By Chriss Swaney
Everyone knows that the kitchen is the hub of the home. So when the wildly successful “Downton Abbey’’ series scampered across our television and computer screens earlier this year, the show’s Edwardian kitchen became a visual primer on class and comfort in our increasingly uncertain times.
That vision not only riveted viewers to each “Downton Abbey” installment, but the show’s anti-snobbery theme created a new market niche for antique kitchen collectibles.
When stoic butler Mr. Carson chides housekeeper Mrs. Hughes about a new-fangled electric toaster, antique dealers nationwide said vintage toasters flew off the shelves.
“We simply could not believe how much interest ‘Downton Abbey’ has sparked in antique kitchen utensils,’’ said Rege Woodley, a retired antique dealer in Washington, Pa. “I sold one of my antique rolling pins to my neighbor for $100 because it looked like the one used by Mrs. Patmore, the cook in ‘Downton Abbey.’’’
Pat Greene, owner of Nothing New Antiques, said she is excited about all the “Downton Abbey” fuss and hopes her antique kitchen wares fetch some lasting prices, too. “My rolling pins usually go for $5 to $10, but I’m seeing a big rush on my cookie cutters,’’ said Greene, of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Mary Kirk of New Alexandria, Pa., said she collects old antique cookbooks and was especially interested in trying to prepare some of the food served in the “Downton Abbey” show. “I am extremely interested in trying to prepare the eggs poached with spinach – a dish that poor young kitchen maid Daisy had to prepare during one show scene,’’ said Kirk, a retired librarian. Because of the show’s lengthy shooting schedule, producers have reported that most of the food served during production consists of light salads.
Jimmy Roark of Nashville, Tenn., said he has not seen as large a rush for his kitchen collectibles as a result of the show. “What I see is a more gradual demand for these items,’’ said Roark, who operates a small antique collectible shop in his garage. “I sell a lot of my cookie cutters, antique wooden bowls and vintage mixer beaters during the holidays.’’
Still, the “Downton Abbey” magic continues to seed interest in a broad swath of antique kitchen utensils and artifacts, from Bennington mixing bowls to turn-of-the-century tiger wood rolling pins.
Stephen White of White & White Antiques & Interiors of Skaneateles, N.Y., said interest in vintage antique kitchen ware remains steady. At the ninth annual Antique Show at Oakmont Country Club March 9-10 near Pittsburgh, kitchen wares were front and center with collectors. The show, a benefit for the Kerr Memorial Museum, sports a broad mix of
antiques for all ages.
White was quick to feature his rare whale ivory crested Nantucket rolling pin valued at $425. “I have unusual kitchen antiques from hand food choppers to copper pots,’’ said White, who enjoys finding nautical antiques when he’s not sailing.
Other dealers at the Oakmont show featured kitchen antiques from old historical companies endemic to the economic growth of Western Pennsylvania.
“When you think of Pittsburgh, you can’t escape the long history that the H.J. Heinz Company has here,’’ said Toni Bahnak of Candlewood Antiques in Ardara, Pa. “We have rare old vinegar bottles and ketchup bottles that denote an era when the Heinz company made its own glass,’’ said Bahnak.
And industry experts say ketchup and pickle collectibles will continue to soar in value because of the recent business deal that saw the H.J. Heinz Co. announce a $23.3 billion deal to be purchased by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital, which was co-founded by Jorge Lemann, one of Brazil’s richest men.
Even before the blockbuster deal was announced, some Heinz memorabilia collectors reported that their antique bottles and jars were fetching higher prices than normal.
“I had one of my antique vinegar bottles sell for about $225, and I think I could have gotten more for it,” said Ruth Oslet, an antique collector from Waynesburg, Pa. She sold it to a marketing executive who collects business memorabilia.
Tom Purdue, a long-time collector of food company antiques, said history and nostalgia play an important role in what people remember and want to save for their modern kitchens. “I can remember the distinct smell of my grandmother’s old pickle jars and Heinz horseradish in her musty old kitchen where she used a hand pump to wash dishes,’’ said Purdue, an 89-year-old former blacksmith from Wheeling, W.Va.
The ever-expanding business reaches back to 1869 when Henry John Heinz and neighbor L. Clarence Noble began selling grated horseradish, bottled in a clear glass to showcase its purity. It wasn’t until 1876 that the company introduced its flagship product, marketing the country’s first commercial ketchup.
Not all history though is tied to corporate America. Family memories still stoke the embers of home cooking, although many young people today find fast food is the fuel of the future.
“I still have my family’s old corn bread recipe, and I use it all the time,’’ said Elizabeth Schwan, gallery director for Aspire Auctions in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Schwan, who scans the country for antiques, admits she has a “soft spot’’ for old kitchen utensils. “Flower-sifters, antique copper mixing bowls and rolling pins were all part of my heritage because my family grew up on a Kentucky farm,’’ Schwan said. “I can still smell the homemade bread and jams,’’ she said.
And like most farm families, the kitchen served as a meeting place and refuge from a long day’s work. “Between verbal debates about what to plant on the south flats, we would help our parents churn butter and chop wood for the old country stove,’’ said Myrtle Bench, 91, of Washington, Pa.
But as a young America turned from the agricultural frontier in the late 1890s and began to embrace a manufacturing economy, automation replaced hand crafts and the kitchen became a new testing ground for a variety of modern gizmos like the automatic dishwasher.
The automatic dishwasher was a toy for the rich when an electric model was introduced in
1913 by Willard and Forrest Walker, two Syracuse, N.Y., brothers who ran a hardware store when they were not tinkering with kitchen machines. The new dishwasher sold for $120 (the equivalent of $1,429 in today’s market), a hefty premium over the $20 the Walkers charged for their popular hand-cranked model and also more expensive than a gasoline-powered washer the brothers put on the market in 1911.
“You can still find some of the old hand-crank washers, but I like to spend my time finding kitchen utensils that reflect how people prepared their food,’’ said Dirk Hayes, a freelance cook from Uniontown, Pa. “I love watching ‘Downton Abbey’ because the kitchen scenes really give you a flavor of how the food was prepared. I never had that kind of staff, but it’s fun to dream,’’ said Hayes, who collects rolling pins and antique carving knives.
|About our columnist: Chriss Swaney is a Pittsburgh-based freelance journalist for Reuters, The New York Times, Pittsburgh Engineer and Horse World, and an avid antique collector.|