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Collecting Mania: Cookie Jars
Whether it's used for holding cookies or stashing the family nest egg, that cookie jar could be worth more than you ever imagined.
Believe it or not, cookie jars were once simply receptacles for chocolate chips and gingersnaps. Then, in February 1987, Andy Warhol's death bestowed an unexpected cachet on them, earning them their 15 minutes of fame - and then some.
A zealous flea-market denizen, Warhol had accumulated a collection of 134 ceramic figural cookie jars - everything from clowns and cats to fruits and veggies. When the contents of his New York apartment were auctioned at Sotheby's in April 1987, Warhol's humble cookie containers suddenly emerged as a collectible to be reckoned with. Before the sale, experts had estimated the value of Warhol's collection at around $10,000; when the auctioneer's gavel fell for the last time, however, the 134 jars had brought a total of $240,350.
Eleven years later, cookie jars in the forms of dogs, bears, Dutch girls, and grape clusters are still hotter than a tray full of freshly baked, right-out-of-the-oven Mrs. Fields.
Since the late 18th century, the British have been manufacturing "biscuit" jars to hold their version of what Americans call cookies. Cookie jars were not common in American kitchens, though, until 1929, the beginning of the Depression. The first ones were nothing more than glass jars fitted with screw-on metal lids. Throughout the 1930's, stoneware became the most popular material for cookie jars. These jars were commonly shaped like bean pots or cylinders and were decorated with painted leaves or flowers.
The Brush Pottery Co. of Zanesville, OH, which would become a leading manufacturer of cookie jars, turned out the very first ceramic version - a green canister that had the word "Cookies" adorned across the front of it. Ceramic did not become the standard cookie jar material until the early 1940's - when manufacturers began creating figural jars in the shapes of fruit, animals, vegetables, and characters from nursery rhymes, comics, and cartoons.
Cheery, brightly decorated figural cookie jars proved to be so popular that dozens of potteries tried to cash in over the next 30 years. And it's these jars - which Warhol amassed and loved - for which collectors have developed a sweet tooth.
While thousands of ceramic cookie jars have been produced since the mid-1940's by an untold number of potteries, a handful of manufacturers were actually responsible for a majority of the jars. A significant number of companies made considerable contributions to the development of the prototypical American cookie jar.
Established in 1919 in Williamstown, WV, American Bisque was in business for 60 years. One of the leading producers of cookie jars, the company began making jars in 1930. They are marked simply "USA" and often have a mold number; they are easily identified by their colorful airbrushing and the unglazed molded wedge-shaped pad on the bottom of each jar. American Bisque made numerous clowns and animals and also licensed characters like Popeye, Olive Oyl, Casper, and all of the Flintstones.
Along with American Bisque, Nelson McCoy, which was founded in Roseville, OH, in 1910, created the cookie jars most loved by collectors today. The company's first jar - and one of the most valuable today - was the Mammy With Cauliflower, from 1939. McCoy made cookie jars until 1987, though the greatest production years were before the mid-70's. Nelson McCoy made more vegetable- and fruit-shaped jars than any other company, and quite a few of them are rather affordable. Most of the jars are embossed or stamped "McCoy."