[Updated March 2021.]
Chances are you’ve come across vintage enamelware at some point in your life. Housewives relied on it from the early 1900’s well into the 1950’s. As a result, it can be easily found tucked away in grandmother’s cupboard, at garage sales, and flea markets.
My own grandmother owned many pieces of enamelware and used a navy splattered basin in her sink to wash dishes until the day she died. She watered her house plants with a white quart-sized enamel pitcher that had measurements written down the side.
One of my prized possessions is a nicely marbled blue enamelware cup that I inherited from her. I have a deep affection for enamelware of any kind.
I enjoy both decorating with it and selling it as I find it to be a good seller. Let’s take a deeper look at this interesting and attractive collectible.
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History of Enamelware
Initially developed in Germany in the 16th century, the process of enameling metal pots and pans made its way to America in the mid-1800s. Essentially, manufacturers applied powdered glass to metal and heated it at very high temperatures, melting the glass and fusing it to the metal. This created a sturdy, porcelain type of finish.
Initially, you would find white enamel on the interior of cast iron bathtubs, sinks, and Dutch ovens. Later it would be applied to the entire surface of steel pots and pans, tableware, coffee pots, pitchers, basins, soap dishes, chamber pots, and road signs. Color and pattern would come later on in the century.
The enamel coating put an end to metallic tasting food and prevented rust from contaminating food. In addition, enamel coated steel products are much lighter than cast iron and also easier to clean.
Unfortunately, the enamel had a tendency to chip, which is why it’s rare to find a piece of antique enamelware in perfect condition. In addition, the coating scratches fairly easily so you don’t want to use steel wool or other harsh products to clean it.
Various companies through the years (1860’s-1930’s) called their enamelware products by their own unique names, agateware and graniteware, for example. Three of the early American manufacturers include:
- Lalance & Grosjean Mfg. Co. (or L & G Mfg. Co.)
- St. Louis Stamping Company (later NESCO, made gray graniteware)
- The Vollrath Company (still in business)
Unfortunately, most enamelware is unmarked so identification by manufacturer, sometimes even country of origin, is quite difficult, if not impossible. (Note: Many pieces produced in Czechoslovakia are marked.)
Production of enamelware began to slow down in the 1930’s with the introduction of plastic, stainless steel, and aluminum, not to mention the highly popular Pyrex baking and cookware.
Modern Production of Enamelware
The 1960’s brought with it a resurgence of interest in enamelware. Designers like Catherine Holm of Norway and companies like Dansk produced fascinating pieces, one of which you’ll see below.
And then again in the 1970’s, renewed interest, likely due to the Bicentennial and a fascination with everything “old fashioned,” led to the manufacture of new enamelware based on antique shapes and colors.
This enamelware tends to be lighter weight than older pieces and doesn’t chip as easily. These pieces–think campfire gear, coffee pots, ladles, mugs, and cream/sugars–are still in production.
Resurgence #3: Farmhouse style decorators in the 2000’s brought attention once more to the beauty of enamelware. As a result, repros, complete with “dings” and often bearing labels, like Soap, Laundry, and Bread, abound.
How to Clean Vintage Enamelware
Use hot soapy water to clean with a rag or sponge only, never steel wool or scrubbing pads or any abrasive cleaner as it will scratch the surface. Don’t wash in the dishwasher as this will remove gloss and encourage rust. Dry immediately to prevent rust from developing on any dings.
Wax pieces that you plan to leave outdoors as decorations or planters and apply an new coat every year to prevent the pieces from rusting out.
Can You Eat off Vintage & Antique Enamelware
No! You definitely don’t want to eat off of antique or vintage enamelware. In most cases pieces have dings or scratches that would leach rust into your food or beverage.
Even if in pristine condition, early coloring agents like cadmium and uranium, were frequently employed and they too can leach contaminants. Use your pieces for decoration only.
Collecting Vintage White Enamelware
Before there was colored and decorated enamelware, there was white(!). Many collectors enjoy the white variety as it creates a “canvas” of sorts to display other more colorful collectibles against.
Most enamelware is unmarked. This white colander sold in my Etsy shop, also for $16.99 (2014).
This lunch bucket (or strawberry pail) serves as another example of a desired form. It also sold from my shop, for $18.00 (2016).
This large, excellent condition pitcher sold for $25 from my antique booth (2018).
Solid Color Vintage Enamelware
The manufacture of white enamelware progressed naturally into the production of pieces in vibrant colors, achieved through the addition of minerals, cobalt for example.
Aqua is one of my favorite colors in enamelware. This piece is currently for sale in my antique booth for $12.
This turquoise cup sold for $8 from my antique booth (2018).
The lime green of this serving spoon dates it to the 1970’s; it sold for $9 from my antique booth (2020).
Collecting Vintage Gray Enamelware [Graniteware]
As I’ve already mentioned, collectors use a variety of terms when discussing enamelware, including graniteware, which many use to refer to gray pieces like this one.
