How many pies today are baked with a little ceramic chimney inside that supports the crust and channels away steam so that hot fillings don’t burst out in places where they shouldn’t? Also called a pie funnel, vent, or whistle, they don’t actually have to be birds, though using a little pottery bird with dark feathers and bright yellow beak is a nice reminder of the song about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. You are as likely to see them in a collector’s cabinet as in a pie dish, but they can be useful. Pastry crust is less likely to end up drooping or soggy when a pie funnel is doing its bit to help.
All the same, they don’t really seem like cookery essentials, and this could help explain why they don’t seem to have been around for much more than a century. I’ve looked in vain for them in Victorian cookbooks and housekeeping manuals from both sides of the Atlantic. Mrs. Beeton’s comprehensive advice from the 1860s covers all sorts of pastry equipment but there’s no sign of a pie funnel. Pie funnels appeared around 1880 along with other not-quite-necessary late 19th century kitchen gadgets. Many similar “chimneys”, “crust supports” etc. were patented over the next couple of decades.
Classic blackbird funnels
Clarice Cliff added pie blackbirds to her range of ceramics in the mid-1930s. At least one expert says this was her own original idea, and it was the first British pie bird registered design, but in Australia there was a similar pie blackbird funnel designed by Grace Seccombe a few years earlier.
Nutbrown pie funnels
From the 1930s to the 1970s and later a plain white or yellowish pie funnel was a familiar item in UK homes. The Nutbrown brand did well and its name is stamped on many vintage pie funnels. I am doubtful of claims that there was ever a Nutbrown Pottery. Pastry utensils of all kinds came from a company called Thomas (Thos.) M. Nutbrown Ltd. of Blackpool, England whose range of kitchenware also included many stainless steel things like toast racks, cookie cutters, and can-openers. By the 1980s Nutbrown kitchenware had been absorbed into the Wilkinson Sword group via a company which made scourers and cutlery.
Pie funnels in the USA
In the early years of pie funnels they seem to have been more popular in the UK than in the US. There are few American patents in the quarter century after 1880. The first I found was a “pie-ventilator” from 1891 (see picture) and the next was an 1897 “pie-crust support” patent granted in the US to an Englishman. Meanwhile in England dozens of designs were registered, and pie-related businesses liked to distribute simple ceramic funnels with their branding on. The big surge forward with animal and character pie “birds” started in the 1940s, according to the The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.
By the way, the only name for this kind of thing in the Oxford English Dictionary is pie funnel. Their first date for it is a 1910 entry in a department store catalogue. They don’t mention pie birds.
pie funnel…a funnel-shaped device placed within a pie while it cooks to support the piecrust and to provide a vent for steam.