West Bend Pantry Ware: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

“I believe that truth has only one face: that of a violent contradiction.”

~ Georges Bataille, twentieth century French intellectual and writer

“The purpose of contradiction in art is to exaggerate the extremes and force them to pop against each other. If done well, balance and harmony are achieved in the eye of the beholder. However, if the beholder is a blogger with the intention of explaining said art, it becomes an exercise in frustration and procrastination—a violent maddening of the mind.”

~ C R Kennedy, mid-century enthusiast and blogger

West bend copper 1 (2)

Aren’t they an adorable couple? I’ve decided to name this West Bend Pantry Ware salt and pepper shaker set Betty and Don Draper, after two of the leading characters from the TV drama, Mad Men. Your first thought may be “oh…because the pair is mid-century and Betty Draper is blonde (salt) whereas Don has thick, dark hair (pepper).” That analogy would work, but my reasoning is far less obvious. I arrived at those well-suited names after a Sunday morning epiphany, brought about by an intense examination of a sharp contradiction. Here’s what led to that revelation:

I recently bought this West Bend Pantry Ware salt and pepper set from an eBay auction for $22.50. In 1959, the two pieces above—along with a matching grease container—were known as “the range set” and retailed for about $3.95. My intentions regarding this purchase were to nearly complete the Pantry Ware line my grandmother had, which I inherited in 2003. Last fall I added the matching breadbox—another eBay find—for $20.

Even though there are no dates stamped into their copper-colored, anodized aluminum construction, I had always been comfortable this set was mid-century. Simply, it looks very 1950s/60s and most of the items in my grandmother’s kitchen originated from that period. But I had no solid evidence. And although I so badly wanted to label these items “modern”—their shiny, clean, solid colored, linear, highly functional construction screams “modern”—the cute little Colonial labels threw me. Why the heck did West Bend slap Early American art on a sleek, modern-styled kitchen accessory? It made me crazy.

This line is abundant on eBay, and also came in polished aluminum with black accents, and copper-colored bases with black accents. But I am yet to see a seller putting an exact date of production in the description or giving the line a name.

My set snip border and tag

I hoped researching the vast history of West Bend—a hundred-year-old manufacturer of many products—would shed some light on the age and style of my kitchen accessories.  After a fire destroyed a pocketbook manufacturing company in West Bend, Wisconsin in 1911, a young and dynamic local entrepreneur, Bernhardt C. Ziegler, recruited six other men to help him incorporate the West Bend Aluminum Company. With Sears, Roebuck and Company as an early anchor customer, by 1921 West Bend earned the rank of third in the nation in sales of aluminum cookware. During WWII over 300 new items were manufactured through defense contracts, earning the company six Navy “E” awards for outstanding achievement. Post war production included an air-cooled out-board motor marketed exclusively through Sears under the “Elgin” name, a division later purchased by Chrysler. Many innovative and successful mid-century fabrications are mentioned in the company history, but not the polished aluminum or copper-color kitchen accessories.

Somewhere, deep in the depths of a Google search, I finally found a Pinterest link that took me to an image of a 1957 West Bend advertising insert (shown below). A juicy little nugget of information appeared at the top of the beautifully illustrated ad—“Pantry Ware.” Those two words opened a door, and I found a handful of magazine and newspaper ads for Pantry Ware, fortunately with dates and retail prices. Finally, solid evidence that these pieces are mid-century.

Ad snip

Ad collage tag

It appears by 1955 production of the Pantry Ware line was in full swing, as the oldest advertisement above was in a magazine of that year. The first style of this line was in aluminum or anodized copper with black lids and labels. Their nickname in a few ads was “Bright ’n Black”. I believe it wasn’t until 1959 that white lids and graphics were introduced on the copper anodized pieces which were given the nickname “copper ’n snow”.

Copper and cream snip

Ebony tag

Onto my second quandary; is this line modern, or instead, a fun Colonial throwback? Oddly, this is where Don and Betty Draper come into play.

