Pie birds: how old are these collectibles?

ceramic pie birds

Blackbird pie funnels. Even the yellow one is a classic. Photo by Andy Roberts.

How many pies today are baked with a little ceramic chimney inside that supports the crust and channels away steam so that hot fillings don’t burst out in places where they shouldn’t? Also called a pie funnel, vent, or whistle, they don’t actually have to be birds, though using a little pottery bird with dark feathers and bright yellow beak is a nice reminder of the song about four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. You are as likely to see them in a collector’s cabinet as in a pie dish, but they can be useful. Pastry crust is less likely to end up drooping or soggy when a pie funnel is doing its bit to help.

All the same, they don’t really seem like cookery essentials, and this could help explain why they don’t seem to have been around for much more than a century. I’ve looked in vain for them in Victorian cookbooks and housekeeping manuals from both sides of the Atlantic. Mrs. Beeton’s comprehensive advice from the 1860s covers all sorts of pastry equipment but there’s no sign of a pie funnel. Pie funnels appeared around 1880 along with other not-quite-necessary late 19th century kitchen gadgets. Many similar “chimneys”, “crust supports” etc. were patented over the next couple of decades.

pie funnel nutbrown

Pie funnels like this were well-known in mid-20th century British kitchens. Nutbrown was a brand name for a range of small kitchen items. Photo HomeThingsPast.

Classic blackbird funnels

Clarice Cliff added pie blackbirds to her range of ceramics in the mid-1930s. At least one expert says this was her own original idea, and it was the first British pie bird registered design, but in Australia there was a similar pie blackbird funnel designed by Grace Seccombe a few years earlier.

Nutbrown pie funnels

From the 1930s to the 1970s and later a plain white or yellowish pie funnel was a familiar item in UK homes. The Nutbrown brand did well and its name is stamped on many vintage pie funnels. I am doubtful of claims that there was ever a Nutbrown Pottery. Pastry utensils of all kinds came from a company called Thomas (Thos.) M. Nutbrown Ltd. of Blackpool, England whose range of kitchenware also included many stainless steel things like toast racks, cookie cutters, and can-openers. By the 1980s Nutbrown kitchenware had been absorbed into the Wilkinson Sword group via a company which made scourers and cutlery.

Pie funnels in the USA

pie vent late Victorian

Pie ventilator - drawing for an 1891 US patent granted to Samuel Jenkins of Auburn, Maine.

In the early years of pie funnels they seem to have been more popular in the UK than in the US. There are few American patents in the quarter century after 1880. The first I found was a “pie-ventilator” from 1891 (see picture) and the next was an 1897 “pie-crust support” patent granted in the US to an Englishman. Meanwhile in England dozens of designs were registered, and pie-related businesses liked to distribute simple ceramic funnels with their branding on. The big surge forward with animal and character pie “birds” started in the 1940s, according to the The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink.

Names

By the way, the only name for this kind of thing in the Oxford English Dictionary is pie funnel. Their first date for it is a 1910 entry in a department store catalogue. They don’t mention pie birds.

pie funnel…a funnel-shaped device placed within a pie while it cooks to support the piecrust and to provide a vent for steam.

Bird with pastry on its chest and a beak full of steam. Photo by thecopse.

Photos

Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals and/or license here: Pie birdspie with bird. Also see more picture info here.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Martha Hickman April 22, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Around 1970 I was given a Thos. M. Nutbrown Limited Icing Set. After 40+ years of use when I put in in the dishwasher with the new capsule detergent, it rubbed off black on everything so I had to discard it. The ‘popular brand’ one I bought is not easy to use or practical for applying dressings to salads etc. another use in addition to icing cakes and cookies.

If you could tell me if these are still available, I would be most grateful. My mailing address is 5125 Amherst Court, Paris, TX 75462. Thank you. M. H.

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lel April 23, 2012 at 8:43 am

Sorry to say there are no more Nutbrown icing sets being made. Used ones sometimes turn up on ebay. (You could check ebay.co.uk as well as ebay.com) I hope you can find something that works better than the disappointing one you have now.

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TR September 12, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I suspect that the reason ceramic pie funnels aren’t commonly seen earlier than 1880 or so is because the pie funnel was often a feature of the crust itself. I’ve seen pictures of modern recreations done historically correct with “a funnel” on top made out of a cylindrical bit of pastry on top of the pie to vent steam and contain any burbling of the pie’s contents. Times of wheat shortages have brought on the use of ceramics for making pies to replace the pastry crust and it may have been out of such times that the ceramic pie funnel came into being. The blog Food History Jottings is an excellent place to find pictures of historically correct pies. Dig around and you can find pictures of pies with a pastry funnel on top.

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Steve Whittenberger December 27, 2013 at 5:02 pm

How old are the white and gray elephant pie vents? Does the Nutbrown company still make pie vents? Thanks!

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