Antique French Enamelware, also known as Enameled Ware or Graniteware, served in the kitchens of every Victorian household in Europe, in a gentler, more romantic time, when even the most humble item was beautifully made. Painted utilitarian steel or tinware became known as French enamelware due to its popularity in France, but this enamelware was actually produced throughout Europe, with vast amounts manufactured in Austria, Germany, Belgium and Czechoslovakia.

 

 

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Enamelware has been around for centuries, in the late 1800’s that enameled ware was mass produced as useful household objects. Made by applying a porcelain or glass like finish of enamel to items of steel by fusing powdered glass using a firing process, enamel was used in coating kitchenware because of its tolerance to both heat and cold. Once fired, the powdered glass melted and hardened to a smooth coating that kept the metal from rusting, a decided plus for fairly unbreakable household items used with water and in kitchens and bathing areas.

Some items were made with cast iron, these pieces were extremely heavy, the burners used for gas stoves, or trivets to protect tabletops from hot pans are an example of this type of enameled ware, but most pieces were lighter, it was a large part of their appeal. Several coats of enamel were required to produce a quality piece, the enamel was thick, with a glossy look and “feel”. Highly skilled metal workers cut out the desired shapes, then the pieces were fired to bake the finish to the metal. Hand-painted decoration was painted and then baked onto the base metal. The decorative botanical and graphic designs on many of the French pieces were hand painted by true artists, it was considered a serious art form of the day. By the late 1930’s, every detail and embellishment, including the application of decals or stenciling, was done by machine.

 

 

 

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Types of Pieces

Almost everything used in the grand Victorian kitchens was made during this time of enamelware: pots, pans, canister sets, salt holders and utensil racks with matching utensils for cooking. Coffee pots, teapots and kettles, sugar and creamer sets were especially popular for the staff below stairs, {the lady of the house only used exquisite sterling and porcelain for her tea service.} For daily chores, there were laundry soap chests and soda & sand sets, for scrubbing dishes and scouring pans. For the boudoir, large body pitchers {aptly named because enough water could be carried to the bedroom for washing yourself} and pitcher and bowl sets were beautifully painted in soft floral colors to please any lady’s taste. Pitchers like this were used for bathing before indoor plumbing was invented. A bowl and pitcher set was a mainstay in each bedroom in a fine to middle class home, often on a special “wash stand” with a mirror.

 

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In more modest homes, the enamelware had pride of place. The coffee pots were used daily, surrounded by café au lait bowls, and the pots and pans carefully cleaned after each meal. A lavabo (a basin with a water tank above it) was traditionally placed outside the back door of many French homes. Frequently a small chest was hung just below that would hold linen towels and soap, the lavabo was used to wash ones hands after completing some outdoors task before re entering the kitchen from the garden or fields. There was usually only one pitcher and bowl set for washing, either in the kitchen or the wash room.

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What to Collect (or…What to Look For )

Most of the antiques sought after by collectors today were manufactured between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The amazingly vibrant colors and spectacular hand painted designs featuring flowers such as roses and pansies, and hand applied gilded accents on the softer pastel backgrounds of pink, light blue, and aqua are what makes the heart of collectors beat faster.

The types of antique enamelware pieces are amazing and quite varied. Many collectors choose a certain type of item to collect, with coffee pots, or biggins being the most popular and collectible. A biggin is a three or four part coffee pot invented by the Englishman George Biggin in the 18th century, these pots combined an exterior matching filter on top of a coffeepot. The earliest biggins had a handle on the filter part as well as on the pot, later the filter section was made without a handle.

It is rare to find complete sets, many of the pieces that survived their home life were lost to World War II scrap metal drives. It is much more difficult to find well made, beautifully painted pieces, its rarity adds to the value. Prices for most true antique pieces in good condition with an attractive design start around $350.00, with those featuring roses, pansies, or an unusual color combination fetching a premium. While many countries produced enamelware, for most serious collectors it is the French pieces they desire. Other European pieces can be just as beautiful, and are avidly collected as well, the pieces made in Poland are the least valuable and desired.

 

 

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Characteristics Of Antique French Enamelware.

