Finding a Passion
A few years ago I found a wonderful blog by accident, Good Things by David. It was dedicated to baking and homemaking in the vein of Martha Stewart in her heyday. There was a post about decorating large cookies with royal icing. Art is my favorite thing and baking is another favorite. The blogger, David, had put both of these together to make some absolutely wonderful cookies! Not since then have I been as inspired by food as I was by these cookies. I even sketched and painted them in my journals.
Come to find out, the cookies had been cut with large copper cookie cutters made for Martha Stewart’s fabulous catalog line Martha by Mail (in business about 1998-2004). Michael Bonne is an American coppersmith and he was contracted by Martha to produce the cutters. Martha had admired the large cutters made by Old River Road and Micheal Bonne was the perfect fit. The first time they were shown was when she did a whole Christmas tree with the very first set, Man in the Moon, and Star Light Star Bright. They then were offered as a set in her catalog for Christmas (prices for sets of two in the old catalogs are $45). Martha said that Bonne’s shop worked over time for weeks because of the flood of orders that poured in. MBM (Martha by Mail) had promised Christmas delivery and so Martha paid to have the cutters express shipped so everyone got theirs on time! Typically Bonne’s work is stamped with his cursive initials, but on Martha By Mail products it was first an MSL (Martha Stewart Living), then a classic MBM symbol- a capital M with a bee inside. Later it would be altered to a smaller font reading- MARTHA BY MAIL with a smaller bee underneath and a hive on top.
Daily I scoured E-Bay looking for these treasures. Thankfully there were plenty listed, but the prices were at the high end of my budget. Some cutters went for hundreds! (On E-Bay a great feature for collectors is to look at sold auctions to help judge how much things are going for.) I found out later that the cutters that went for so much were the rarest ones like the Shield and Flag. These set were produced at the end of Martha’s catalog business and not many were made. The cheaper ones are of course, the easiest to find, such as the Moon and Star, mentioned earlier, Heart in Hand and Heart. The easiest to find and cheapest is the bear Martha commissioned for Nordstrom’s, (stamped Nordstrom on the handle). This, as far as I can tell was never offered in her catalog, but sold in store. Apparently enough were made that they can be picked up for around $20, often with the decorating card, recipe book and original box. The cards can add a lot of money to the price of the cookie cutters. The boxes sometimes, the recipe books sometimes, it just depends. The cards seem to be harder to find, but sought after because they give icing ideas.
With limited means, I started with the teddy bear. I bought it for about $24, but felt silly spending so much on a cookie cutter! Well, when I got it in the mail I knew what all the fuss had been about. The heft and craftsmanship were a purely delightful tactile experience. The copper was thick and the edges smooth, and the lovely soft beauty of the pinkish-orange spoke of quiet elegance. What really struck me was the size! I knew they were big, but without ever seeing one in person that’s hard to judge. I was immediately overjoyed by this tool! I wasn’t able to bake as I didn’t have time that week, but I stayed up late several nights tracing the bear and painting icing designs for it in my journals. Spending that time just drawing and dreaming of the cookies I would make with it became an important part of the ritual of each newly acquired cutter.
Collecting. When I was young, pre-internet in everyone’s hand, and pre-EBay, this was a stressful task frought with anxiety. You just shopped at whatever antique or junk stores your town had and hoped for miracles that didn’t break the bank! I’m sad that antique stores are dying out, but have fond memories of when I had the best of both worlds- the giant antique malls, and a young, burgeoning E-Bay to pick from. Never have I seen one of these cutters in a storefront, or an estate sale, but these days I am blessed to have E-Bay.
For the next 18 months I collected almost obsessively. I spent all my free money on these gleaming copper trophies to the art of cookie-making and learned so many new things along the way. Everyday I would search for “Martha Cookie Cutter” and have E-Bay put them in order of newly listed so I wouldn’t be beaten out on buying or bidding. I’ll be honest, I would bit once early, then try to bid at the last few minutes so I could win. Sometimes this worked, sometimes, not, sometimes “buy it now” was a less stressful option! I never got upset about losing an auction, but I did get upset if I got busy and forgot to bid! (As a wife/teacher/mother this actually happened a lot!)
My favorite cutters are Neptune’s Seahorse and Nautilus. They were my birthday present for myself. At the end of 18 months I had every cutter I could reasonably afford and wanted except one, the Chubby Pumpkin. Much like the elusive pumpkin costume on HIMYM, I had been searching a long time for this one. Sometimes it was listed, but always at an outrageous price! Finally it was listed with a whole lot of listings for cutters and I think I got it at such a good price because everyone was busy bidding on the very rare Shield and Flag cutters! (Note to sellers, wait 15 minutes or so between listing things in the same category so its easier for your buyers to bid on multiple things.)
A funny thing happened during this cookie cutter collecting. My husband and I were exploring and working through cleaning out our basement of debris and junk that came with the house. We found the two missing shelves from our pantry (Oh, happy day!) and some very strange little shallow shelf/trim pieces. We had no idea what these were. I thought and thought until I finally started looking through old pictures of the interior of our home. When it was built it was fashionable for bigger houses like ours to have a breakfast room and a formal dining room. We originally thought our breakfast room was the butler’s pantry, but there was a place in the floor for a servant’s buzzer, which didn’t make sense. Later we found out that the pantry had been in the large space that is now our kitchen. But I saw in the pictures that there was a plate rail that ran all around the breakfast room! These were the strange shelf/trim pieces! Hooray!
My DH hung the pieces right back where they had been, but we had two leftover becasue they no longer fit. We had had to put the wall back up between the breakfast room and dining room so we could control heat in the house in winter. These pieces needed to be cut to fit with new width left from the wall, but I couldn’t bear to cut them. Plus we had put freestanding cabinets on the wall for storage and there wasn’t much room. The two extra rails my dh hung as one in the kitchen over our chalkboard. The plate rails now became the perfect place to display and store the copper cookie cutters! They look wonderful there!
In Martha’s Martha by Mail catalogs there are lots of ideas for the cutters. The catalogs were sometimes on E-Bay too and I would get one for decorating ideas. Martha showed the big cutters as being used for display and use. Michael Bonne even made special copper wall hooks to hang the cutters. The decorating ideas for the cutters were gorgeous and so I copied them with the plate rails. It was a success! Now I rotate them between the butler’s pantry and kitchen depending on the season. They get used, cleaned, polished, put back up, then rotated again. That way they get taken care of. They need to be polished about once a year and this helps to break a big job down. If you despise polishing copper, keep them in an oxygen depleted environment. The craftsmanship of Michael Bonne and his team and the design of Martha Stewart is so lovely that I enjoy looking at them every day. That’s a good thing. 😉
Up next, cooking and icing decorating with Martha by Mail copper cookie cutters, and the best gingerbread recipe ever!
With love and gleaming copper baking goodness to you from Kansas Street,