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An In-Depth Look at Popular Vintage/Retro Enamelware Collectibles

Updated on May 2, 2017
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Enamelware has experienced a surge in popularity due to the current interest in mid-20th century design. The smooth, easy-to-clean surface of enameled metal kitchenware has also become popular due to concerns over toxins in plastic products and no-stick pots and pans.

Originally marketed in the 19th century as a safe alternative to toxic materials found in kitchen products, it seems as if we have come full circle.

Vintage pieces can be found at thrift shops and at yard sales and are very affordable. Of course, there are types of enamelware that are rare or in high demand that are quite expensive. Even chipped or partially-rusted vintage pieces can be attractive for those who like a rustic country look, though damaged goods are not advised for cooking or eating purposes. Fortunately, there are many new enameled kitchen products on the market today that are safe and useful.

Old blue enameled milk can
Old blue enameled milk can | Source

What Is Enamelware?

Enameled metal has been used for thousands of years in ancient Rome, Greece, and Persia for jewelry and in the decorative arts.

Vitreous enamel was developed in Germany in the mid 19th century. A ground glass called frit is applied to metal then fired at temperatures hot enough to melt glass but not the metal. Minerals added to the frit produce color. The process has been used for advertising signage, medical equipment, kitchen appliances, bathtubs, cookware, dishware, basins, and pans. The term "enameware" refers to enameled steel or cast iron.

Early products were usually white. Usually, Britain produced white enamelware with a dark blue rim. Swedish products were cream colored trimmed in green. Though many patterns and colors were developed over the years, the inside of an enameled cast iron pot was usually white. Today's popular enamelware Dutch ovens which are enameled cast iron are white inside.

By the late 1800s blue spotted Agateware became popular. In the 1890s, Agateware which was enameled nickel and steel, was marketed as a sanitary alternative to kitchenware that used lead and arsenic in its production.

Granitware mimicked the look of granite. Developed by Charles Stumer and produced by the St. Louis Stamping Company, it was originally called Granite Iron Ware. The term "granitware" eventually became a generic term for specked gray and white enamlware.

Later patterns included stenciled flowers, checkerboard prints, a chicken wire print, sentimental cartoons, marbling, fruits, polka dots, hearts, and leaves.Enameled canisters were printed with the words of the intended contents such as flour, sugar, and tea.

Enameled Gas Stove circa 1932

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Dutch Ovens

Le Creuset, a French company, began producing their popular brand in the 1920s creating the iconic Dutch oven in "Flame" which was orange. They introduced yellow in 1956. Today, Le Creuset's products come in many colors including blue, green, gray and white.

Julia Child, mother of the modern food movement, used Descoware made by a Belgian company. Her cooking show introduced many people to French cooking using fresh ingredients in classic enamelware cookware.

Enameled cast iron is very heavy. It can be found in a wide range of prices. Higher priced products are long lasting and believed to be less prone to chipping.

Le Creuset Dutch Oven

The iconic Le Creuset Dutch Oven in Flame
The iconic Le Creuset Dutch Oven in Flame | Source
Cathrinehom bowl in blue Lotus design
Cathrinehom bowl in blue Lotus design | Source

Collectors' Favorites

Vintage enamelware is quite inexpensive especially if it is marred, chipped, or shows some rust spots. However, as with most older goods, there is a demand for particular brands and types. Unusual styles and colors are popular with collectors.

Prices are very high for Scandanavian mid 20th century enamelware. Products designed by Cathrine Holm for the Norwegian company Grete Pryte Kittelsen are brightly colored with simple patterns. Illustrated here is the Lotus pattern. Produced from the 1950s to the 1970s, these command top dollar on online auction sites.

Kaj Franck Finel also created attractive enamelware in the mid 20th century. The intense colors and iconic designs are highly prized by collectors.

You can loosely date some mid century pieces by color. The 1950s and 1960s brought us bright basic colors like red, white, and bright green. Examples from the 1970s often come in fall colors like harvest gold, dull orange, and avocado green.

Enamelware from the 1920s and 30s with cute, sentimental designs are not nearly as expensive as mid 20th century products.

Final Mugs

The pretty, bright colors of mid 20th century Scandinavian design are highly collectible and quite expensive
The pretty, bright colors of mid 20th century Scandinavian design are highly collectible and quite expensive | Source

Toxins

You may not want to actually cook with vintage enamelware. In the old days, few regulations prevented the uses of toxic materials. Despite manufacturers claims that enamelware was clean and sanitary, additives like lead and cadmium were often used in the production of bright colored frits. For instance, Le Creuset used cadmium in red and orange colored enameled iron cookware. The company still produces red and orange products but now complies with standards set by California regulations, some of the strictest guidelines in the world. While cadmium is still used, production methods prevent the toxin from being released during cooking. Also, the inner cooking surfaces are white.