1. Antique pieces are heavy and substantial. There should be multiple coats of enamel, thick and glossy. Look for glaze or age cracks, and those wonderful little hairlines in the enamel called “craquelure”, authentic pieces almost always have some of these. These pieces were used in kitchens throughout Europe for decades, so some wear is perfectly acceptable.

2. Missing pieces of enamel on the handle (where the pieces were hung on a nail, for instance) or at the edges of the lids, and on the knobs is to be expected. Chips, if not too large, do not devalue a piece, except where the damage is on the floral or other main design.

3. For biggins, often the filters have rust holes in them, again, this is acceptable in something of this age. The filter may also have been repaired at some point, showing an aluminum new filter, this does not affect value at all.

4. Many of the older pieces are clearly marked on the bottom, although just as many are not. It is important to learn to distinguish the true hand painted antique pieces from later, less valuable ones and modern reproductions. Educate yourself and buy from a reputable dealer.

5. Look for rivets as opposed to soldering. The very early pieces often had their handles riveted on, the rivets will look like little bumps.

6. Colors should be exquisite and clear, pieces came in a range of soft pastels such as pink, aqua, light blue, white, but also the vibrant shades of red, blue, yellow and orange. Heavy hand painted gilding or colored bands on the edges of these pieces add value.

7. The designs can be Victorian, Art Nouveau or Art Deco in feel. Shading of designs was done by “aerography”, an early form of air brushing technique. Often colors on a piece will fade from color to white to color on the piece, an exquisite effect that some collectors seek out and prefer.

8. If you are lucky enough to find a piece with an original label still intact, extremely rare to find, this increases the piece’s value, as it verifies authenticity.
Usefulness Today

French enamelware adds a decorative and quite impressive French flair to any collection or interior. Most antique enamelware is used today for display, a collection of antique French biggins and coffeepots is stunning when artfully displayed in a French armoire. Massed together, these gorgeous pieces take on the loveliness of pieces of sculptural art.

 

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The large body pitchers are a favorite with gardeners, used to showcase freshly picked flowers from their garden, their tall shape sets off a large bouquet to perfection. A few pitchers hung on pegs outside are a wonderful way to water plants, and add a touch of color to a garden shed wall at the same time. Many an inspired gardener has a lavabo hung right outside their kitchen door filled with blooming plants.

You can, of course, still use your antique pieces for their original purpose. Many collectors have kitchens filled with as many pieces as they can find, if a coffee pot or canister isn’t rusted inside, there is no reason not to use it for what it was intended for. Just one small canister can be used to hold a collection of antique silver spoons next to your favorite teapot, or to display a small posy of perfect roses, the possibilities are endless. French enamelware is addictive, once you start collecting, you will be enamored with the pastel palette of dusty pinks, pale blues and greens, each one resembling a sweet and decadent French macaron.

 

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How to Care for Enamelware.

Hand wash your Antique Enamelware in hot soapy water. After washing, dry enamelware thoroughly inside and out, because water can encourage corrosion and rust. Pieces that already have rust along a seam or other areas will benefit from an application of naval jelly, smooth on and leave on for 10 minutes. To stop further rust, you can coat the area with cooking oil.

Should you desire to give your treasured find a deep clean, please proceed with caution. Please don’t use steel wool or sharp objects, this will scratch the surface of the enamel.

You can soak enamelware with stubborn stains overnight in one part white vinegar mixed with three parts water. If that doesn’t work, soak it in chlorine bleach and water, then wash in hot soapy water.

If you have a tray, or pan, for instance, that has quite a lot of discoloration on it, and if it’s not all that valuable, then baking soda is the mildest abrasive to use to try to brighten up the discolored area. Sprinkle liberally on the surface, wet a sponge, and rub in a circular motion. You can mix the baking soda with lemon juice and spread it evenly on your piece and dry for an hour or so, then rub with a sponge and hot water. Additionally, again, only for pieces that aren’t valuable, you can use some Bon Ami with a sponge. Bon Ami dates back to 1886 and is a very mild abrasive.

 

 

 

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My best advice is to enjoy your antique enamelware as found, and use it for display only if it has rusted areas. With good care your antique enamelware pieces can serve as exquisite reminders of a more romantic time for at least another 100 years. You can find our current antique enamelware here

 Do you love French Enamelware? How do you use or display it?

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