It’s not uncommon to go into a flea market and see a vintage kitchenware dealer offering pie birds for sale. They’re usually modern-made and pretty inexpensive. Those found in antiques stores are usually a little more expensive and not quite as common in design. Pie birds conjure up pleasant memories of grandmother’s kitchen and to be honest, they’re just plain adorable, but the pie bird (also known as a pie vent, pie whistle, or pie funnel) was initially a plain round funnel-shaped ceramic or stoneware utilitarian piece. They do not whistle regardless of what you choose to call them.
From the last years of the Victorian era, English cooks often used devices to vent steam from a bubbling pie in order to keep the contents from oozing out onto the hot surface of the oven leaving a mess that was anything but pleasant to clean up. The decorative bird shapes came later.
Grace Seccombe, born in Staffordshire, England in 1880, designed various pottery pieces including a pie bird design registered in 1933. Because Grace was living in Australia when her designs were recorded, the distinction of creating the first English pie bird usually goes to Clarice Cliff, born Jan. 20, 1899 also in Staffordshire. Clarice’s design was registered by A. J. Wilkinson Ltd. on Jan. 18, 1936. The registration number, 809138, can be found on the base of the pieces. She is thought to have designed only the one pie bird.
Interestingly, Clarice later married the director of the A. J. Wilkinson Co., Colley Shorter.
Another British maker is somewhat of a mystery. The Thomas M. Nutbrown Co., manufacturers of various kitchen wares, opened in 1927 on Walker St., Blackpool. The company was registered in 1932. It was later parented by the Stephenson Mills Co., a subsidiary of the Eddy Match Co. Several patents were recorded for pie funnels of various designs, but this writer could make no definite connection between the Thomas Nutbrown Co. and any individual of the same name. At any rate, pieces made by the company survive with the “Nutbrown” stamp either on their base or inside the base.
Pie funnels were routinely used through the early 1940’s after which they were often relegated to the back of a drawer and left to be rediscovered by collectors decades later. Perhaps the post-war economic boom made it easy to purchase newfangled gadgets and the humble pie bird paled in comparison. Pie vents can be found in the shape of owls, elephants, quail, ducks, cows, chickens, people, etc. Some are quite decorative and colorful and because they are so small can be exhibited in a very small space unlike many other kitchen collectibles.
Before paying big bucks for pie birds do your homework because there are sellers who have made careers out of making new pieces look like well-used vintage pieces in order to sell them for amounts far greater than their actual value. There is a web site and numerous books on pie birds, or pie funnels if you prefer, with photos of makers’ marks and advice for determining if the piece is actually a pie bird and not a lone salt or pepper shaker. The time to do homework is before spending several hundred dollars for a pie bird that proves to be worth twenty bucks or less.