|By Barbara Beem
Holiday time means cookie time, a signal to bakers to gather up family recipes, check the pantry and restock it accordingly, and organize cookie cutters. . .but not Santas, stars or bells. No, ’tis the season for bunnies, chicks and eggs, churches, lilies and crosses. Because, as it turns out, dedicated cookie cutter collectors don’t wait for Christmas to use their treasured finds. Theirs is a year-round passion.
No one knows for certain how or when dough was first shaped, much less when someone got the idea to decorate a tasty morsel by stamping it with a rock. Although it is believed that ceramic molds were in use as early as 2000 B.C., the first cookie cutter didn’t appear until much later. According to Phyllis Wetherill, who has been called the “Original Cookie Cutter Lady,” the cookie cutter did not exist separate from a carved mold until 1750.
Early cookie cutters are thought to have been made by smiths who, traveling about in their horse-drawn wagons, used scraps of tin to make gifts. This story might be apocryphal. However, an 1869 catalog documents the fact that cookie cutters were mass produced in America just after the Civil War. By the turn of the 20th century, tin smithing was on the wane, and aluminum, which was less expensive than tin and did not rust, became the material of choice. The oldest known aluminum cutters, dating from 1921, had a “six-bend” handle, with “four-bend” handle cutters to follow.
Keeping up with the times, plastic cutters were introduced in the 1940s. During the Korean War, scrap plastic was mixed together, producing marbleized cutters. By the 1960s, Hallmark Cards tapped into the market, introducing thin plastic cutters that were attached to greeting cards. By the 1970s, as the country prepared to celebrate the Bicentennial, interest in cookie cutters, as with other collectibles, swelled. Contemporary tinsmiths and others revived the art of cookie cutter making. As a new generation of collectors became increasingly fascinated with cutters, the Cookie Cutter Collectors Club was founded.
In 1971, Wetherill, a dedicated cookie cutter collector, submitted a notice to a now-defunct magazine, Women’s Circle, seeking like-minded persons. With four responses, she formed a club. Five years later, in 1976, membership numbers grew to 86; some 20 of these devotées attended the club’s first convention, which was held in Bucyrus, Ohio. Elected officers and bylaws were put in place by 1981. Today, club members, from both the States and Canada, continue to stay in touch through a website, meetings of local club chapters, and biannual conventions.
Chris Birdsell has a confession to make: “I am not a baker.” But she is a cookie cutter collector (“I stopped counting at 2,000”) and currently serves as the president of the Cookie Cutter Collectors Club. Her personal collection began years ago when, newly married and just setting up housekeeping, she bought a box lot at an auction; at the bottom of the stash was a gingerbread man. “I was so excited,” she recalled. Of course, this was the beginning of what would become a satisfying hobby.
Like many new collectors, she began buying everything she saw, but over time, Birdsell has refined her searches. Intrigued with the look of cutters, the Missouri resident continues to collect, displaying her favorites and lending cutters to friends who do enjoy cookie baking. She noted that a cutter in the shape of Betsy McCall, a paper doll character introduced in 1951 in McCall’s magazine, holds a special place in her heart, as well as in her home.
Cookie cutters, Birdsell continued, come in all shapes and sizes, and there appears to be a cookie cutter for every occasion and every hobby. Enthusiasts often tailor their collections by specializing in certain categories, such as animals, holidays, angels, or snowmen, for instance. Holiday cookie cutters are not limited to Christmas and Easter, she noted, pointing out that there are even cutters for Groundhog’s Day.
Some collectors focus on early tin examples. Others seek aluminum cutters, which might have self handles or no handles, or wooden knob handles that were made in a variety of shapes and colors (including black, and then red and green). Others focus their collections on cutters made by specific manufacturers, from Mirro and Wilton to Hallmark and Aunt Chick. Additionally, advertising cutters are also collectible, and sets found in boxes are often appealing. Clearly, there is nothing “cookie-cuttered” about amassing a cookie cutter collection. And then there’s the case of one club member who has more than 24,000 cutters, organized and cataloged, accessed with little trouble.
For a number of reasons, collecting cookie cutters can be a fun pursuit. Cutters are small and easy to store, and they are not particularly fragile. Even for non-bakers such as Birdsell, these cutters can be used in conjunction with a variety of crafts projects, and children often enjoy using cutters for Play-Doh as well as for making cookies.
Beginning a cookie cutter collection need not be expensive, she said. Yard sales are a good place to begin a search; vintage aluminum cutters with green handles can often be purchased there for a dollar or so. As with other collectibles, the value of cutters is often determined by demand. Similarly, prices were higher several years ago; for example, a “Great Pumpkin” cutter once peaked at $150 but can now be found for $30 to $40. Limited edition cutters made for those attending the club’s conventions are also desirable. Meanwhile, finding a reasonably priced “Woodstock” plastic cutter made by Hallmark would make Birdsell happy.
Birdsell and other club members are looking forward to this year’s convention, to be held in Kansas City, Mo., on June 21-23. Special programs are planned for the convention, which concludes with a Saturday night banquet. This year’s theme is “Weekend at Grandma’s,” one that the club president finds especially appropriate. “People love cutters because when they see one, they say, ’Grandma and I used that one.’” Best of all, even though the popularity of cookie cutters comes in spurts, one thing remains constant:
Birdsell said that there is a genuine air of congeniality among those who fancy cookie cutters. And, for herself, she has an overriding criterion for any addition she makes to her collection: “I buy what makes me laugh.”
For information on joining the Cookie Cutter Collectors Club, or for attending the upcoming convention, go to www.cookiecuttercollectorsclub.com.