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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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How Cookie Jars Capture American Kitsch

Cookie jars from CB2, BBC Ice Cream x Todd James, Supreme x Pillsbury, World Market, Hazy Mae, Williams-Sonoma, and Modigliani. Lille Allen/Eater

The cookie jar continues to be a vessel for cheeky self expression, if not for cookies themselves

Recipes, money, written affirmations, and receipts. That’s what Hazy Mae keeps in her ceramic cookie jars. Cookies? None. Since she was gifted her first cookie jar, a midcentury ceramic bear, several years ago, the New York City-based artist has become a collector of a few dozen quirky, mostly vintage cookie jars. “A friend of mine was like, ‘You’re the only person I know with 100 cookie jars and not a single cookie in your house,’” says Mae, whose mother kept similar odds and ends — never cookies — in her collection of house-shaped cookie jars.

But Mae isn’t just a collector, she’s also a cookie jar maker, and her work is part of a new wave of appreciation for ceramic cookie jars. Boosted by ongoing enthusiasm for pottery and sculpture, new cookie jar creations are once again dotting retail shelves, as a revived reverence for vintage models also takes hold.

Ceramic cookie jars — those flamboyant crockeries topped with ornate finials — first brought art into the heart of American homes decades ago. Becoming a prominent kitchenware item by the 1950s, around the introduction of premade cookie dough, cookie jars remained popular well into the 1990s. But even after being sidelined as seasonal holiday decor, broad adoration for ceramic cookie jars has never fully disappeared. “The idea of a cookie jar is familiar and it feels nostalgic,” says Mae. “But also, it’s new and fresh and contemporary.”

New designs in today’s ceramic menagerie include rendered woodland creatures and splotchy puffer fish alongside cottagecore toadstools. Streetwear brand Supreme collaborated with Pillsbury to create a Doughboy cookie jar and a line of clothing featuring the classic character, offering throwback afterschool-snack vibes to a young generation whose baking rituals may have started with the brand. Similarly, Williams-Sonoma gave Mickey Mouse a refresh in cookie jar form; the result was cool enough to earn a spot in Rihanna’s kitchen. CB2’s iteration of a midcentury modern piece by designer Paul McCobb, while sleek and minimalistic, is also a nod to the retro.

At Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, Mae’s whimsical, monochromatic line incorporates original characters and famous figures like Tina Turner and Iris Apfel. “I hoped that it would become a thing that a lot of people did again,” says Mae about the cookie jar resurgence. “They can contain anything that you want. A lot of people say that mine are conversation pieces.” Which is exactly what you’d hope for, given that Mae’s cookie jars cost around $800.

Hazy Mae
A Hazy Mae Elvis cookie jar, which retails for $850.

Ceramic cookie jars have been a perennial muse for the classically trained artist. She painted images of cookie jars, zooming in on their features, for years before eventually expanding her practice to sculpting them. Now, Mae handmakes each cookie jar — shaping the clay on a slab roller, then building the base and head, before firing and hand-painting each — in a process that takes about six weeks to complete.

But while the ceramic cookie jar has long been repurposed for many things — even goodwill, as seen in recent charitable effort the Cookie Jar Project — I’ve always been skeptical of ceramic cookie jars as a storage solution for cookies. After my son and I finish baking our holiday cookies every December, I carefully heap them into a sensible food storage bag or a reusable container, never once considering the cookie jar in what should be its moment of glory.

“They’re not meant to be in there very long,” says pastry chef Cheryl Day, owner of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah and the author of the celebrated Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking. Day recommends storing homemade cookies in cookie jars for only a couple of days. Store-bought cookies, especially if they’re packaged in sleeves, can be tucked into the jar for longer. “It’s going to last a little bit longer, and it’s going to look a lot nicer.” And if cookie jars aren’t the best at keeping things fresh, they at least can protect cookies from bugs or even tiny hands, she adds.

But Day doesn’t actually keep her own cookies in a cookie jar. A few years ago, she purchased what she describes as a “faux-vintage” ceramic cookie jar. “I bought it because I loved it, and I ended up storing other stuff in there which was kind of fun,” mostly office supplies and spools of thread, she says. “Just knickknacks.”

