Unmarked ceramics can be something of a pain in the neck to identify.
Dear Helaine and Joe:
I am enclosing photographs of an item I inherited from my mother-in-law, whose family was originally from Germany. She was not sure of its use and at first I thought it might be a cake stand and cover, but then I reconsidered and thought perhaps cheese. There are little holes in the cover surrounded by gold stars. It is very heavy, and the only markings are numbers. I would like to know its use, age and possible value.
P.G., Elk Grove Village, Ill.
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Unmarked ceramics can be something of a pain in the neck to identify, but we feel certain that this piece is English and pre-1891. A circa-1885 date is probably about right.
We can understand why someone might think this could be a cake stand. Unfortunately, if a frosted cake were placed inside this contrivance, its frosting would be scraped off every time the lid was lifted — and no one could see the pretty icing through the heavy pottery lid.
No, P.G. got it right: This is a cheese keeper, but more specifically, this is a Stilton cheese keeper. Stilton is an English blue cheese with a strong smell, and cheese keepers such as this one were designed to keep the sharp odor in so it would not permeate the entire house.
In addition, Stilton would also dry out as it aged, and the dome was designed to keep the moisture in. The holes in the lid were designed to let in a little air to discourage the growth of unwanted mold.
These Stilton cheese keepers were made beginning around 1850. Cheese keepers were also made for other cheeses and can be found with wedge-shaped lids or lids that are more square or domed. These were designed, for the most part, to hold wedge-shaped cheeses.
Today we might find it a bit odd that such a large cheese was kept around ordinary English homes, but it must be remembered that formal dinners often included a cheese course that was served before dessert — or, in some cases, in lieu of dessert — and Stilton was a favorite.
We may never know for sure who made this piece with its black background (at least, that is the way it looks in the photo) and its enameled decoration of swamp life including trees, birds and butterflies. This is similar to decorations used by Thomas Forester and Sons, who worked in Longton and Fenton, Staffordshire.
This company sometimes did not mark its wares, and it is possible that the company could have made this cheese keeper — but only possible. Many famous companies made Stilton cheese keepers, including Wedgwood, Minton (Mintons) and George Jones. Majolica (colorful tin-glazed earthenware) examples can be very pricey, as can examples made in Wedgwood’s elegant Jasperware.
However, essentially anonymous non-majolica examples such as the one belonging to P.G. are far less valuable. Many of these cheese keepers were shipped into this country in container loads during the last half of the 20th century, and that makes pieces such as this one more common than we would like.
For insurance-replacement purposes, P G. should value her circa-1885 English Stilton cheese keeper in the $300-$450 range.
(Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of “Price It Yourself”(HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, PO Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at email@example.com.)