Do you have a bidet in your bathroom? It’s always been a difference between English-speaking countries and France. Bidets have never quite caught on in the USA or the UK, except for an occasional “trend” that never really went very far. Some upper class ladies in 19th century England had French-made bidets, and in the 1980s British sanitaryware retailers started stocking bidets.
But in France there’s a bidet in every bathroom, isn’t there? Not any more. In recent years the bidet has been disappearing from new French bathrooms. Only 40% had bidets included in the mid-1990s, as compared with 95% in the 1970s, according to the authors of a French book on the history of the bidet.† In 1995 Italy produced 15 times as many bidets as France.
Bidet-style arrrangements for personal hygiene are not limited to Europe. Arabic-speaking countries use them, and Japan is a leading producer of high-tech bidet/toilet combinations (also called washlets), with jets of water washing after you flush, and warm air following on. This type is used in nursing homes.
In France beautful bowls set into elegant seats were fashionable with the upper classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Napoleon’s will left his silver-gilt bidet to his son. A 1751 rosewood-veneered bidet of Madame de Pompadour’s is preserved at Versailles near Paris. The basin in hers is decorative like this slightly later floral earthenware one.
That last link and the first picture on this page show the curving shape of the antique bowls. This shape explains why the bidet once had nicknames like violin-case or little guitar. Originally the word bidet itself referred to the wooden furniture originally used for holding the bowl, and meant pony.
Debates about who invented the bidet are not likely to be settled any time soon. The French or the Italians? After all, who can say when someone first set a basin of water on a stand at a convenient height for washing the more private parts of the body?
The earliest written information we have about bidets comes fom a Paris cabinet-maker whose business literature in 1739 offered bidets designed with backs and hinged lids. Rémy Peverie also suggested the possibility of making two-person bidets for his aristocratic clients. Now there’s an idea that didn’t catch on – as far as I know.
Rugs made from strips of cloth existed well before factories began producing cheap fabric, but not in anything like the same quantity. Even in quite poor households, rag bags of the 1800s were filling up with old clothes and scraps left over from dress-making. In the factories, there were clippings and oddments to be sold off cheaply or swept up by employees. Cotton feedsacks gradually became available too. Rag rugs created from scraps on a woven background (the second and last kinds in the list below) could use old jute sacking or cheap burlap as a foundation. These materials were easily available in many parts of North America and Europe by the middle of the 19th century. With time, and a little skill, families could warm and decorate their floors.
By 1900, some rag rugs were less about thrift, and more about craft. There was a movement towards careful design, and more elaborate techniques, and craftswomen started to buy and/or dye fabric with particular patterns in mind. This interest in rug-making as an aesthetic craft was stronger in the US than in the UK, where rag rugs were mainly seen as an economical choice for poorer homes until the mid-20th century. While Britain tended to dismiss rag rugs as “working-class”, American county fairs and exhibitions offered prizes for rag rugs alongside patchwork quilts and other textile arts.
There are many varied ways of making cloth remnants or “rags” into floor coverings, but this is a brief outline of the types known in the Victorian era.
Rugs woven on a loom: perhaps a linen warp thread with wool or linen strips used for the weft. These are probably the oldest kind. “List carpets” in 18th century England and colonial America were one of the cheapest kinds of soft floor covering. Sometimes woven lengths were sewn together to create rag carpeting.
Rugs made with cloth scraps looped through a loosely-woven canvas or burlap background. The rags can be hooked through from the upper side or poked through from underneath, creating varying surface textures from smooth to tufted. Implements for hooking or prodding ranged from home-made wooden pegs to factory-manufactured latch-hooks.
Rugs made by coiling joined-up lengths of rag. The coils of braided rugs, or mats made from fabric-covered cord were fastened with thread stitching or binding; crocheted versions need no sewing.
Knitted or crocheted rugs made in one flat piece.
Rugs, often small door-mats, made by stitching scraps onto backing material. Tongue mat is one name for these, based on the tongue-shaped pieces used in one popular design.
Note: The UK had a large number of different regional names for the rugs in the second category, like clootie, proggy, proddy, clippy, stobbie or peggie rugs or mats. These now seem very attractive, admired for craft, design, and nostalgia reasons, but they were not appreciated by the wealthier classes in the 19th century.
