[1) This is more than a story about collecting old kitchen gadgets. It carries a message: hang on to your family treasures, big and small. 2) I promise not to use the words “whimsy” or “whimsical”. If I do, shoot me.]
My motto: When it comes to the kitchen, why have new stuff, when you can have old stuff?
After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I finally made my permanent move from my family home at the age of 22. To help get me on the good foot, my sweet mom gave me a plethora of kitchen implements, which she culled from her huge stockpile. Apparently, she had two of everything, and she generously shared the wealth with me. Many of the items she gifted me with had some age on them, even then (now, they’d really be old). And they all served a culinary purpose.
Over the years, I threw out nearly everything she gave me. Why? Because they looked old and used. Because I didn’t know how to use a lot of them. Because I was tired of hauling them around when I moved from apartment to apartment, to condo, to house, and finally, to my current, shabby apartment in Seattle, WA.
Now, when I visit antique stores, trendy décor stores, or the www, I see old kitchenware commanding much higher prices than what Mom charged me (she didn’t). Had I held onto what she gave me, I’d have a really fine collection of vintage utensils that would actually be worth a little dough. (Which reminds me: I even threw out the red-handled wooden rolling pin she generously donated to the cause.) — And, everything was useful; and above-all, it came from Mom.
One day I came to my senses, and I realized that vintage kitchenware is cool! It’s useful, sculptural, decorative, collectible and even historic. I’ve decided to at least partially rebuild my collection.
The great thing about my project: I can acquire many of these ingenious little items, which were made 50-80 years ago, for $10 and under. — Being a pensioner, I have little extra income; but I’m hitting the Goodwill, and I plan to visit summer garage sales, just to see what I can find.
Two things happened which made me want to restart my collection: 1) I somehow managed to hang on to a few items; and I saw a twin of one of them, hanging on the wall of a trendy shop, with a twenty dollar price tag stuck on it, about 10 years ago. 2) I found an old gadget in my apartment building’s community room which someone was giving away. I picked it up, scrutinized it, and was astounded by its unique attractiveness. — I snatched it right up.
I brought that little treasure into my kitchen; and immediately decided to conduct a thorough search, to see exactly what I had hung onto. So, I rifled through my utensil drawer and cabinets, where, among all the plastic junk, I managed to find a few worthy items I had neglected (yay!) to toss. I took a look at them through new eyes, and I gained a new appreciation for them. I felt thankful that I’d hung onto them.
I’d like to share photos of some of the relatively few items I have, plus descriptions; and some history. — Along with a few observations of a philosophical nature.
This goes first, since it’s the one that got me started on this: I found this ruggedly (raggedly?) beautiful artifact from the 1930’s sitting on my apartment building’s “put and take” table. I initially thought it was some kind of Boy Scout project, where a kid had made something out of a tin can. I picked it up and realized it was a primitive, factory-made flour sifter. I need to show you another photo because it’s so strange.
Its design is truly bizarre. Most sifters seem to be crudely engineered; this one takes the cake (no pun intended). To use it, you hold it by the handle and shake it. I’m sure it works; but I already have a nice, functional non-collectible sifter, which I use when I make brownies.
If memory serves me right, this came from my Dad’s mother. I didn’t know his parents real well. Our family saw them only once or twice a year. So it makes me happy to have something Grandma used. I remember that she really liked to cook. Her Thanksgiving dinners were epic. — This 1940’s thingamajig works really well for grating Parmesan cheese. I think I’ve used it for grating ginger root a time or two, to add to Asian stir-fry. But mainly, it’s languished in the bottom of my utensil drawer for years. However, I spied one just like it at that trendy shop I mentioned earlier. And yes, it had $20 price tag attached to it. Now, I proudly display it on my kitchen wall, with the other items you see here. And, when I need some freshly grated Parmesan, it comes off the wall to perform as the manufacturer intended. – Did those folks ever imagine that their wares would be displayed in circa 2020 kitchens, hanging near beveled, subway tile backsplashes?
I use this straight-out-of-the-fifties item at least once-a-week to shred carrots for cole slaw or carrot-raisin-apple salad. (Hyphens!) It works pretty well for cheese, too. I can only imagine how many of these have been thrown away over the years. I know I’ve thrown out at least one. I think I got this one from Mom; it’s one of the few gadgets I kept. If you examine it closely, you’ll see it has so many different surfaces, which can process an array of cheese, fruit, spices and vegetables. (BTW, when I say “thrown away “, I mean that. Recycling was not part of the deal back in the day. An unbelievably large number of old things wound up in landfills all over America.)
I tossed at least two of these beauties given to me by Mom: the once-ubiquitous (OK, once-universal) Universal grinder. It would make great cole slaw; but I’m like everyone I know. I go to the produce section, and buy a bag of cole slaw mix. Because I don’t want to deal with a whole cabbage. Meaning, that’s a lot of cabbage for one guy to try to use up. I don’t eat meat, so I basically have no use for this. But, I felt a strong need to have one bolted onto my counter. I don’t like to go on-line, and pick up a collectible item — something that requires little to no effort. I am, after all, a surface miner. I waited until one came along “in real life”. (Note that my Goodwill is in the middle of Amazon’s huge new town they’ve built in Seattle’s south-east Lake Union neighborhood. They don’t carry things like this. They literally call themselves a “boutique Goodwill”.) Well, it took me a year and a half to find it; but I got this one at a garage sale for a buck! It was rusty; I took a heavy duty scour pad, and made it beautiful again.
