May 27, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Scrolling through my Instagram the other day, a very cheerful image caught my eye. A simple bowl adorned with hearts, a touch of whimsy in a gray day. This little bowl happened to be enamelware. Enamelware pieces are metal coated with a smooth, glossy surface. While enamelware is now most quickly recognized as a vintage kitchen staple, it actually has a pretty glam backstory. Starting out as a technique used for jewelry, craftsmen soon incorporated gemstones and explored new shapes. As methods evolved, enameled vases and large decorative bowls graced the parlors of many a well-heeled home, regardless of culture. Enamelware was popular in China, Britain, and the newly expanding world. By the mid-1800s the artisans behind Fabrege Eggs took everything to the next level. Yet fusing glass to metal found a new purpose by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The smooth surface, long admired by collectors, was also handy for cooking. Think of this as our ancestor’s version of Teflon. One of the most iconic enamelware manufacturers is Falcon, based out of Birmingham, England. The white and blue combination became the color palette of British life in the 1920s. But soon other manufacturers based in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe began incorporating patterns and bolder colors. As the world emerged from its first global conflict, enamelware entered its whimsical phase, bringing some much-needed sunshine to kitchens around the world. Join us as we learn more…
As we already noted, one benefit of enamelware is its smooth surface. During an era where cleanliness was becoming a movement, keeping your home clean was closely connected to patriotism. Enameled surfaces were non-porous, meaning clean up was a breeze. In a world before dishwashers this convenience felt like a true luxury. Most enameled objects were white on the inside, with the adventurous color choices happening on the exterior surfaces. The stark interior gave these pots, pans, or bowls a sanitary vibe which was super popular at the time. (Sounds a bit familiar in these coronavirus times, doesn’t it?) The American inventor Charles Stumer added a bit of intrigue to the standard solid color choices, introducing graniteware in the late 1800s. The speckled design remained popular with families for nearly sixty years!
Beyond color choices, another reason for enamelware’s runaway success was its bargain prices. The process, having been perfected since the earliest days of recorded human history, was easy to reproduce and standardize. These efficiencies translated into consumer savings. The lower cost, fun colors, and lightweight feel made it the perfect companion for the young housewife’s kitchen. If you want to start collecting enamelware, it’s important to note that the older a piece is, the heavier it’s going to be. Much like with a Bakelite discovery, you’ll need to use all your senses. When you’re examining a piece, give the base a good tap on the bottom. If it sounds thin – like a twang – then it’s a piece made after the 1960s.
The good news is that enamelware remains just as popular today as it was before man strolled on the moon. While pieces in excellent condition remain prized, a collector will find that even a slightly damaged piece can still fetch a good price as enamelware lends itself to the rustic look. Unlike other collecting genres, you also have the opportunity to invest in a high-quality new piece that will become more valuable with time. Le Creuset, that beloved French brand, first came to American shores during the jazz age and has never left! Fun fact – the original color offering was an orange hue known as Volcanic, followed by a golden yellow (known as Elysées Yellow) nearly three decades later. If you’re looking for an old-school celebrity endorsement for inspiration, Julia Child’s kitchen showcased a Belgian brand, Descoware. Descoware was similar to Le Creuset, but with one massive difference: the Belgians shaved off about a third of the weight. While you can’t find new Descoware these days, a trip to your local thrift shop just may surprise you. Julia Child endorsed the product, so it became nearly ubiquitous on this side of the pond. If you’re lucky enough to find some great, vintage enamelware pieces just remember you can’t give them a rinse and put them to work in your kitchen like a television chef. Cooking with vintage enamelware isn’t recommended, but here are some great tips on how these whimsical pieces can find new life in your home. If you’re looking for a new collecting hobby during this new age of hand-washing and cleanliness, I humbly recommend finding inspiration from the last time personal hygiene was trending!