Why did Cornishware appeal to people in its early days? Now we think of it as a British “design classic”, collected above all for its distinctive broad blue and white stripes, the core pattern of the original TG Green Cornish Kitchen Ware range. Some collectors also like less common variations: black stripes, or a storage jar lettered with the name of a retro cooking ingredient.
The blue and white banding has always been the most popular design. Did it really suggest white-crested waves under a blue sky to its early customers, as the company now believes? Cornish seascapes inspired the brand name, but people often associated it more with cottage and farm kitchens than with the wide open sea.
In 1932 the Manchester Guardian wrote about “Cornish farmhouse-ware, with its bold blue lines and white background”. A few years later one of its writers said you might get some at a “cottage sale” or “the village store”.
Cornishware was available in Canada in its early years, and there too it seemed like homey kind of stuff. When a new batch arrived in British Columbia after the second world war, an ad in the Vancouver Sun called it “lovely wholesome famous blue and white ware”.
In 1957 a New York store offered “peasant-type Cornishware earthenware, cherished for its rugged good looks.” It still had a pleasantly down-to-earth image for a New Yorker writer twenty years later:
… nice English Cornishware whose wide blue and off-white horizontal stripes have such an air of cheerful comfortableness …
Was it always intended to have a folksy appeal, for people wanting to make their kitchen or breakfast table look cosy and rural? Maybe not. The colour was originally called electric blue, or “e blue”, which sounds more contemporary than rustic. And Catherine McDermott, professor of design, links the style to Modernism as well as to farmhouses and dairies:
Cornishware’s distinctive blue and white bands owe something to the Continental development of well- designed, mass-produced Modernist tableware at this time.
So how do you react? Does Cornishware make you think of ocean waves, wholesome farm kitchens, or modernist electric blue?
I haven’t tried to distinguish between genuine TG Green Cornishware and imitations here, with the main focus on discussing the way people feel about the Cornish Blue style.
One 1930 ad offered a Cornish Ware tangerine-and-white version which I haven’t come across elsewhere. Orange was available at some point, but was it made by TG Green in 1930?
…It’s available now in green-and-white or tangerine-and-white, as well as in the blue-and-white that everybody likes. The whole range is reduced for this event – plates, basins, store-jars, everything, as an example, you can have a sturdy two-pint milk jug for 2/9 Ad for Lewis’s Household Bargains Event, Feb 1930, Manchester Guardian
A hundred years ago a woman going out in the cold of winter could tuck a miniature hot water bottle inside her fur muff to keep her hands warm: like Maw’s Dainty Muff Warmer in the photo. This kind of hand warmer was on sale in late Victorian and Edwardian England.
The Thermos Hot-water Muff Warmer is a delightful little invention which is sure to be appreciated by my readers. Ada Ballin, Womanhood, 1904
Poorer people had to find simpler ways of coping with a cold journey: heated stones or potatoes in a pocket, perhaps.
Ma slipped piping hot baked potatoes into their pockets to keep their fingers warm, Aunt Eliza’s flatirons were hot on the stove, ready to put at their feet in the sled. The blankets and the quilts and the buffalo robes were warmed, … Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (story of the early 1870s in Wisconsin)
The branded stoneware muff warmer was a new take on elegant ceramic or silver hand warmers that ladies’ maids filled when their mistress was about to set out on a cold carriage ride or walk. With carrying strings and tight stoppers, and optional fabric cover, these were clearly designed for people going out from home.
Hand warmers indoors
Hands could be cold indoors too. Plenty of people made good use of a hand warmer in a room or workshop with neither fireplace nor stove. Most parts of Europe had a variety of portable warmth providers, from silver braziers to ceramic novelties to heat-retaining bricks.
An earthenware pot with glowing charcoal was a common source of portable heat. It might be put on the floor, used as local heating or as a foot warmer, but it could also be raised up to warm someone’s hands -as in the picture. At night it could be used in a bed wagon.
Portable containers for hot water or glowing embers are sometimes called hand warmers even when they are used for more than just cold hands.
Neat little hinged cases with sticks of charcoal inside were in use in Europe by the first world war, when some officers carried pocket warmers. Someone patented a design in the US for a similar case holding heated metal slugs but I don’t know if these were ever made. There were also tubes to hold charcoal rods.
