Having the proper tool for the job is no less important in the kitchen than it is in the workshop. With this in mind, follow the reasoning in the 1899 White House Cook Book as you prepare your Thanksgiving feast – by all means, put away that heavy-duty fork or wire beater and turn instead to the humble potato masher.
Today’s kitchenware collector has a number of choices available when it comes to the old-fashioned tools long used in preparing one of America’s starch staples – mashed potatoes. “The many different items patented during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to do the same job have become a definite boon to collectors today,” says Stephen Smith, owner of Foundation Antiques, in Fair Haven, Vt.
The earliest mashers – initially handmade of wood and eventually machine-made – were crafted in a variety of sizes. The turned-wood potato mashers that collectors come across today were most often made of hardy maple and generally measure 10 to 12 inches in length. The majority of these wooden mashers, or beetles as they’re often called, can be found in the $5 to $20 range. Smith points out, however, that “a rare or unusual example crafted of tiger maple can cost more than $100.” A wooden masher made of cherry or walnut or one with a porcelain head would also fetch a higher price than its plain maple counterpart. “So many subtle variations of wooden mashers exist that collectors will soon be able to discern the simple examples from those with unusual shapes and more decorative turnings,” he observes.
Designer and photographer Roger Cook began collecting antique wooden mashers more than 30 years ago. “Soon after my wife and I got married, we decided to display her grandmother’s old potato masher in our kitchen because it had such a beautiful shape,” Cook recalls. While traveling across the country for photo shoots, Cook kept his eye out in antiques shops for additional mashers to add to his growing collection. “No two of the early, handmade mashers are alike, which is part of the fun of collecting,” he says. Today Cooks collection numbers more than 400, and many of his prize possessions are pictured on these pages.
One thing that Cook has learned over the years is that it’s easy to mistake a wooden pestle, used in conjunction with a mortar, for the similarly shaped masher. “The way you tell the difference is to look at the base,” Cook reveals. “Pestles have more of a curve to them; mashers are flat enough to stand upright on their own.”
Wooden mashers, however, mark just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to vintage utensils that were used to give plain cooked potatoes a smooth, irresistible consistency. A little elbow grease combined with some wrist action also worked wonders with mashers sporting either a flat, tin head or a round, nickel-plated iron head with snowflake or swirled perforations. These mashers, which came equipped with either a plain wooden handle or a metal handle during the late 1800s and early 1900s, are also known as muddlers. By the 1920s the flat heads on muddlers were being manufactured from stainless steel.
Wire was the creative darling of manufacturing a century and more ago, and its popularity lasted well into the 1940s. Vintage mashers with wooden handles and wire heads were turned out in a variety of shapes, with the wire bent to resemble fingers, coiled in a circular design, or woven in a crisscross pattern. And while early wire mashers are also found with unembellished wooden handles, utensils made during the 1930s and ’40s were painted to match other kitchenware. “Everything from silverware handles to glassware to dishes was color-coordinated to spruce up the kitchen,” says Nettie Stimson, owner of Stimson’s Antiques & Gifts, in Lewiston, N.Y.
Popular colors for utensil handles and other kitchen implements included black and white (during the 1920s) and green, blue, yellow, and red (during the 1930s and ’40s). The cheerful green that proved so popular during the 1930s is a particular favorite with today’s kitchenware collectors. Fortunately, green-handled mashers were produced in large numbers, so there are still plenty of them to go around. Along with the solid-color handles, wire potato mashers can also be found with painted wooden handles that feature stripes in contrasting colors. “There were also examples with a company name on the handle,” Stimson reports, “that were used as advertising giveaways.”
What should a collector look for when it comes to potato muddlers and mashers with wire heads? Since these utensils are still relatively easy to locate at yard sales, flea markets, and antiques shops, collectors should seek examples in good condition that show neither rust nor chipped paint. Collectors should also pay attention to unusual designs or manufacturers’ marks, which can raise overall value. Wire potato mashers produced with two wire heads instead of one pushing on the wooden handle caused the second head to go down, creating a double-action effect – are examples of an unusual design. This type of masher can run into the $40 to $75 range.
Size, too, can be an important factor for collectors to consider. The majority of potato mashers intended for household use are usually nine to 11 inches long and can be found for about $5 to $25. But larger examples were made for hotels and other commercial institutions. Some measure 20 to 22 inches long and can command prices between $20 and $35.
Whether you’re searching for a single potato masher to complement an existing collection of assorted kitchen utensils and gadgets or if you’re adding to a growing one, potato mashers are available and collector-friendly. These trusted instruments recall the days before electric mixers, food processors, and immersion blenders. And one just may come in handy should the power go out as you are preparing dinner one evening!