This nice-sized coffee pot sold for $35.00 from my antique booth (2015). Coffee pots like this one, particularly large examples, sell very well. However, in general gray enamelware tends to be less popular than the more brightly colored and decorated variety.
This early trade card depicts ladies from around the world dancing ’round an “agate iron ware” coffee pot. Use by the manufacturer (Lalance & Grosjean) of the term agate led to use of the general term agateware.
Manufacturers applied enamel to all manner of kitchen wares, including utensils like this straining ladle.
Collecting Vintage Marbled Enamelware
Marbled enamelware, sometimes referred to as swirled, comes in a rainbow of colors (some of which you’ll see below): red, blue, aqua, and more rarely: green, yellow, purple, pink, brown, and black.
Out of all the different types of enamelware, collectors tend to favor marbled pieces (particularly the rarer colors) and pay the highest prices for them.
This is the mug I mentioned earlier that I inherited from my grandmother’s estate. The cobalt blue of this antique piece glows, doesn’t it? Were it available for sale, it would bring $12-15.
This c.1970’s red and white swirled ladle sold from my Etsy shop for $11.99 (2014).
This green and white swirl cup sold for $5.99 from my antique booth (2016). Note that it had a number of dings both on the bottom and inside.
The nice wooden handle dates this piece to before the turn of the century. It is worth about $30-40.00 (would be higher if it had its lid). It sold from my shop for $34.00 (2016).
Vintage Speckled Enamelware
One can find speckled enamelware, also known as spattered enamelware or spatterware, in a variety of colors, covered with spatters of white in various sizes.
Still in my possession, this large basin in pretty navy blue is worth approximately $25-35. The multiple dings around the rim affect the value somewhat.
I would value this aqua-blue spattered pie plate, with noticeable chipping around the edges, at $8-10.
This dark blue colander could be depended upon to bring about $12-15.
A Rare Piece of Vintage Enamelware
I purchased these two robin’s egg blue pieces at separate sales on the same day. What are the odds, right?
My feeling is that this large punch-bowl-like piece was manufactured in Poland or Czechoslovakia–just a feeling. I sold them as a set from my antique booth for $65.00 (2015).
Keep in mind that it’s common to find Czech pieces with stenciled designs on them, like fruit, flowers, and even turkeys (on large enamelware platters).
Collecting Vintage MCM Enamelware
Mid-century modern Catherineholm enamel bowls like these are extremely popular right now. Produced in Denmark and bearing a lotus pattern, each of these 5.5″ bowl is worth $35-45.00. (Sold 2018 on eBay for $102.)
The simple white lotus pattern against the aqua background is striking, isn’t it?
Unlike with older farmhouse style enamelware, buyers of Catherineholm and other MCM enamelware produced by companies like Dansk, want their pieces in as near perfect condition as possible.
Here’s another example of a MCM piece–Serendipity, a “spaghetti string” decoration, on a small pan, which sold for $15.50 on eBay (2019).
The Difference Between Old & New Enamelware
This brown covered pot with white speckles is a good example of a newer piece of enamelware.
Not only is it very lightweight, but the lid is not a typical early shape. It should be flatter with no dimples (see examples below). In addition, the handle is molded onto the lid rather than applied separately.
Wouldn’t some clues regarding what to look for be helpful?
How to Identify Antique Enamelware:
- It’s heavier than newer pieces
- It has applied (rather than molded) handles and knobs–riveted, soldered or screwed into place
- It usually has some dings, scratches, rust, and/or some dullness.
- It often has wooden handles (like the marbled bucket above)
- It makes a less “tinny” or hollow sound when clicked with your finger
Here are some examples of common lids. The one of the left shows a soldered handle, while the other two have screwed on wooden replacements.
They would have originally had manufactured metal or wood handles. Replacements often came on cards of four that you could pick up at the hardware store.
Here’s a close view of a soldered handle on an antique marbled lid.
Compare that to the molded handle on this one-piece lid from the newer enameled pot.
And here are two examples of enamelware handles riveted onto a strainer and a ladle.
How to Decorate with Enamelware
Enamelware in all it’s shapes and sizes, colors and styles offers a myriad of ways to decorate. One of my favorites is using pitchers and coffee pots as vases, as you can see in this photo.
I picked up this lidless, dinged up enamelware coffee pot for .50 envisioning it filled with flowers. It adds so much charm to this farmhouse style vignette, right?
Here are some other ways to use enamelware in home decor:
- Wall decor
- Pantry organization
- Fruit holders
- Candle holders
For even more enamelware decorating ideas, check out this blog post written by Melanie at Lost & Found.
I hope today’s post answers any questions you may have had about enamelware, and I wish you luck in finding your first (or your hundred and first) piece while out shopping for vintage. Happy hunting!
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