One of the newest inventions for winter comfort is a small hand warmer consisting of a hollow cylinder of fiber. A small pencil of heated charcoal is inserted through one end. The device will keep warm … for two hours. Popular Science, USA, 1924
Chinese & Japanese handwarmers
You can’t really discuss antique handwarmers without mentioning the traditions of Eastern Asia.
Japanese homes might offer guests a small roundish ceramic pot with fuel in to warm their hands. Called a te-aburi , it could be used by an individual at the same time as a hibachi brazier big enough for a whole group of people.
Copper or bronze box-shape hand warmers a few inches across, often with carrying handles, were called shou lu in China: convenient, portable, with glowing coals inside. China and Japan had used both metal and ceramic hand warmers for many centuries. The perforations were an attractive part of the design as well as being functional. I like this tiny piece of Chinese pottery for warming 7th century hands.
European travellers in the later 1800s and early 1900s were interested in the little heaters they saw in the Far East. Some people called them “Japanese muff warmers” and recommended them for nursing and medical purposes. One Englishman bought one for his own winter outings and praised the:
…little stoves which the Japanese women put in their sleeves and obi [wide sash]. They are small enough to push up the sleeve of a [European] coat, and…will keep alight for four or five hours. Walter Tyndale, Japan and the Japanese, 1910
These could be lit with a simple paper fuse in 1910, but it was not long before a modern version of the metal “box” hand warmer was introduced to Japan. It was ignited with platinum catalyst technology. The Hakkin hand warmer or kairo, invented in 1923, looks like a cousin of the cigarette lighter, but I like to think it was inspired by its older ancestors.
S. Maw, Son, & Sons
This English company’s Dainty Muff Warmer was by no means an important product. Maw’s had been dealing in surgical and pharmaceutical supplies from 1807 onwards. One of their early earthenware products was an inhaler (from the 1860s or before). By the early 1900s they were making ceramic foot warmers as well as hand warmers, and also baby feeders, toothpaste pots and more. The company name varied over the years. From 1901-1920 they were S. Maw, Son, & Sons of Aldersgate Street, London.
In the late 1940s a Canadian housewife, Joan Colborne,† counted her sock stretchers before tackling a backlog of laundry. She “only” had four pairs and so could not wash more than eight woollen socks at a time. If socks were not stretched out while drying they might shrink.
Stretchers like the ones in the photo were the best way of keeping socks and stockings the right size and shape after laundering. If they had holes all over to help air circulate so much the better. The flat wooden legs, clad in long woolly socks, were hung from outdoor clotheslines or given a place to dry indoors.
Since long socks always used to be called stockings, or hose, these wooden leg shapes were originally called stocking stretchers or airers, but the name sock stretchers was more common by the mid-20th century.
They were used by manufacturers as well as at home: an industrial invention with benefits for people doing domestic chores. Hosiery producers sometimes called them stocking boards.
By the time of World War I stretchers seemed so important for sock care that the Red Cross and other people knitting socks for soldiers sometimes sent stocking stretchers along too.
At Caldwell, under the direction of Mr. Howard D. Thayer, a number of stocking stretchers have been made for the soldiers’ use. (1918 New Jersey School Bulletin)
Sometimes you see metal sock stretchers made of wire. As long as they were truly rust-free they were probably a better design: more air passing through, and no damp, warped wood. A patent in 1875 seems to be claiming inventor’s rights over the idea of using wire for stocking stretchers, while also patenting other new features in “devices for drying and stretching hose”. The patentee, Augustus C. Carey, was described as “the inventor of more than 100 valuable electrical and mechanical devices” in an obituary.
Although stocking stretchers were certainly used in Britain, especially in big households, it seems that they were most popular in North America. After World War II, when a few more sock stretchers were provided to the troops, there was news of socks that would not shrink. American ads stressed that you could now manage without the hassle of using sock stretchers.
Throw away those annoying sock-stretchers — just wash Sarfert Socks in the usual way. They’ll not only keep their knitted size after many washings, but they’ll wear longer and stay soft and pliant as when new. (1947 ad)
DuPont nylon will keep their shape, looks, and smartness for a long, long time. Throw away your sock stretchers too because under normal washing conditions these new Bear Brand honeys won’t shrink, won’t stretch, they’ll always fit. (1949 ad)
Some people still expected sock stretchers to stick around for a long time. In 1948 the Spokane Daily Chronicle published a sceptical column titled Put-up-or-shut-up Policy Issued Against Science?.