During the mid-20th century, two very drastic decorating styles competed for prominence in the American home:  modern and Colonial, which is sometimes more specifically broken down into Colonial and Early American. A stylish mid-century home would have been considered eclectic, albeit quite normal, to have elements of both modern and colonial (contemporary and traditional) sprinkled about.

A fantastic example of these extremes is well-illustrated in the early seasons of Mad Men.

Betty Draper's kitchen 2

Betty Draper’s kitchen, in my opinion, is a great example of mid-century Colonial design:  knotty pine wood cabinets; muted, brown patterned wallpaper; frilly, busy curtains; and an Early American pine kitchen table. Behind Don hangs a wood spoon rack. Her oven is in a greenish earth tone. The room is warm and cozy, homey in the tradition sense.

Betty Draper's kitchen cafe curtains

A close-up of Betty’s kitchen café curtains shows Early American images, much like the images on the Pantry Ware. Check out the brown pepper grinder.

Don Draper's office

Don’s office, on the other hand, is the height of modern style. There are several strong, silver metallic, vertical lines—dividing the wall paneling, used as chair and table legs, and holding up Don’s ash tray. Even the paneling—perhaps walnut—has a linear, vertical pattern. The furniture has strong, straight edges. All fabrics are solid colors, and the yellow sofa pillow is bold, square, and shiny—I believe its purpose is to draw the eye to the bright, abstract painting above. The room is crisp, clean, uncluttered, yet very stylish—everything we love about modern.

Both styles played a dominate role in Don’s life at the same time. They complement each other to the extent their presence allows you to see exactly what the other style is not.

Given the examples of innovativeness, success, and longevity of West Bend’s products, I wonder if the contrasting styles regarding the Pantry Ware were an attempt to market these products to both sectors of the buying public—those seeking the spark and boldness of modern style, and those longing for the comfort and hominess of traditional Colonial.

At the end of the day, the best validation for labeling these products as modern comes directly from the manufacturer. On the company’s 1957 advertising insert (shown above), which beautifully displays the entire line of copper and black items, we find the following description:  “Strikingly modern – with a touch of Early American charm. That’s the beauty of West Bend’s complete line of perfectly matched Pantry Ware. Protective coating prevents fingerprinting, keeps every piece bright and new-looking. Sparkling polished aluminum or tarnish proof copper-color aluminum.”

I’m satisfied that these beautiful, mid-century pieces are modern, but personally, I prefer my Don Draper pepper shaker analogy. What can I say? I’m a sucker for sleek, bold, and handsome.




“West Bend Co. History.” Funding Universe. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.


          Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 14. St. James Press, 1996

“Colonial & Traditional Style:  20th Century Interior Design.” [Antique Home Style]. N.p.,

n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. <http://www.antiquehomestyle.com/inside/colonial/>.

I do not possess copyrights to the newspaper or magazine advertisements or the Mad Men photos. They belong to their original owners.


The Metal Lawn Chair: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

Carey&Maria metal chairs

Not being one for swimming pools or baseball, my thoughts of mild weather turn more toward gardening around my 1953 Cape Cod home and enjoying cool drinks, warm friends, or quiet moments alone outdoors. This season I’ve indulged a bit and colored my exterior world with a modern American icon, the metal lawn chair.

The stamped metal lawn chair arrived on the scene in the late 1930s as a purely American style of outdoor seating. I had always assumed after the U.S. entered World War II in 1941 all steel production shut down to retool for war productions, i.e., making bombs, ammunition, planes, etc. However, civilians needed some minimal level of comfort and economy, and metal chair fabrication carried on through the duration and amazingly continued into the 1990s. Over all those decades of production and restyling, these chairs picked-up such names and nicknames as the Tulip, Clamshell, Bayou, Restro, and Shellback.

When WWII ended Americans longed to return to family life. Builders threw up simple tract houses for veterans and their families, which fortunately sat on small but useable lots. These new homes were often in a modern ranch design, a perfect complement to the clean-lined, sleek, and colorful lawn chair.