I don’t know if bowls are considered kitchen gadgets, but these bowls are widely sought after by kitchen collectors. Like the little, primitive, One-Cup flour sifter I featured at the beginning of my story, these Pyrex nesting bowls were on my building community room’s “put and take” table. One of our fellow residents (I live in an all-senior building) had just passed away, and virtually all of his possessions were brought into the community room, to be given away. His family had culled what they wanted, and left all the rest for us to pick through. These bowls immediately caught my eye. But they were just filthy. They looked like they had an accumulation of 50+ years of grease and gunk. I picked them up, and put them down immediately, feeling the icky grunge on their surface. I started to walk away; then I remembered reading other collectors’ stories about how, with a little elbow grease, they wound up with something special. So, I gathered them up, took them to my little kitchen, and used that heavy duty scouring pad again, and got them all cleaned up. And, it took a good hour. And, I use them all the time! I consider them my best find. — But darn! I’m missing the littlest bowl — the blue one. If you feel my pain, and want to give me one, I’ll pay the shipping! BTW, from carefully reading the info on the bowls’ bottoms, I see I have a set from the 1950’s. They’re nearly as old as me, and they’re doing yeoman work.
This is my fabulous, aluminum colander, most likely manufactured in the 1930’s. I love its star pattern. I see them on eBay, going for 30 bucks! Folks are making lamps out of them, or using them for fruit bowls. I actually use mine as my tip jar when I play folk music concerts. It seems to work! Thousands of dollars have found their way into this rustic “kitty”. 😉 The rest of the time, it’s my go-to colander. I had a plastic one that I used almost daily; but I melted it on the stove! Try melting this one….
This amazing-appearing tool comes into play during the preparation of the traditional Norwegian Christmas Fattigan, or Poorman’s Cookie (which I have never tasted). I scored it at Goodwill for $2. It’s made of cast aluminum. I’m not sure when it was made; but it has some age on it. I’ve seen newer ones that lack the crispness – the detail – of the casting process used to make this one. I don’t actually know how to roll out cookie dough, so I doubt I’ll ever use this. But as a sculptural object, it looks great on my kitchen wall.
I bought this for about $7. I thought it might be a fine example of tramp art. It was labeled “nutmeg grater”, when I picked it up at a Queen Anne antique store* at its going-out-of-business sale (all too common these days). I wouldn’t begin to use it for something as hard as nutmeg. I’m afraid that would damage it. I bought it because I thought it was beautiful. — After doing an extensive internet search, I finally found another one. It’s a cheese grater, made in Germany, around 1880. I found it on Ruby Lane, listed for 77 bucks. I did very well!
*My Lower Queen Anne neighborhood’s last-remaining antique store closed due to developers’ buying the building in which it was housed. They proceeded to wait about three years before demolishing it and erecting the new South Korean consulate in its place. We could have been buying more antiques, while they got it together!
I’m sure you’ve seen oodles of these spring-loaded tools. And maybe you’ve thrown one or two away. I’d like to think this is the one my family got back in the fifties, which came with metal picks. — But I’m not sure. It’s about as simple a device as could ever be made. Simple geometry. Need a walnut cracked? No problem. — Well, Mr. Quackenbush was good at geometry. He also invented the extension ladder when he was just sixteen years old. And he introduced innovations to the kaleidoscope, a colorful device which saw a huge rise in popularity in the late 1960’s. But that’s a whole ‘nother story…. [I remember how much my friends and I enjoyed the wild, ever-changing, tumbling kaleidoscopic images. — Sometimes we actually used kaleidoscopes to produce them. Just kidding….]
I feel kind of silly including this; but hey — my post is a PSA, and who knows what info someone may be looking for? So here it is. They used to give these away with a beverage purchase. Or, you could buy one for a nickel. I’ve heard that this particular model was a salesman’s sample. I’ve thrown at least a dozen openers away over the years. Some of which were probably way older and rarer than this one. (And yes, there are collectors.) Note that there are no moving parts; yet it can perform several functions. I’m going to assume this is a survivor from the fifties.
Next, we come to a gadget I had, and have yet to replace:
My sculptural Mouli grinder made it all the way from France, to Yakima, to Seattle, before I mindlessly abandoned it in the trash. Now, I must have one. They’re actually small hand tools, made to work simple magic in the kitchen. They come with various disks, which you swap out depending on what you want to do to those poor little carrots and potatoes.
Obvious moral: I know people are always saying to pare down what you own – to downsize, to go lean. But I say: think twice (or three times) before you discard something. Maybe you just need to learn how to use it. Maybe you can save money by using it, instead of buying a new one. Consider how well-made it is compared to its modern equivalent; consider that its value may have climbed while it wasted away in your kitchen drawer. And, stop and think: is there a story behind the piece? Maybe your mom gave it to you, to help you get started, when you moved out on your own. Maybe it came from your grandparents. Where did they get it? What did they make with it? Did your grandma make your favorite treats with it? And really: when you see one hanging on the wall at a store in Portland, Oregon with a twenty buck price tag hanging from it (more like twenty-five, in Portland), you don’t want to have to kick yourself!
[Many of the things Mom had to get rid of when she moved into an assisted-living community were plastic kitchen gadgets. I guess she too came to think that the old shredders and choppers and mashers were outdated…. I wish she was still alive; she and I could collect together.]
This pretty jar is stamped with a July 14, 1908 patent date. My sister-in-law Elizabeth Anne gave it to me over ten years ago. Although it’s not an implement per se, I thought it should be included here. I use it for — what else? Holding my loose change. When I save up enough, I’ll go back to Goodwill and buy more stuff!
This is actually a laundry room item, made by Ohio’s Columbus Washboard Company. But it’s a handy utensil featuring a basic design; and it’s so pretty. Its design is right in line with its smaller cousins: make the simplest possible item, one that will make a task easier.
Now, see how long you can watch this “music” video before you go crazy. Until next time….