As for woolens that won’t shrink, I see that sock stretchers are still being sold… (Henry McLemore)
Well, that journalist was partly wrong, and partly right. Sock stretchers have come back. A few people use them for wet wool hiking socks, and they’re also popular with knitters, who call them sock blockers. A new generation of hand-knitters use sock blockers to shape up newly-knitted socks. Blocking means encouraging pieces of newly hand-knit fabric to take their intended shape: by dampening, pressing, pinning etc. Sock blockers is a 21st century name for the 2-dimensional wooden legs, although knitters have used “blocking” techniques for longer. I found a couple of mentions of sock blockers before the new millennium, but the name really only took off after the year 2000.
The earliest showers were rather like having a pail of water tipped over you from a height. By the 1880s there were some more sophisticated contraptions available. They could be fully integrated with indoor plumbing, and came complete with an array of taps and valves to adjust temperature, water flow, and more. Patent mixers were invented to make sure the water could never be scalding hot. One manufacturer promised their needle shower would not let water go over 98 degrees F (body temperature). Showers were supposed to be invigorating and health-giving, so cool or lukewarm water was considered beneficial.
A needle bath or needle shower directed jets of water all round the torso. Sometimes the water flow could be adjusted, and a particular setting was promoted as a liver shower or bath, supposedly offering a stimulating massage for internal organs. Its energising effects were considered more suitable for men than women. Needle showers were marketed to gentlemen’s athletic clubs as well as private houses. Some people call them cage showers.
A rain bath or shower was an overhead spray coming from a circular head pointing straight down or slightly slanted. Also called a spray bath, it was a desirable fitting for modern, hygienic public baths and hospitals.
Combination showers with a variety of features were promoted by leading manufacturers. Some were decorative as well as cleverly designed. They led to the canopy shower.
Canopy showers or canopy baths built several bathing features into a fine piece of furniture. Designed for bathrooms in well-decorated homes, these were available for the well-heeled buyer in North America and Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The porcelain enamel tub extended upward at one end into a tall curved shower wall, usually with a hood. This impressive bathroom centrepiece could be seven feet high. Many were fitted inside dark polished wood cases; some had ornamental enamelled metal exteriors. Douche and plunge settings were sometimes included. The plunge was a gushing flow of water, not a spray or fine jets. Other features of needle or canopy baths could include a kidney, spinal, or bidet spray, or a special shampoo spray.
UK manufacturers tried to entice wealthy late Victorian customers with a steady supply of new features. As well as all the shower options, you could have fine carving on the canopy bath surround, a curving bath with extra space at the shower end, or an open top “Oriental” bath which avoided any “sense of confinement”. Instead of being enclosed in dark wood, the Oriental model was metal decorated with stencilled friezes, fluted columns, and cornices. Copper and other metal canopies came into vogue, and started to replace the heavy mahogany look.
When did ordinary homes get showers?
Around 1900 these were splendid luxuries for rich people, who often bought them for the supposed health benefits of special kinds of bathing. A lot of routine hygiene depended on washstands and hip baths in the bedroom. But when were showers fitted in middle-class homes? There are plenty of statistics about the percentage of homes in various countries with either a bath or a shower, but very little about showers alone.
The 1920s was when showers began to spread to “normal” homes in the USA, especially new homes, according to many writers.† The pictures at the bottom of the page give a foretaste of this, with US bathroom designers illustrating not-too-lavish bathrooms with showers included. Sears Roebuck was selling showers by 1915. By 1965 a study of one thousand American middle-class homes found that 85% had both a tub and a shower.*
Even though British shower manufacturers and wealthy customers had kept pace with American developments up to WWI, it stopped there. Bathrooms were different on different sides of the Atlantic. Showers appeared in sports clubs and other communal facilities but remained uncommon in private homes in Britain before the 1970s/80s. (Sorry, only anecdotal evidence so far, but I’m pretty sure.)
