons, strainer spoons, and rolling pins were exact replicas of the ones Mother employed. Johnson's intent with the company's line of Mother's Little Helper Kitchen Tools for Little Cooks and Bakers was to familiarize future housewives with the A & J name so they would buy the company's products when they grew up and had a home of their own. The strategy worked.
A & J was so successful that Edward Katzinger, founder of Ekco, bought the company in 1929 and moved it to Chicago in 1931. Ekco kept the A & J trademark and line until the 1950s, and sold the toys until 1937.
So while some of the items advertised on TV today may seem futuristic, their purpose is the same—to make like easier with less work for not only mother, but anyone who cooks.
For more information, see an earlier post of this blog on kitchen gadgets from February 18, 2013, entitled “Less Work for Mother.”