Years ago, a type of uranium used in the frit for brightly colored enamel was radioactive. US government regulations stopped the use of uranium based compounds used in the production of cookware in 1938.

Today there is some concern that certain countries like China do not provide enough regulation to ensure safe cookware. Inexpensive lead tests are available on the internet and at many hardware stores.

New enamelware mugs on display.
New enamelware mugs on display. | Source

Using Old Enamelware

Old enamelware can be put to any number of uses. Chipped or partially rusted pieces look charming and evoke a rustic feel to a kitchen or to an outdoor gathering. They work well for picnics, cookouts, or a tea party on a wide porch. You can enjoy your old enamelware even if it is slightly toxic.

  • Coffeepots and mugs can hold a flower arrangement.
  • Use a mug to hold utensils. Place the forks tine side up like a flower arrangement.
  • Line a large bowl or basin with a linen towel and fill with breads, muffins, or rolls for a party.
  • Fill large basins with ice and stock with bottles of soda, beer, or wine.
  • Use a large shallow pan as a serving tray.
  • Fill an old saucepan with berries. First, line it with cling wrap. Once it's filled, you won't even notice the plastic wrap. It will look like you just picked the berries!

Cream With Green Trim

Cream with green trim is typical of vintage Swedish enamelware and can be used with caution. The large pot would be nice filled with ice and a few bottles of wine or lemonade.
Cream with green trim is typical of vintage Swedish enamelware and can be used with caution. The large pot would be nice filled with ice and a few bottles of wine or lemonade. | Source

Cast Iron Enamelware Care

  • When you buy a new enamelware Dutch oven, wash with warm soapy water using a soft cloth or sponge. Towel dry.
  • If there is exposed cast iron on the rim, season the iron. Run a paper towel coated with cooking oil around the rim and place in a warm (not hot) oven for 15 to 20 minutes. This will prevent rust.
  • Never use steel wool pads or abrasive cleansers as they will scratch the smooth surface.
  • Do not air dry. Use a towel.
  • Do not bang on your enamelware pot or bang the pot on a hard surface.
  • Avoid quick temperature changes.
  • Do not use metal utensils. Used wood or silicone spoons and spatulas while cooking.
  • If stained, soak overnight using 1 part vinegar to 1 part water. Wash and rinse. Towel dry.
  • You can use a bit of bleach water to remove stains. Make sure you wash and rinse and dry.
  • For stains, rub a paste of baking soda and water on the stain. Wash, rinse, and dry.

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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 months ago from USA

      My great grandmother passed some kitchen pieces including a cupboard with an enameled top down to me. This was helpful in its suggestions for how to use the items for entertaining. Thank you!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 months ago from sunny Florida

      Lovely...classic look....I enjoy browsing in antique shops and what not shops searching for enamel ware. It brings back fond memories of my childhood (O, I sound old....I guess I am NOT a spring chicken but think I am ...hee hee)...

      Well done pinning

      Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

    • Dolores Monet profile image
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      Dolores Monet 2 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi pstraubie48 - I am a big fan of thrift shops myself. Angels always welcome!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 2 months ago from United States

      Love, love, love vintage dishes, especially shabby chic enamelware. Wonderful article, Dolores.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 months ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for bringing back fond memories of enamelware around the house. I grew up with enamel drinking mugs, also enamel basins before we had showers and sinks. How we cherished them and tried to protect them from chipping. Your article inspires new appreciation for them.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 2 months ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I love Dutch ovens, Dolores...I use one all the time; they cook beautifully. Thank you for the cautions about using older enamelware, and the toxins they may have. Very helpful!

    • Dolores Monet profile image
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      Dolores Monet 2 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Genna - I took a photo of a few of my own examples of enamelware and when I looked at the picture I realized that I had left so many pieces out. I am not too fond of cooking on top of the stove with my enamelware Dutch oven but use it in the oven. Thanks!

    • Dolores Monet profile image
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      Dolores Monet 2 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Ms Dora - thanks! I always fondly remember that big blue enamelware roasting pan and the wonderful smell of turkey at Thanksgiving.

    • Dolores Monet profile image
      Author

      Dolores Monet 2 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Flourish Anyway - I love those things. Some of the old Hoosiers (if that's what yours is) had a little cupboard with a built-in flour sifter. They were so cute!

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