Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye, begins a well known 18th century nursery rhyme, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. But is this just a rhyme? Perhaps live birds, once upon a time, were really baked in pies. A 1598 Italian cookbook describes a large pie baked blind, empty but for a fistful of flour inside. After it is baked and the flour filling removed, the instructions continue, "put in … as many live small birds as [it] will hold…Cutting up the lid of the great pye, all the Birds will flie out." Now isn’t that a dainty dish to set before a King?
The earliest English pies, dubbed coffins, were rigid boxes fashioned from dough, tall, straight-sided, and well sealed. Used both as pie pans and serving dishes, these pie shells were usually too hard to eat. Over the years, though, as they became tenderized, they came to enclose and preserve savory meats and vegetables. English pies, like Little Jack Horner’s famed plum pastry, often burst with juicy fruits too.
Any homemaker can tell you what happens when a pie is filled to the brim with apples or berries. As the pie cooks, the fruit, partially liquid, bubbles up through the crust. If left unchecked, its sugary sweet juices can overflow alarmingly, leaving the oven streaked with sticky, burnt-on, fruity rivulets. Some time during the eighteenth century, an enterprising homemaker came upon a clever solution. Prior to baking, she inserted a small funnel-like piece of pottery into the center of her pie. Now when fruit simmered beneath its pie crust, the inverted funnel, dough-sealed all around, diverted the steam it created safely and neatly. It was an ingenious idea, as easy as pie. Besides, funneling steam away from the dough also insured flaky, crispy crusts.
Earthenware manufacturers in Holland and across Britain’s Pottery District were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Their earliest pie funnels, also known as pie vents, were simple, unadorned stoneware or glass “chimneys.” Typically round in shape, they widened and arched on the bottom to capture the steam, and sturdy enough to withstand the heat. Later, when the porcelain craze swept across Europe, shiny, heavy white porcelain pie funnels were a la mode as well.
Since nearly every housewife had a couple of mincemeat, plum, or apple pies cooling on her windowsill, each English kitchen boasted an assortment of these inexpensive kitchen gadgets.
Pie funnels evidently evolved into pie birds in the 1920s, when they migrated to America. The first American pie bird, produced by the Pearl China Company, was a creamy white rooster. Besides being attractive, it was, with its overly long neck, also admirably utilitarian. As pie birds swept the U.S., potters back in England, like Royal Worcester and Midwinter – evidently with a nod toward the proverbial “four and twenty blackbirds,” began producing blackbird pie funnels (as they are still known in England). These feathered fellows proved so popular that other potters soon produced similar flocks, all with yellow beaks a-gape. Though the rhyme continues, when the pie was ready the birds began to sing, Linda Fields, author of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, notes that, alas, these little creatures, when they steam, hold their peace.
The term pie bird can be misleading. That’s because these pie pretties next appeared in a variety of shapes, not only as birds. Nutbrown Pottery, for example, turned out herds of white elephants, their raised hollow trunks doubling as mini-steam chimneys. And over the next few decades, more and more whimsical, figural pie birds joined the flock.
Today, some thirty American companies, including the Morton, McCoy, Plaftzgraff, Shawnee, and Cleminson Potteries, are currently producing pie birds. Animal lovers will delight in veritable menageries, scores of owls, alligators, rabbits, squirrels, cats, mice, polar bears, dragon pie birds, and more. Bird watchers will catch glimpses of thrush, partridge, bluebird, cockatoo, blue jay, duckling, canary, penguin, or even flamingo pie birds. Granted, some of these modern pieces are avowedly reproductions of vintage pieces. But others, painstakingly designed, individually crafted, and hand painted, are instantly collectibles in their own right. Master British potter Stuart Bass, for example, offers limited editions, including a fetching barnyard collection of fat hens and crowing roosters. Rachel Bass, his daughter, carries on his tradition with whimsies like three birds sharing a single eggshell.
Collectors often discover folk heroes, like Little Red Riding Hood or Pinocchio, doubling as pie birds. So do the likes of Betty Boop and Fred Flintstone. Or they purchase vented sailor girls, farmers, or Indian braves to pretty their pies. And understandably, an abundance of chubby chefs, buxom bakers, and assortments of jolly Aunt Jemimas abound. So do Homepride Freds and Fred Flour Graders, who, with air vents atop their dapper bowler hats, obviously hail from England. And rumor has it that from time to time, lucky collectors even catch sight of the elusive Pillsbury Dough Boy pie bird.
Today’s enthusiasts, if so inclined, can also swell their collections with pie birds marketed as souvenirs. Some birds, for example, boast decals, complete with the royal seal, of Queen Elizabeth II. Others feature the likeness of Diana, Princess of Wales who, evidently, was an enthusiastic collector herself. Lately some collectors have sighted a pair of rare birds indeed, “very limited editions” of Clinton and Obama pie birds. Pieces like these may very well become desirable collector’s items of tomorrow.
Still, modern pie birds aside, many serious collectors prefer to concentrate on authentic English vintage pieces. Due to their rarity and age, they may command hundreds of dollars on the market. Some collectors seek pie birds from specific English potteries like Staffordshire. Others go even farther, collecting pieces by specific potters, like Clarice Cliff of Newport Pottery.
Often as not, pie bird collectors, birds of a feather, are ardent bakers themselves.
They treasure their vintage pie bird’s imperfections, cracks, chips, crazing, and staining, as testament to long years of good eating.