WEST LAFAYETTE -- Enamelware (also known as graniteware) is a name commonly given to enamel-coated metal kitchenware and utilitarian pieces.
According to antique and collectibles resource information, the first enamelware was produced in Germany in the 1830s. It was not produced in the United States until sometime in the 1860s. At the start of World War I when European factories were focused on manufacturing war weapons, the American producers took over the enamelware market. From the early 1900s to the start of World War II, Moore Enameling (previously known as Lafayette Stamping Co.) and Jones Metal were both thriving enamel producers in West Lafayette. Many citizens from West Lafayette and Newcomerstown were employed at one or both factories at one time or another. Moore Enameling ceased production in 1955, but Jones Metal continued their operations and is still a leading producer of enameled metal products to this day.
Floyd and Lois Gress, residents of West Lafayette, have been serious collectors of enamelware for the past 13 years. In fact, they own about 13,000 pieces of it at last count. They were married in 1996 and started collecting enamelware shortly afterwards. Lois said she and Floyd took an interest in enamelware since it was something that was produced locally.
"It was a way to keep a part of our local history intact," Lois said.
Floyd grew up being familiar with the enamelware companies in West Lafayette, since his parents, Clarence and Eleana Gress, both worked at Jones Metal and several uncles and aunts worked at Moore Enameling. Lois said she was not originally from West Lafayette and was not familiar with the enamelware companies, and never had much interest or knowledge of collecting enamelware.
The couple's 13,000 piece enamelware collection is quite vast and features many rare and one-of-a-kind pieces. Some of the rarer pieces include such items as a baby bottle sterilizer, wall match safe and tea strainer. Some of the pieces have the original manufacturer's labels still intact which adds to their value and scarcity. The color of the enamelware is also a big factor in whether the piece can be considered scarce and more desirable to a collector. Pieces were produced in just about every color and every color combination imaginable. They occasionally run onto a color variation that they have never seen before. White with a red or black edge was the most frequently produced color, with gray being the choice of some of the oldest pieces. The rarest color is red swirled with white. Enamelware is still produced in the U.S, and abroad, so the novice collector must be aware that there are some red and white swirled pieces out there and are not the pieces that are being sought by serious collectors. Some pieces known as end-of-the-day pieces were produced at the end of a production run, using the left over amounts of various colors of enamel. The final products of these pieces were an odd and interesting mix of colors. They command very high prices at auctions, antique shops and flea markets, according to the Gresses.
The Gress's collection also features some personalized items. These pieces were made for employees and their families, and are exceedingly rare. Another very sought piece is the salesman's samples. These were miniature pieces that were given away by salesmen that traveled around the country advertising for the enamelware companies. Some of the older salesmen samples are also from the era before catalogs became popular. In any event, the salesman's samples are very desirable and pricey, according to the Gresses.
The Gress's have left no space uncovered in their spacious, two-car garage. Enamelware pieces line shelves, cupboards, walls, and yes, even the ceiling! Lois said they are finally running out of room and some pieces have found their way into a spare bathroom, displayed on high shelves. When asked how they clean and maintain the enamelware, Lois said they use oven cleaner and scouring powder, then polish each piece with car wax. While many pieces in the Gress's collection are very rare and have considerable book value, they say the least they have paid for a piece was 25 cents. Lois said the most she has paid was approximately $250. She said that piece was given to her daughter, Gwen Bordenkircher.
The Gress's say they are still looking for those rarer pieces or a piece "that we have never seen before." She says they will sometimes purchase a piece to complete a set or upgrade a piece in their collection that is in poor condition. The Gresses add that many of the pieces that are found are in well-used condition but occasionally they will run onto a piece that was stored away and forgotten.
"We like to find those type of pieces," she said.
The Gresses have done much traveling and have found many pieces of enamelware while on one of their many trips. She said they have found pieces all across the country and even Nova Scotia. The majority of their finds have been at auctions, flea markets and yard sales. Lois said their main interest about the enamelware pieces that have been identified as being manufactured in West Lafayette is that they want to keep the local pieces "at home."
"We always try to purchase any enamel piece that we are sure was made here in West Lafayette. If we find it somewhere else, then we purchase it, and bring it back to it's rightful home," she said.
For information on locally-manufactured enamelware pieces and history of Moore Enameling and Jones Metal, stop by the West Lafayette Museum, located in the Dale Gress Real Estate building on West Main Street.