Enamel has been around for decorative and functional use for centuries. Vitreous enamel is akin to ceramic glaze — it is most commonly the result of fusing powdered glass (or less often a glass paste or spray) to a metal or ceramic substrates. Enamel is bonded to metal in kilns at a high temperatures, somewhere between 1400 and 1640°F.
There are so many looks and uses for enamel: jewelry, desk lamps, outdoor grills, tiled walls and subway tunnels. However, we usually interact with enamel in our daily lives in the kitchen; enamel kitchenware products include pitchers, a plethora of bowls, coffee pots, plates, serving spoons and many more.
Brightly colored enamel housewares were mass-produced and appeared in the U.S. market in the late 1800s. These first collections of ladles, baking pans and colanders were stamped out of thin sheets of aluminum, steel or iron before being coated with enamel, giving a touch of porcelain‘s luxury to everyday items. They were quite popular for being lightweight and durable, and housewives were pleased by how easy it was to clean the smooth, glass-like surface.
If you’ve ever sipped watery hot cocoa from a blue and white speckled camping cup, you’ve experienced the more utilitarian side of enamelware and the casual pleasures of using a no-fuss product of the mass-produced domestic experience. Its first users had a similar feeling back in 1880. You many have also felt the cup becoming too hot to keep holding, this is thanks to the thin material’s heat conducive efficiency. Not great for keeping your fingers from getting too hot, but ideal for slow roasting.
Today enamelware is a bit more sophisticated: it has a classic, yet modern look and feel, it is tough and colorful, sleek and presentable. The sheer number of high quality enamelware for sale at flea markets and vintage stores is testament to its durability: it is stain resistant and its nonporous surface keeps it nearly germ free.
If you’re a collector, you know that small cracks and rust spots are common on older pieces. Pieces exposed to heat, like teakettles and cookware, are less susceptible to blemishes because the iron bonds to the glass more and more with repeated heating. You may notice vintage spoons stamped out of steel have rust spots because steel is more likely to rust than iron.
It is recommended that you wash your enamelware by hand using hot soapy water and a soft cloth, do not use brillo pads or anything that might scratch the surface. Washing by hand will also help avoid banging against other dishes, which can lead to chipping. Enamelware should be dried immediately after washing, as water can cause corrosion and cracks or nicks can rust.
Leading image: Finel enamel percolator, designed by Antti Nurmesniemi (1927-2003). (Image courtesy of H is for Home)
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