Who Stole the Cookies from the Cookie Jar?

The cookie jar is often seen as the ultimate barrier to fulfilling many children’s fantasies of biting into a delicious baked treat. Made of ceramic, glass, or plastic, this piece of material culture has been hated by children for generations. Did you know the cookie jar in America has its origins in Ohio?

H 79, a biscuit jar from the Brunt Pottery Company of East Liverpool, Ohio, circa 1892.

H 79, a biscuit jar from the Brunt Pottery Company of East Liverpool, Ohio, circa 1892.

Biscuit jars first appeared in England in the early 1700s. Meant to stop little hands from stealing biscuits, they were made of glass with metal lids. The jars were often owned by middle and upper class English families who could afford the time for daily tea rituals. The Industrial Revolution in England led to an emerging middle class that had large disposable incomes.  Biscuit jars became more and more extravagant as a physical symbol of wealth.[1]

Biscuit jars were imported to the United States, but were not widely popular. Most American families kept their biscuits in cardboard boxes or cracker tins. With the creation of reliable stoves, increased consumer income, and greater availability of chocolate, a whole new “cookie world” opened up in the early 1900s.[2] Even the Girl Scouts joined the trend, selling their iconic cookies for the first time in 1917.[3] There was a demand to keep these newly discovered treats fresh, as the cookies quickly went stale in tins and boxes.

From State Archive Series 1039, Ohio has a long history in the ceramic industry. In this WPA photo from the 1930s, a potter cuts a design into clay.

From State Archive Series 1039, Ohio has a long history in the ceramic industry. In this WPA photo from the 1930s, a potter cuts a design into clay.

In 1929, the Brush Pottery Company in Roseville, Ohio came up with a solution, creating a green ceramic jar with the words “Cookies” printed on the front. This is believed to be the first ceramic cookie jar ever made. As the idea of a decorated kitchen (instead of a strictly functional space) emerged, ceramic companies across the country produced cookie jars featuring characters, animals, fruit, and other artistic renderings.[4] Even war couldn’t stop the demand for cookie jars.  During World War II Ohio-based Shawnee Pottery Company sent blank cook jars to China for decoration for soldiers serving in the Navy. People began to use cookie jars as decoys to hold valuable items such as jewelry and money. This inspired the term “cookie jar reserves”, referring to money stashed away by businesses.[5]

H 38456, a sugar bowl made by the McCoy Pottery company.

H 38456, a sugar bowl made by the McCoy Pottery company.

Ohio companies continued to make and improve the design of cookie jars. In 1932, the Lancaster based Hocking Glass Company introduced a cookie jar with a screw top, increasing the amount of time the cookie stayed fresh.[6] McCoy Pottery based in Roseville, Ohio introduced their first cookie jar in 1939 and continued production until 1987.  These jars are considered some of the finest examples of ceramic production in the United States from the mid-1900s. However, the company also produced a racist line of “mammy” cookie jars featuring a caricature of an African American woman.  One jar from 1944 featured the offensive line “Dem cookies shor am good”. This line was replaced in 1946 with the words “cookies”, but McCoy Pottery continued to produce products that portrayed bad stereotypes of African Americans until 1957.[7]

H 51808, a cookie jar from the Fredricksburg Art Pottery company, circa 1939.

H 51808, a cookie jar from the Fredricksburg Art Pottery company, circa 1939.

With the increased availability of plastic, cookie jars became more affordable for families. By the 1960s multiple cookie jars became common in kitchens across the country.  Concerns over the nutritional value of cookies and the increased shelf life of cookies manufactured with preservatives caused the cookie jar to lose popularity in the United States by the late 1970s.[8]

Despite their symbolism as a barrier to indulgence, cookie jars today have become quite collectable. Even Andy Warhol had a collection of 175 cookie jars. They are still made today, including at several ceramic companies in Ohio.

Do you have a cookie jar at home? What do you store in it?

Emily Lang, History Curator

 

For more information on “mammy” cookie jars, check out this article put together by Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at Ferris State University

http://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/newforms/

 

[1] Westmoreland, Susan. “Cookie Jars & Biscuit Boxes.” In, Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook. New York: Hearst Books, 2004.

[2] Westmoreland, Susan. “Cookie Jars & Biscuit Boxes.” In, Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook. New York: Hearst Books, 2004.

[3] Smith, Merril D. “Baking.” In, History of American Cooking. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

[4] Smith, Andrew F. “Containers.” In, The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink. Oxford University Press, 2007.

[5] Markham, Jerry W. “Cookie Jar Reserves.” In, A Financial History of Modern U.S. Corporate Scandals from Enron to Reform. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

[6] Westmoreland, Susan. “Cookie Jars & Biscuit Boxes.” In, Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook. New York: Hearst Books, 2004.

[7] “Cookie Jars.” Collectors Weekly. Accessed March 6, 2015. http://www.collectorsweekly.com/kitchen/cookie-jars.

[8] “Cookie Jar History.” Old Cookie Jar Shop. Accessed March 6, 2015. http://www.the-old-cookie-jar-shop.com/cookie_jar_history.

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