In the American collective memories of early TV westerns, dusty cowboys gathered around the chuck-wagon fire pouring cups of java from a rusty, old graniteware coffee pot. Graniteware, also known as enamelware, existed long before cowboys and covered wagons and has been widely used for utilitarian purposes in homes throughout the world.
Fusing powdered glass to metal through the process of firing has been around for centuries. It was used to produce decorative pieces throughout Europe and Asia. Although the process was popular in several European countries in the 18th century, two German brothers adapted the process from its purely decorative use, beginning a new era for enameled kitchenware. After paying a European maker $5,000 to observe the process and learn the technique, the Niedringhaus brothers applied for a patent and started the business of coating the inside of cast iron pots to stop the metallic taste from leaching through to the food.
Over the next several decades, the demand for enameled ironware grew throughout Europe, and coated kitchenware was very attractive to many a European cook. By the mid-1800s, the brothers decided to win over American cooks as well with this new process and opened a factory in St. Louis. Still, even though it was easier to handle and to clean, early enamelware was plain and utilitarian, a long way from the colorful, mass-produced utensils of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
By the 1860s, two big U.S. companies were making enameled housewares, creating a surge in creative competition. Along with the Niedringhaus brothers came Lalance and Grosjean, a French company that set up a factory in New York. In a quest to maintain a market edge, the Niedringhaus brothers took the science of enameling a step further and developed what became known as graniteware. While the enamel was still wet, they applied a thin piece of paper with an oxidized pattern on it. Once the piece dried, the paper fell away, leaving a design with the appearance of granite — hence, graniteware.
The name and the cookware caught on, and thus began the great graniteware boom in America, which lasted beyond the turn of the century. Success brought growth, and the brothers built a new factory on 3,500 acres in what would become Granite City, Illinois.
Speckled, swirled, mottled and solid, graniteware came in a variety of colors — red, blue, purple, brown, green, pink, gray and white. As the years passed, each period had its own style and color. One of the most popular patterns, even with today’s collectors, 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, unique color.
Although graniteware was lighter in weight than cast iron, there were some problems with it. It tended to crack and then rust all the way through. There were also suspicions that some formulas leaked toxins into food. In the 1890s, agate nickel-steel ware ads claimed a “chemist’s certificate,” proving that it was free of any toxins. Also known as agateware or speckleware, mottled pieces of every color became available at low cost and were a huge success.
Today, graniteware is still popular with collectors. Most collectors hunt for graniteware pots and pans manufactured before 1900. Older pieces are of heavier weight, constructed with seams and possibly riveted. Much of the ware was first issued with cast iron handles during the 19th century, and wooden handles were used at the turn of the century through 1910. Despite the heavy production of graniteware, many of the pieces were not marked, so those with marks of the original manufactures are sought after.
Collecting vintage graniteware is very appealing, and people use the pieces in creative, new ways to decorate their homes. Some collect a particular color or pattern. Designers are on the lookout for older pieces to add a touch of color to a room. Prices continue to rise and are affected by color and condition. Colors that tend to be popular with collectors include cobalt blue, red-and-white swirls, green and brown. Also popular are pieces with unusual designs. Purple, brown and green swirl pieces seem to command higher prices. Buyers should be aware that reproduction pieces are made today in all colors.
Although the advent of aluminum in the 1930s crimped the popularity of graniteware and, thus, it’s manufacture, it was definitely not as much fun to use.
Michelle Galler (email@example.com) specializes in American primitives and folk art. She lives in Georgetown, and her shop is in Rare Finds in Washington, Virginia. Contact her with any questions or about great finds you would like her to discuss in future columns.