An In-Depth Look at Popular Vintage/Retro Enamelware Collectibles
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.
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.
Granite ware circa 1895
Enameled Gas Stove circa 1932
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
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 below 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.
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.
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
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. Use wood or silicone spoons and spatulas while cooking to avoid marring the surface.
- 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.
For Further Reading
Do not depend on suggested values mentioned in any of the books as values can change dramatically over a short time. These books will come in handy to identify your enamelware.
- The Collectors Encyclopedia of Granite Ware Volume 2: Colors, Shapes, and Values, by Helen Greguire
- Antique Enameled Ware: American and European, by David T. Pikul
- Grete Prytz Kittelsen: The Art of Enamel Design, by Karianne Bjellas Gilje, Thomas Flor, Widar Halen, and Jan-Lauritz Opstad
- Enameled Kitchenware American and European, by Ellen M. Plante
Questions & Answers
My black/with white spots enamel pan turns cooked food black. Is this safe to eat?
You may be cooking with the heat turned up too high and burning your food. Lower the flame to avoid burning. I would not recommend eating burned food.
Perhaps there is a build-up of grease in your pan. Clean the pan. You can cover the bottom of the pan with powdered detergent, lay a wet towel over it, allow to set for several hours, then rinse clean. You can also fill your pan with a mixture of one part bleach to three parts water, allow to set over night, then clean in the morning. That should remove old grease and stains.
Can the worn white interior of my vintage Dru Holland ware be repaired and if so, where?
There are people out there who suggest that the enamel can be repaired with a food safe epoxy, but most experts and manufacturers will not recommend using it for cooking after the repair.
Personally, I would not cook with vintage enamelware. Toxic metals have been used in the past to coat iron. These include lead and cadmium. Please do not use damaged enamelware. Chipped or worn edges can break off and wind up in your food.
If I were you, I'd use the pot as a display piece. Use it to store small items, as a container for a flower arrangement, to store recipes, or anything your imagination can come up with.Helpful 4
I have a Cornucopia fruit patterm dutch oven. Is it safe to cook with?
I like the old adage that when in doubt go with your instinct. That being said, enamelware should be safe to cook with. The enamel is over steel. Do not use the dutch oven if the enamel is wearing off or cracked. Hand wash it in warm water. Do not clean with abrasive materials or cleaners. But if you feel nervous about using this product for cooking, you can always use it for decorative purposes. Use it as a vase for flowers or to hold napkins.Helpful 4
I recently purchased a Descoware dutch oven, it's 12 inches across and about 3-4 inches deep. It look almost unused and perfect inside! The inside of the lid has the classic, circular rims for roasting, so I think it is meant for the oven. The bottom is the same porcelain as the outside and inside, Is it safe to use on the stove top? I'd like to brown my roast before putting it into the oven. thanks
Descoware was a product of Belgium and famous for its frequent appearance on Julia Child's cooking show. Best used for slow cooking in the oven or stove top, enameled Dutch ovens should not be used on high heat on the stove top. Do no use metal spoons or spatulas. Instead stick to wood or plastic utensils to avoid scratching the surface. Do not clean with steel wool pads either. They are, after all, made of metal. Use a Dobie pad instead. That is a sponge covered with plastic mesh.
Is it safe to use Sanko Ware Show Pans for cooking?
In general, you don't want to use enamelware that is marred, cracked, chipped, or worn. Lots of people use older enamelware without worry. Personally, I would not, preferring newer products for cooking. (Which sounds like rubbish because I cook with a 100-year-old iron pan almost every day). But when you are in doubt, the safe bet is not to use it. Those pretty 1970s enamel pots and pans are nice decorations for your home.
© 2017 Dolores Monet