Collecting cookie jars
After the boom of interest in cookie jars that Andy Warhol’s collection provoked in the 1980s, they seem to have fallen out of fashion with everyone except their most devoted enthusiasts. The days of home baked cookies may be dwindling in the homes of many busy families, but this can’t be the only reason that interest in these quirky kitchen containers has waned.
Available in all the shapes and forms you can imagine, cookie jars from throughout the 20th century are like time capsules, symbolic of the generation they were produced for. For example, space-themed cookie jars became hugely popular during the 1950s and 60s space race. Antique cookie jars, such as the floral examples from Arts & Crafts manufacturer Roseville, are relics of bygone eras, while vintage and modern cookie jars celebrate contemporary heroes, like The Beatles and Superman.
The collectors’ market for cookie jars is ripe for revival, complimenting as they do the vogue for a kitsch vintage aesthetic. Prices are low, so new collectors can get involved. No one really collects cookie jars with an eye on investment. They are nostalgia rendered immortal in porcelain, a collecting hobby that is pure fun through and through.
Cookie jars have their origins in the late 18th century biscuit jars of England. They became a household favourite in America from the early days of the Great Depression. The first cookie jars were glass, with screw on lids, but in the 1930s, simple, cylindrical, painted stoneware, often with a floral motif, became their common form.
Very soon, cookie jar manufacturers got creative, making ceramic jars in every shape imaginable. Fruit, vegetables, animals, figures, storybook characters… The Golden Age of American cookie jar production ensued, and lasted from 1940-1970. Cookie jars from these decades are often the most collected, largely because of the nostalgia surrounding them – the memory of coming home to freshly baked cookies, the iconic American treat, and taking them from a sturdy ceramic jar in the shape of a cat, a car, a clown, or a cauliflower.
They were also used as advertising and merchandise, for products and movies. This saw a whole generation of cookie jars representing international brands and cultural icons, from Coca Cola to Popeye to Marilyn Monroe.
The collectors’ market for cookie jars had been quite niche, but really opened up in the 1980s following the death of pioneering pop artist Andy Warhol. Ensuing auctions of his possessions included his entire collection of cookie jars, all bought from flea markets for a few dollars at most. The whole collection totalled $250,000 at the 1987 Sotheby’s sale. Warhol’s provenance likely boosted these prices. However, the auction did have a marked effect on the collectors’ market for cookie jars in general, helping to popularise them as a collectible.
Over two decades later, cookie jars have fallen back into the realm of niche and oddball collectibles. While some American homes may still boast a single cookie jar, for old times’ sake, this rarely inspires a larger collection.
Types and models of cookie jar
From plain cylindrical cookie jars emerged beautifully decorated jars like those of Arts & Crafts company Roseville. Always with a raised floral motif, these are charming ceramic items that collectors prize.
Manufacturers soon began to craft cookie jars in the form of everyday objects, like houses, barns, vehicles, trains, globes, radios, telephones, butter churns, stoves, fruit, even vegetables that you wouldn’t really associate with cookies, like chillies and tomatoes. Cookie jars depicting vintage cars are particularly popular, old classic automobiles having an extensive following of admirers. Some cookie jars are holiday themed, for example Christmas trees or Easter bunnies.
Character cookie jars have always been popular, such as the Little Red Riding Hood jar designed by Louise Beauer and manufactured by Hull, and the first cookie jar that renowned manufacturer McCoy produced, the ‘Mammy’ cookie jar. This (now somewhat controversial) large black woman in an apron holding a cauliflower originally stated: ‘Dem cookies shor am good’, which soon changed to read simply: ‘Cookies’. Generic characters, such as sailors, chefs, vampires, grannies, clowns, Santa etc, as well as animals such as pigs, lambs, roosters, elephants, cats and so on (many in humanesque poses), were joined by storybook characters like Cinderella, and later cartoon characters like Popeye, Bugs Bunny and Betty Boop, and movie characters, such as the Cowardly Lion from the Wizard of Oz and R2D2 from Star Wars.
Character jars can also represent cultural icons, such as Elvis, Superman, Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, Marilyn Monroe, and The Beatles. More recent examples include Dr Who, the blue police box Tardis being a popular choice to keep cookies in.
Businesses soon jumped on the bandwagon as they saw the potential for advertising using cookie jars. Firms including Coca-Cola and Harley Davidson turned to McCoy to produce cookie jars featuring their brands. Oreo, the American sandwich cookie, of course had their own model of cookie jar. Many gas companies, tobacco companies, drinks companies and others tried out this method of advertising.
Other manufacturers of cookie jars include Brush Pottery, the company credited with producing the first ceramic cookie jar, Shawnee, who produced some of the most popular cookie jars with collectors, and American Bisque, renowned for their cartoon and character jars.
A very few artists have taken up the cookie jar as a medium for their work, for example Glenn Appleman, Kim Dingle and Patti Warashina Bauer. The reputation of the designer adds great value to a cookie jar, particularly if they are being collected as artworks rather than as vintage kitchenware.
Guide to collecting
As previously mentioned, now is a perfect time to begin collecting cookie jars – while they are largely ignored. They are extremely affordable and great fun.
A collector may often choose to focus on designs that are nostalgic to them, reminiscent of the cookies of their youth. They may have an interest in a particular character or theme that is represented. Some, like Andy Warhol, may pick up any old cookie jar that they find at a flea market.
Cookie jars are sometimes sold in bulk lots at auction and on eBay. Make sure of the condition they are in, as no one wants a chipped chicken or fractured frog in their collection.
If cookie jars have lost their lid, as is a occupational hazard, this can render them absolutely worthless. So if you are interested in the value of your cookie jars increasing, it is worth either ignoring lidless jars, or hunting down replacement lids.
The value of rare and significant cookie jars can reach several thousand. However, the majority are worth much less, generally under $50 and many under $100. Some can be picked up for peanuts at flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores, or freely passed down from relatives.
Reproduction cookie jars do exist, so always make certain that anything you buy is authentic if it claims to be antique or vintage. Don’t be fooled.
Cookie jars are still produced, many as merchandise depicting contemporary film characters for example, by companies like Westland Giftware. If these are where your interest lies, new examples can be found selling for $50. It may be worth waiting and buying them second hand.
There are several value guides and reference books on cookie jar. However, many of them were written during the collecting boom of the 1980s-90s and are now out of date. The Complete Cookie Jar Book by Mike Schneider, and The Ultimate Collector’s Encyclopedia of Cookie Jars: Identification and Values by Joyce and Fred Roerig have both been updated in the 00s, so might be worth consulting, but bear in mind these are guideline prices and can fluctuate depending on the levels of interest in cookie jars, and the changing rarity of each example.