Once a workaday tool, graniteware is now rustic chic

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When we think about graniteware (often referred to as enamelware), many of us may reminisce of our childhood days when the entertainment for the evening was watching black and white television.

We all remember watching Western shows with covered wagons and pioneers crossing the great prairies and mountains to get to the west coast while trying to avoid the attack of the Indians along the way. Hearing the trail boss call out “Wagons ho!” and visualizing the chuck wagon with the essentials for the daily meals is something everyone recalls at one time or another. It’s as if you can hear the “clang, clang” of the pans and dishes rattling around as they shifted from side to side.

Although cast iron skillets and Dutch ovens were often used in the preparation of the food, it was a graniteware coffeepot you would see sitting on the fire each night as weary pioneers sat around talking and eating. Eventually, ovens and skillets had an enamel coating and were also considered to be graniteware. While all of this may be a memory from our childhood days of entertaining ourselves with black and white television, graniteware is far from just a memory. It is still popular today among collectors and widely used for utilitarian purposes in homes around the world.

Of course, enamelware existed long before the days of the covered wagon and weary pioneers. Enamelware has been around for centuries. The process is the result of the fusion of powdered glass to an object through the process of firing. Once fired, the powder melts and flows to harden as a smooth, durable vitreous coating for metal, glass or ceramics. Enamel was used in coating kitchenware because of its high tolerance to heat and cold, and could be applied to metals used in cooking – such as iron – to keep it from rusting.

The enamel process was already well-known and popular in Germany during the 1800s; and when brothers, Frederick and William Niedringhaus, observed this unusual technique while visiting Europe, they quickly jumped on the idea and decided to incorporate it in their business in the United States. The brothers owned and operated an iron works company in St. Louis, Mo., that manufactured kitchen utensils and this was the perfect opportunity to mass produce the enameled ware. They paid a European maker $5,000 for William to observe the process; once trained in the technique, the brothers applied for a patent and began producing the enameled ironware. The process of producing enamelware brought about the beginning of a new era for kitchenware.

Although this process was popular and the demand was growing, William decided to take it a step further and developed the process of what became known as graniteware. This was done by applying a design to the enamelware while it was still wet and spreading a thin piece of paper with an oxidized pattern on top of it. Once the piece dried, the paper fell off and the design was ingrained in the enamelware. This process gave the enamelware the appearance of granite, thus came the name “graniteware.”

Along with the process of producing graniteware, came the birth of a new city called Granite City, located in Illinois. Once named Six Mile Prairie because it was located just six miles from St. Louis, the history of this area dates back to the early 1800s. Situated on the Mississippi River, the area was the perfect location to build a new factory for the Niedringhaus brothers’ newly-patented graniteware. The brothers purchased 3,500 acres in 1891 and soon began building their town. A factory and other businesses were built and the newly-formed town soon became well-known for its graniteware kitchen wares.

During this time, it was essential that all employees of the Niedringhaus family live in Granite City. It was basically a company-owned town much like many small communities during that period. The factory employed more than 4,000 workers and the community continued booming until the 1950s when aluminum, stainless steel and Pyrex replaced iron-based utensils. Granite City, at one time, was known as one of the most diverse cities in the country with immigrant workers from Europe and other industries coming into the area. Many of these industries remain active today.

Today, graniteware is alive with vibrant and speckled colors in a variety of hues. It is produced in colors of blue, red, purple, brown, green, pink, gray and white with patterns as varied as an abstract painting. Although, we must remember not all graniteware is speckled. Some say the most collectible colors are green and white and blue and white. The blue and white graniteware is the most common found by collectors. Many products found on the market today are made with an enameled coating. When shopping, you can find everything from the usual enameled kitchenware (graniteware) to jewelry and appliances.

The demand for graniteware hasn’t changed much over the years. It is still sought by collectors for many purposes. Some collect for the color or utilitarian purposes while others seek this unique kitchenware for décor reasons. Shawn McDonough-Gill has been dealing in vintage kitchenware for 15 years and is very knowledgeable about graniteware. “The items marked are more highly-prized or sought after because they help give information on the history of the product,” she stated. “A lot of the graniteware from early days had paper labels to identify the maker, but over the years the labels fell off or were unreadable,” McDonough-Gill continued.

According to McDonough-Gill, there are several names for graniteware – it was often referred to as enamelware, granite ironware, and ironware but most generally today it is called graniteware. Graniteware was produced in many colors and as the years passed, each time period had its own style and color, some more popular than others. One of the most popular colors was what was called “end of the day.”

Whatever colors were left over at the end of the day were mixed together to make a very unusual and unique color. This was a very popular pattern and sought by many collectors.

“Most collectors don’t collect for the brand name alone. They collect for the color pattern or the item itself instead of brand name,” said McDonough-Gill. Some of the popular items collected include coffee pots, tea pots, spoons, muffin tins, dippers, salesmen samples and children’s items.

“It’s all in what the collector desires,” McDonough-Gill stated. “Prices vary from $5 to $500, and the rare items will exceed this price,” she continued. “The most expensive piece I’ve sold at Scott Antique Market was $150 for a decorated stacking lunch pale.”

McDonough-Gill has been a loyal vendor of Scott Antique Markets and attends the Columbus, Ohio, market. For those who are graniteware or vintage kitchenware collectors, be sure to look her up at the season opener, Nov. 28-29 at the Ohio Expo Center.
Scott Antique Markets hosts the world’s largest indoor antique market in Atlanta, Ga., and the largest indoor antique market in the Midwest in Columbus, Ohio.

For more information about either the Ohio or Atlanta Scott Antique Markets visit www.scottantiquemarket.com or call 740-569-4112.

Photos courtesy Scott Antique Markets.


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