Kitchens have gone high-tech. Touch-free paper towel dispensers and digital cookbooks promise to make cooking easier, cleaner and faster than ever before. But in the midst of this craze for stainless steel products with all of the “bells and whistles,” lives a quiet appreciation for a simpler, greener aesthetic found in the beautiful craft of wooden bowls that Paula loves to collect.
American settlers transported some wooden bowls with them from England, but most hand-hollowed their own, shaping them with chisels, knives and planes. These early woodenware items—also known as “treenware,” meaning made from trees—ranged from small salt dishes to round or oval chopping bowls. In the 18th century, the use of lathes to turn the inside of bowls made woodenware easier to produce. The concentric circles imprinted on inside of the bowl can identify these products, called “turner’s ware.”
Because of woodenware’s popularity and durability, mills opened throughout New England. The Shakers of New Hampshire and New York often painted the outside of their bowls with yellow, blue, blue-green or orange paint. Peaseware, maple products made by the Pease family of Ohio, dates back to the 1850s and 60s and can fetch around $1,000 at auction. Lehnware made by the Lehn family of Pennsylvania can be identified by a surface decorated with paint and is also highly coveted by collectors.
As with most collectibles, the value of antique wooden bowls is determined by the raw material and its availability. For example, beech pieces are popular and found abundantly throughout Europe where the material is widely available. In the United States, maple bowls are popular because they are very hard and resist absorption. Beech and maple products are generally less expensive than bowls made from exotic woods such as acacia, mango and rosewood. Salt bowls, bowls with white ash nested within them and those made of curly and bird’s-eye maple are the most coveted by collectors. And turned burl bowls, those with knots and gnarls incorporated into the design, can be worth thousands of dollars.
Of course, the real beauty of the wooden bowl doesn’t depend on its worth at auction—it lies in its aesthetic value. Every wooden bowl is as unique as a fingerprint, and though they aren’t multifunctional or self-cleaning, they add warmth and comfort to any table. In the era of cold contemporariness, an unassuming little bowl may be the biggest eye-catching piece in your kitchen.
Caring for Woodenware
Wooden bowls need to be seasoned by rubbing a small amount of quality vegetable oil into their basin. This keeps food from sticking and prevents splitting and cracking. Seasoning also enhances the look of the grain. This process should be repeated every few days for a week or two and at least once a year thereafter. The outside of bowls can be waxed for a high shine.
Most importantly, never use soap to clean woodenware, which can cause it to dry and split. Once properly seasoned, boiling water sufficiently sanitizing the wood’s surface.
Food Editor’s Note: The image above is just a small part of Paula’s wooden bowl collection. One of her favorites is a small bowl she loves to use for soup. It is nestled inside the farthest top bowl and was crafted by Savannah artist, Steve Cook. His bowls can be purchased through the Kobo Gallery, an artist’s cooperative in Savannah.