The evolution of the cookie jar

Cookie jars evolved from the elegant British biscuit jars found on Victorian-era tables. These 19th century containers featured bail handles and were often made of sterling silver and cut crystal.

vintage Alice in Wonderland cookie jar

Frightened Alice in Wonderland by Regal China, 13 1/4 inches tall, late 1950s, marked “Walt Disney Productions Copyright (symbol) Alice in Wonderland,” $4,000 and up.

As the biscuit jar was adapted for use in America, it migrated from the dining table to the kitchen and, by the late 1920s, it was common to find a green-glass jar (or pink or clear), often with an applied label and a screw-top lid, on kitchen counters in the typical American home.

During the Great Depression – when stoneware was still popular, but before the arrival of widespread electric refrigeration – cookie jars in round and barrel shapes arrived. These heavy-bodied jars could be hand-painted after firing. This decoration was easily worn away by eager hands reaching for Mom’s bakery. The lids of many stoneware jars typically had small tapering finials or knobs that also contributed to cracks and chips.

The golden age of cookie jars began in the 1940s and lasted for less than three decades, but the examples that survive represent an exuberance and style that have captivated collectors.

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It wasn’t until the 1970s that many collectors decided – instead of hiding their money in cookie jars – to invest their money in cookie jars. It was also at this time that cookie jars ceased to be simply storage vessels for bakery and evolved into a contemporary art form.

And it’s because of this evolution from utility to art that – with some exceptions – we have limited the scope of this feature to jars made from the 1930s to the early 1970s.

Derby Dan Muggsy by Pfaltzgraff, 8 1/2 inches tall, 1950s, marked, “Derby Dan Muggsy–The Pfaltzgraff Pottery Co., York, Pa.–Designed by Jessop,” $500 and up.

The Brush Pottery Co. of Zanesville, Ohio, produced one of the first ceramic cookie jars in about 1929, and Red Wing’s spongeware line from the late 1920s also included a ridged, barrel-shaped jar. Many established potteries began adding a selection of cookie jars in the 1930s.

The 1940s saw the arrival of two of the most famous cookie jars: Shawnee’s Smiley and Winnie, two portly, bashful little pigs who stand with eyes closed and heads cocked, he in overalls and bandana, she in flowered hat and long coat. And a host of Disney characters also made their way into American kitchens at this time.

In the 1950s, the first television-influenced jars appeared, including images of Davy Crockett and Popeye. This decade also saw the end of several prominent American potteries (including Roseville) and the continued rise of imported ceramics.

A new collection of cartoon-inspired cookie jars was popular in the 1960s, featuring characters drawn from the Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Woody Woodpecker and Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Jars reflecting the race for space included examples from McCoy and American Bisque. This decade also marked the peak production era for a host of West Coast manufacturers, led by the twin brothers Don and Ross Winton.

Famous cookie jar collectors include Andy Warhol, whose collection of jars sold for more than $200,000.

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Cookie jar identifications and markings

vintage Donald Duck cookie jar

Donald Duck by Metlox, 11 3/4 inches tall, late 1950s, unmarked, made for distribution to Disney executives, very rare, $5,000 and up.

Cow with Cat Finial by Brush, 12 1/2 inches long, 1950s, raised mark, “Brush USA” in an artist’s palette, and “W10.” Prices vary widely depending on colors used, from about $200 for typical tan and yellow to near $2,000 for purple or blue combinations, or with gold trim, $200 to $2,000.

Gim-me by Helen Hutula, 10 1/2 inches tall, 1940s, marked on bottom, “Helen’s Gim-me Original–Helen Hutula Originals,” $1,500 and up.

Carousel by Pfaltzgraff, lid 9 1/2 inches wide, 1950s, unmarked, $500 and up.

Sailor Elephant unmarked but known to be Cardinal. The Cardinal catalog sheet from 1961 included a picture of several jars that had been thought to be American Bisque. This Sailor Elephant‚ who has “SS Cookie” in black letters on his hat‚ was one of them, $200 and up.

Littl* Red “Ridding”-hood by Brush, 10 1/2 inches tall, late 1950s, with misspelled words “Little” and “Riding,”    $1,000 and up.

vintage Howdy Doody cookie jar

Howdy Doody by Purinton, 9-1/4” t., 1950s, unmarked. $700+

Dutch Girl by Regal China, 10 3/4 inches tall, 1940s, unmarked,  white with red accents, $800 and up.
Also found in predominant pale blue, yellow and orange, $1,000 and up.

Drummer Boy by Red Wing, all original, 9 inches tall, early 1960s, faint mark, $800 and up.

Jo Jo the Clown by Shawnee, 9 1/4 inches tall, 1940s, raised mark, “Shawnee U.S.A.” and an impressed “12,” $600 and up; with gold trim, $1,200 and up.

Pinocchio by California Originals, 12 1/4 inches tall, 1950s (?), impressed mark on bottom, “Calif. Orig. G-131 USA.” Also found unmarked or with only an impressed “USA,” $1,200 and up.