by Diana Bulls
Summer is truly upon us. Three digit days are to be expected in the Central Valley and many of us are relying on time-tested measures to get us through the heat of the day. Some people are lucky enough to have air conditioning or a backyard pool. I live in an old house–air conditioning was unheard of in 1910. We also gave up the pool when we moved into town. So I have to rely on my ceiling fans and iced tea.
On the first warm day, I get out the old aluminum “tea” pitcher I inherited from my Mother. I can’t remember the pitcher ever being used for anything other than iced tea. It has a soft silver patina, and the beaten aluminum sides glisten with condensation from the ice inside. I actually feel cooler just looking at the tea pitcher.
The pitcher was brand new in the 1940s; in fact, it might have been a wedding gift. Every bride from the late 1930s through the 1950s (with the exception of the war years) expected at least one aluminum wedding gift. You might remember using hammered or colored aluminum kitchen or serving pieces as a child. In the 1950s, almost everybody had a set of brightly colored aluminum tumblers with a matching pitcher.
Hundreds of designs and shapes were possible. A sheet of aluminum was cut and dies were used to create the designs. Initially, pieces were either hand hammered or hand wrought and then shaped. Later, pieces were made by machine with a “hand-hammered” look. Some popular patterns included flowers, fruit, leaves, nuts, acorns, vegetables, bamboo, and vines. Hammered pieces can be found as trays, coasters, serving dishes, ice buckets, ash trays and even ice tongs. Beside pitchers and tumblers, colored aluminum can be found as trays, popcorn bowls and cake keepers.
When aluminum was invented in the 1850s, it was considered a “marvel of science”. It was so rare and expensive that it was often made into jewelry embellished with gold or silver. By the time the turn of the century came around, aluminum was pretty much out of fashion. No longer considered elegant, aluminum was used for ordinary things like combs.
In 1932, an exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art got people interested in aluminum again. Before long, you could buy aluminum kitchen utensils, lamps, furniture, and any number of decorative serving pieces. Aluminum didn’t cost a lot of money. It was lightweight and never needed polishing, but it did dent and scratch easily.
During the war years metals were in short supply and so were aluminum pieces. Sadly, by the 1960s the aluminum craze was mostly over and plastics were pretty much replacing everything. A lot of old aluminum has been relegated to camping gear or summer cabins.
If you are still the proud owner of some vintage aluminum, always wash it by hand. Today’s automatic dishwasher detergents can stain the finish of old pieces. Likewise, colored pieces can be easily scratched in the dishwasher, so should also be washed by hand.
Vintage aluminum has a nice, matte patina which I like quite a bit. If you are more into shiny, you can use a polish for “mag” wheels (sold in auto parts stores) to make your pieces look more like silver. Make sure you really want a shiny finish though, because once you polish the piece, the old patina will take a long time to come back. We’re not talking “fine antiques” here, so loss of a patina is not going to affect the value of the piece one way or another.
It’s still pretty easy to find “hammered” aluminum serving pieces. Just a couple of months ago, there was a really great, oval serving tray at MCC Nearly New for under $5.00. If you are thinking about starting a collection, look for pieces that aren’t dented or badly scratched. Bonus finds will include the manufacturer and/or pattern number on the bottom. E-Bay and estate sales are always a good place to check for aluminum pieces.
Hammered aluminum has not been widely reproduced, so probably all of the pieces you find will be “original.” Colored aluminum drink sets, etc. on the other hand can be easily found in all kinds of mail order catalogs. Older pieces are going to show wear and scratches.
It’s only 95º, but I hear a glass of iced tea, the ceiling fan and a good book calling my name.