Collecting Mania: Graniteware

Bonnie Blue, Magnolia, Flint Grey, Ripe Concord Grape: The names once used to market American graniteware are as colorful as the pieces themselves. These durable enamel-coated goods have enlivened country kitchens since the late 1800s, when manufacturers began to churn out metal cookware and bakeware coated with mottled, swirled, and speckled designs.

Enameled kitchenware was first mass-produced in Europe, in the last quarter of the 19th century, where it was manufactured in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere. European graniteware tends to be brightly colored with hand-painted floral motifs or Art Deco graphics. Certain shapes are also unique to Europe, such as tall coffee biggins and lavabos - water tanks that feature built-in basins.

Another very rare European graniteware item would be the bidet, which is a virtually universal feature (albeit in modern mass produced porcelain) in European bathrooms which not only you would be hard pressed to find in any American bathroom, but you'd be just as hard pressed to find an American who knows what it's for or how it's used. I remember traveling with an American colleague in France, and he used the bidet to fill with ice and keep his beer cold! The artisans of these countries brought their trade secrets to our shores when they arrived as immigrants. In time, American enameled items came to be called graniteware - a term that may have arisen from the popularity of Granite Iron Ware, a line first produced in 1876 by the St. Louis Stamping Co.

In the United States, the term graniteware describes all styles of enameled kitchenware, from solid-colored pieces to decorative designs. American graniteware most often carries swirled, marbled, mottled, spattered, or speckled patterns, and collectors use these generic terms to describe vintage pieces.

Graniteware took the country by storm as homemakers happily traded their lackluster cast-iron pots for items that were lively, lightweight, and easy to clean. By the early 1900s, some 80 companies nationwide were creating coffeepots, kettles, ladles, pitchers, pie plates, pudding pans, water pails, and sundry other goods. The variety of products was endless, and prices were low.

American graniteware was first produced in blue or gray, but makers introduced more vibrant goods early in the 1920s, when kitchens came alive with color. The reds, yellows, and cobalt blues continue to entice collectors today. Whether old or new, graniteware continues to freshen interiors with its lively colors and pleasing patterns. Antique Graniteware can range from $50 to $1,000 or more depending on rarity and age.

Although methods for creating the old-fashioned designs differed from firm to firm, the basic steps were the same: An iron or sheet-metal body was dipped in from one to four coats of enamel and fired in a kiln. Many of the swirled and speckled patterns were the product of skilled workers who knew how to create special effects by hand. Early in the 1940s, however, homemakers embraced the modern look of aluminum and glass cookware, so graniteware soon fell out of favor. As American factories closed their doors, many of the manufacturing and design techniques began to fade away.

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