The joy of cookie jars, for many, is finding a jar that feels perfectly suited to one’s own personal taste or identity. In this hunt, the world of vintage cookie jars offers near infinite options. In Chicago, pastry chef Mindy Segal remains smitten with a vintage 1940s ceramic cookie jar that she’s had for decades. “I call him Chef,” says Segal, coauthor of the cookbook Cookie Love. “I’ve had him since I was in my 20s and it was my first major purchase into the vintage world. I love him and will never get rid of him. He’s like my guy.” Chef dons a stiff white chef’s hat and he has been dubbed guardian of dog treats. Recently, Segal bought a second cookie jar, which lives in her popular Mindy’s Bakery. “I put pretzels in it and sometimes I put candy in it. I don’t put cookies in it,” she says.

Years before the existence of digital marketplaces, a go-to resource for ceramic cookie jar collectors and novices alike was a shop located on Chicago’s North Side called Jazz’e Junque, owned by Mercedes DiRenzo Bolduc. Known as the “cookie jar lady,” Bolduc has even lent her expertise and cookie jars as props to the sets of movie classics Home Alone and Groundhog Day. Fittingly, Bolduc’s own — cookie-less — cookie jar is a one-of-a-kind, custom-made caricature of her and her dog. “Each kitchen should have a cookie jar to reflect the person’s personality,” advises Bolduc. “It makes them happy.”

Bolduc opened her shop in 1989 — a year after Andy Warhol’s collection of more than 175 ceramic cookie jars sold at Sotheby’s for nearly $250,000 — with a focus on vintage clothing, but cleverly used cookie jars as a hook to differentiate from the other vintage shops in the area. “The cookie jars were the big sellers. I got rid of the clothes and I ended up turning it into a cookie jar shop,” she says. “When I opened, I met people that had been collecting cookie jars for like 20 years already.”

Cookie jar collecting grew in the U.S. as many of the big pottery manufacturers like Brush-McCoy and American Bisque slowed down production before eventually shutting down in the 1980s. Back then, Bolduc would scout newspapers for preowned jars, and reference industry guidebooks to source the ones with the most value. But prices for secondhand cookie jars have significantly deflated since their heyday in the ’90s when Bolduc could sell a highly sought Howdy Doody cookie jar for $500 or more. (Bolduc says the ceramic marionette now goes for around $200.)

Cookie jars are timestamps of American culture.

The circulation of counterfeit cookie jars, replicas of the most valuable, helped upset the market, making some would-be buyers skittish about spending hundreds of dollars for vintage cookie jars, especially when purchased online where most resales occur today. But Bolduc says the prices — and demand — for vintage cookie jars are steadily creeping up again, likely thanks to the current ’90s revival, partnered with the rise in thrifting and vintage shopping.

Bolduc closed her storefront a few years ago and moved into a large stall at an antiques mall in the suburbs. Even scaled down, it’s still a vintage kitchenware emporium full of ceramic teapots, salt and pepper shakers, and extremely popular vintage Pyrex.

Bolduc’s cookie jars line the stall, sitting high on shelves with their lids taped shut to prevent accidental tumbles. From cheeky pups and charming owls to a pastel clock emblazoned with the words “cookie time,” like the one seen in Monica’s kitchen on Friends, and a mammy cookie jar that recalls the way these everyday items have been used to reinforce offensive, anti-Black tropes, the cookie jars are timestamps of American culture.

On a bottom shelf at Jazz’e Junque, still nestled in its original box, is a vintage double-barrel jar from cookie pioneer Wally “Famous” Amos, designed to efficiently hold two different types of cookies (or non-cookies), separately. Favorite cookie jars are often described as having character, but thoughtful ingenuity can also leave a lasting impression. And there are still ways to innovate. During Art Basel last fall, Pharrell Williams’s BBC brand in collaboration with artist Todd James unveiled a cheerful, Saturn-shaped cookie jar — made of vinyl.

Angela Burke is a Chicago-based food writer and the creator of the site Black Food & Beverage.

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