Many European countries were far slower than the USA to adopt showering at home. Possible reasons include older housing stock without space for showers, and progressive attitudes to new technology in America. Attitudes to hygiene varied from culture to culture. Sweden was one of the first European countries to take home showers to its heart. 1980s studies in Sweden and Minnesota showed that in both places most homes had a shower and a bathtub.‡
Who uses boot scrapers in the 21st century? Portable ones are on sale for gardeners, and for anyone else who wants to tackle muddy boots before approaching clean houses, cars, or paths. But the days of iron scrapers being placed at every door are over. The finest ornamental 19th century scrapers are still there beside elegant townhouses and country mansions. Scrapers have stayed on some smaller homes, especially where the scraper is embedded in the wall. Plain, functional scrapers sometimes remain by historic buildings.
Gone are the days of architects and builders planning for boot scrapers:
Scrapers for the feet may be let into the wall of the cottage, on each side of the door, a cavity being left over the scraper for the foot, and one under it for the dirt. There are various forms of scrapers for building into walls, which may be had of every ironmonger; and all that the cottager has to do is to choose one analogous to the style of his house. There are detached scrapers in endless variety; the most complete are those which have brushes fixed on edge, on each side of the scraper… An encyclopædia of cottage, farm, and villa architecture and furniture …John Claudius Loudon, London, 1839
Schools no longer put scrapers on their list of essentials:
The Scraper ….. the steps or platform leading to the door ….. either will be incomplete without a strong, convenient shoe scraper at each side. Two will be required, for the reason that the pupils enter the school, morning and afternoon, about the same time, and if there be only one scraper, it will either cause delay or compel some to enter the building with soiled shoes. Cleanliness and neatness are amongst the cardinal virtues of the school-room ; and every means of inculcating and promoting them should receive the earliest and most constant attention. JG Hodgins, The school house: its architecture, external and internal arrangements, Toronto, 1876
What we do have now are enthusiasts who just love old boot scrapers. Since these are often fixed into stone, they are best collected by photographers. One collection is mostly from the UK or US. Another is from Brussels where, says the introduction, scrapers used to be part of the etiquette and ritual for entering both public buildings and individual homes. A Toulouse “collector” has analysed local styles and named them: ram’s horns, fir-cones etc.
When did boot scrapers arrive as a normal part of daily life? The first print references start mid-18th century, when they are simply called scrapers.* I haven’t seen any that go back as far as this, but am hoping a “collector” may know of one and add a comment – please. Foot scraper and shoe scraper are terms also used, but boot scraper is far the most common name.
They attracted 19th century inventors with an eye on patenting newer, cleverer kinds of scraper: quite often combined with brushes. Some of these look useful, some don’t, but none has the elegance of the best architect-endorsed scrapers, chosen to suit the house they were protecting from mud. One design that stands out from the crowd is seen in New York and Savannah, Georgia. By integrating the scraper into the railings it avoids the “afterthought” look of a shoe-cleaner that doesn’t suit the architectural style of the house, but it isn’t quite as obvious as a free-standing scraper. Did visitors know where they were supposed to clean their footwear?
Specification of Works to be done in erecting and completely finishing a Villa….with all the necessary appurtenances [sic]….
Iron-founder…Provide cast-iron strong tray boot scrapers to front and back doorways.
Specification of Works required to be done in erecting and completely finishing a Pair Of Semi-detached Cottages….
Iron-founder….Fit up to each front door a neat iron knocker and a neat iron-pan scraper. Practical specifications of works executed in architecture, civil and mechanical engineering, London, 1865
Most iceboxes looked like plain wooden cabinets in the early 1900s. Without electric refrigeration, they were fitted inside with a space for ice, which had to be topped up regularly to keep food cool and fresh.
Keeping the butter hard, the milk and cream sweet, and the meat from spoiling, is a part of the housewife’s trouble in the summer time. White Frost ad from Carter’s Hardware, Sonora CA, 1913
The White Frost Refrigerator was the only cylinder-shaped icebox. A block of ice sat in a compartment under the lid and chilled air was vented into the food storage space below. The makers said their distinctive model was:
More hygienic – easy-clean curved enamelled steel, food always in perfect condition
More scientific – better design, better insulated, economical with ice, revolving shelves
Excerpts from their ads show what White Frost Refrigerator Co. and their dealers thought buyers wanted. (To read about the manufacturer, designer, patent etc. please scroll down the page.)
