J.F. sends me a photo of a 1950’s metal eggbeater which has a metal gear and two whisks, labeled on a rubber handle across the top of both sides “B-E-S-T.” This most common of objects has a very uncommon history. Like most objects we take for granted, the engineering of this little thing is a marvel. Old kitchen utensils, as we will see, are hot in the market now, mainly due to the nostalgia factor of many midlife foodies out there who remember their mom’s non-computerized cooking tools. This category of objects is fascinating to many a luddite collector.
An African American, Willis Johnson, who was born a slave in Cincinnati, OH in 1857, was the inventor of your eggbeater, filing its patent in 1884. By the time Johnson died in 1923, no other model of such a whisk had supplanted this in pure genius. Johnson’s design has never been improved upon and it has been a model for the commercial and household electrical beaters to this day.
Johnson was not the first African American inventor to receive a patent; that credit goes to Thomas L. Jennings in 1821, a tailor who invented dry cleaning, but Johnson was notable because historians believe he was illiterate. Furthermore, he invented this, as we see in the patent illustration illustrated, with the idea of dual action for dual whisks, which could be separated to act upon dual bowls. Johnson thought of two separate chambers as each capable of mixing two ingredients separately at once, such as eggs by one whisk and batter by the other, with one crank. Prior to this invention, anything mixed in a kitchen was done by hand, and any baker would have told you how much effort that took.
Johnson’s original patent boosted kitchen productivity because the two whisks were placed such that you could call the eggbeater a virtual mixing machine. If you ask Williams Sonoma for an eggbeater, you will be handed something that looks like J.F.’s picture and will cost you $30.
The U.S. patent website (always a great tool for antiques research) holds the text of Johnson’s drawings and the depiction of this machine’s utility: “Be it known that I, Willis Johnson…have invented certain new and useful improvements in egg beaters…wherewith egg batter and other similar ingredients used by bakers, confectioners, etc., can be beaten or mixed in the most intimate and expeditious manner.” I searched but found no photo of Mr. Johnson, nor did I find if he ever earned anything for his invention. Nor do I know how one can use this machine intimately, but I am willing to learn!
My grandfather was a big fan of eggbeaters, as he was an engineer and an inventor himself. Born in Leipzig at the turn of the century, and often hungry in youth, he was particular about his food, especially his scrambled eggs, which he made for himself every morning before heading into New York City for work. (He died in his mid-90’s, still at work.) In fact, scrambled eggs were the only dish he could cook, and he made one serving at a time. Two eggs at a time, because he used the Holt’s Improved Dover Patented Atlas Special Egg Beater, which screwed on to a three cup mason jar. We four grandkids would wait hours for breakfast on the weekends.
Some of the most collectible kitchen utensils, according to Kovel’s Price Guide are wire egg baskets, butcher blocks, wooden butter paddles, wooden butter prints (this is a press for punching a whimsical design into a newly churned butter pat), cabbage cutters (boards with razors in the middle), cherry pitters, butter churns, including the unique rocking chair butter churn, baby bathtubs, spice boxes and salt box wall mounts, and various types of brooms: cornhusk or cornstalks and horsehair. All notable for being so low-tech.
The most valuable kitchen utensils at auction today are Shaker made, from the late 18th and early 19th C. The Shaker aesthetic was pure and functional. You can purchase a wooden soap holder for $360, a pair of shaped panel feet (a Shaker sock dryer size 11) for $2583, or a maple New Lebanon, NY paid of steam-bent ash for $1500, or a large mangle iron, a beam of heavy iron with a twist handle for $1845. This last item was not Shaker made; the Believers sometimes bought from Worldly Manufacturers. Or you can buy a Sabbathday Lake, ME, grain box from 1830 for $1000. The value of J.F’s eggbeater? $50.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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