Another phenomena imbued vitality into the chairs. The highway expansion beginning in the 1920s coupled with the building boom of the post-war 1950s gave rise to an exploding number of motor lodges which had recently been dubbed “motels”. The mid-century bustling economy, the American love affair with the automobile, and a refocus on family life thrust Americans onto the road for weekend getaways and vacations. The metal lawn chair infused itself into this culture as a warm “welcome” outside the front door of motel rooms and a colorful escape beside the motel pool. Thus the name “motel chair” also attached itself to this distinctive American paragon.

Large discount store marketing schemes are partially to blame for the near death of these chairs, as manufacturing temporarily halted in America in the mid 1990s. Imports filled the lessened demand until new American companies took up the reigns only a few years later. So, to this day, new chairs, gliders and tables in a multitude of colors can be purchased at your local hardware, discount, or internet store.

Being a vintage chick, I pick mine up at flea markets, off craigslist, and recently out of my mom’s barn, with my prices ranging from free to $40. This is the more cumbersome acquisition route, as, once the chairs are found, they require a second investment of time, elbow grease, and several cans of spray paint to reach a sleek and modern condition. Alternatively, leaving the chairs in their weathered state can add a warm, traditional look to your yard. Since March I’ve obtained seven vintage metal lawn chairs, all in moderate to good shape but still requiring a bit of rust removal, dent straightening, surface sanding, and a fresh color that’s more to my current liking.

20150311_141411 (2)

Durability and longevity are not an issue with these chairs as they are well designed and made of steel. I had to beat one with a hammer to get a slight dent to budge. Over time rust can creep up, but the problem is manageable with a little sandpaper and spray paint—a cheap fix. If properly maintained, these chairs will be useable for decades, as, according to my estimations, one of my chairs is about seventy years old and in magnificent shape.

Versatility is perhaps my favorite metal lawn chair characteristic. While they were designed for the yard (their tubular base doesn’t leave divots in the lawn), they obviously can be placed on the patio, deck, by the pool, on the front porch, or even inside the house—why not?

I love that I can repaint them every year or two if I want, to match that season’s mood or to compliment the more interesting cushions I find. But frankly they are comfortable without cushions—and honestly more beautiful. As an artist, these chairs give me incredible flexibility and fun to impress my guests. As a sensible homeowner, they provide piece of mind that I’ve wisely invested in something that will be around forever and will never go out of style—seriously…they’ve been making the same chair designs since the 1930s!

finished chairs

The minuscule amount of internet information available on these chairs is shocking. I couldn’t find a single Wikipedia entry. Not one book at my library. The variety of names tagging the chairs made this search even more difficult. I was stuck on “metal patio chair”, which I have since learned isn’t the most accurate.

I floundered until I stumbled across a book that was published last summer. I promptly ordered it and was delighted. Not only is it loaded with history and information about the chairs, their designers and producers, and a slice of American business and manufacturing history since the 1930s, it also includes the added bonus of pictures of a variety of chairs and gliders fabricated over time, and a beautiful assortment of chairs, gliders, tables, and coolers being produced today in an array of colors.

Leaves me thinking this piece of the American landscape will continue into perpetuity. The book is A History of the Metal Lawn Chair …What We Know Now, by Skip Torrans. His family-owned business, Torrans Manufacturing Company, produces and distributes these chairs, and his passion and hard work have brought us the rich history that would have surely been lost with the passing of another generation.

Some of my earliest memories involve our elderly neighbor lady, Mrs. Mallory. She’d perch herself in her green metal lawn chair on the front porch of her bungalow in the evenings and watch our gang of neighborhood kids play. My cape cod has no front porch, but my metal chairs are currently sprinkled about the back porch, patio, and lawn. I often perch myself in one of them, enjoying my own children, watching birds, chatting with neighbors, writing in the fresh air, or simply imagining the long history of people that did all those same things in that very same chair.


Torrans, Skip. A History of the Metal Lawn Chair…What We Know Now. 23 House Publishing. 2014.