…rolled steel, galvanized and beautifully enameled…nothing to swell, warp or shrink…no corners to dig out, no shelter for germs…absolutely wholesome…circulation of air so scientifically directed…there can be no moisture from the ice in the food chamber Weis & Fisher ad, Rochester NY, 1905
…only sanitary refrigerator on the market, not a splinter of wood, no waste of ice, clean and odorless Cahn’s ad, Youngstown OH, 1908
…sparkling, cleanly white…harmonizes so well with the modern white kitchens Trice-O’Neal Furniture Store ad, Florida, 1925
Of course the advertisers wanted to appeal to women, but they also needed to persuade men. An ad in Popular Mechanics showed “Bob” and his wife in icebox-inspired closeness.
Holding up to 110lb. ice
Double walls insulated with asbestos or aerofelt, and maltha (asphalt) with “dead air space”, later models with granulated cork
3 coats of white enamel inside
Exterior white with nickel or brass trim, or golden oak finish
Easy to move, on wheels
White Frost Sanitary Refrigerator an alternative name
“Crystal” water cooler attachment allowing for an extra shelf – from 1919
Manufacturers and inventor
The first White Frosts were made in Jackson, Michigan even before a full patent was granted in 1906. The president of the company making them was Hugh L. Smith, a hardware entrepreneur and director of at least 2 other businesses. He also bought the Boeck Stove Company.
Charles H. Boeck patented various stove designs and other inventions too. His 1906 refrigerator patent describes him as assignor to the Jackson Metal Stamping Co. In the next few years he patented some improvements to the icebox. His 1919 patent for the water cooler attachment used a different company name: White Frost Refrigerator Co. White Frosts were sold through dealers in many different states, and were also available by mail order from Mechanic Street in Jackson. The price in its first few years was about $30, with a $20 end-of-summer bargain in Paterson NJ. By 1924 a store in Painesville OH was selling one at $74, reduced from over $90.
It’s winter in northern Europe, and there’s no electricity. How can you dry your laundry? One of the best places of all is a laundry room in the servants’ quarters of a mansion house. A generous ceiling height means you can have frames for wet clothes and household linen in the warmest, dryest part of the room. The estate handyman would make them, and by the later 19th century he would probably add ropes and a pulley to raise and lower the rack. No need to climb on a chair to hang laundry.
It was different in a small cottage. With life centred on one room there could be a lot hanging from the ceiling: foodstuffs needing a dry, vermin-free spot, baskets empty or full, medicinal and culinary herbs drying, as well as a steady stream of laundry and clothing soaked by bad weather.
One simple pole attached to roof timbers was better than nothing. Drying washing on frame airers by a fire is effective, but getting some of it up and out of the way is a relief in a small space.
Ceiling clothes pulleys used to be common in the UK, and they are still used in older houses where there is enough height in the room. In ordinary-sized houses they often used to be in the kitchen, so the fresh smell of newly-aired linen might be masked by a vague aroma of cooking. This is the only disadvantage I know of with ceiling drying.
Advantages are obvious. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It uses rising heat that’s wasted otherwise. It’s not much work spreading out the laundry and taking it down later. You can fix racks on lower ceilings if you don’t need the room when you’re drying things.
Although drying racks on the ceiling were not unknown in American homes of the early 1900s, they seemed to vanish later. But recently they have come back to the USA, perhaps for people interested in saving energy. You could make one yourself, but you can buy ready-made ones with metal bits imported from the UK, plus US timber. The racks cost a bit more than in Europe, but they are still a practical, environment-friendly way of drying and airing for some people – and money-saving over time.
Clothes Driers vary from the hemp clothes-line, taken down after each drying, copper wires, stretched taut and left out permanently, to revolving driers mounted either on a post in the yard or on a projecting arm from a porch or window. Indoor driers vary from the clothes horse to a rack which is pulled by pulley to the ceiling (very convenient for limited spaces, costing about $5.00).
From: Laundering, by Lydia Ray Balderston, Philadelphia, 1914 & 1923)
An easy way to have your own ceiling clothes airer
The traditional UK pulley clothes dryer is now available in the USA from Amazon.com. There’s a range of sizes and fittings come in different colours. Click the one on the left if you’re in the US. The one on the right comes from Amazon UK.
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.