Tucked in the back of Jazz’e Junque, 3419 N. Lincoln Ave., is one of Chicago’s hidden gems: a small museum devoted to kitchen items from the mid-20th Century. With shelves of vintage toasters, mixers, juicers and other items, the shop provides an evolving history of the American kitchen.
What started out as a collection of hand juicers by owner Mercedes DiRenzo-Bolduc quickly developed into a collection of Mixmasters (with an original dating to the 1920s), toasters (which DiRenzo-Bolduc calls “little works of art”) and vintage kitchen play sets, which used braided electrical cords to power the working, and very hot, stovetops. For DiRenzo-Bolduc, the museum is part hobby and part discovery.
“In an era of conveniences, it is fascinating to see how just a few decades ago an average kitchen looked,” she said. “I like it because my mother had it. It’s very comfortable to me.” Whether an old pressure cooker, a butter churner or a washing machine with a hand crank for drying, many of the kitchen items considered state of the art for their day required a good amount of elbow grease. For $1, anyone can see the collection.
The museum is just one part of Jazz’e Junque. The store sells a host of other vintage kitchen items such as aprons, cookbooks, glasses and Pyrex bowls. Walking into Jazz’e Junque is like walking into a kitchen straight out of a Nick at Nite rerun.
But the shop’s real specialty is retro cookie jars from the 1950s to the 1970s: sleeping pigs, Elvis heads, pink Cadillacs and rotund monks are just a sampling of Jazz’e Junque’s offerings. As DiRenzo-Bolduc puts it, she’s selling more than just cookie jars, she’s selling memories. “People remember their mother or grandmother making cookies and filling the cookie jar,” she said. “It is a warm feeling of childhood.”
To understand the importance of the cookie jar is to understand America after World War II. “After the war, people wanted something fun,” DiRenzo-Bolduc said. “People wanted to brighten up their kitchens.” Many of the items sold at Jazz’e Junque are brightly colored with whimsical, cartoonish or kitschy designs (think state-shaped salt shakers or cow-shaped creamers). For DiRenzo-Bolduc, it’s her way of battling the blah of today’s more mass-produced goods. “People don’t understand what fun a kitchen can be.”
Talking to DiRenzo-Bolduc is like getting a mini history lesson in cookie jars and mid-20th Century American kitchen kitsch. She can expound at length about Glenn Appleman, who used to make cookie jars by hand and travel around to local fairs selling the jars from the back of his VW (she has one of his pieces for sale). She can rattle off pottery company names and dates, tell someone when Shawnee pottery burned down or where a particular cookie jar might have been made or sold. It’s been a passion of hers for the better part of 20 years.
“When Andy Warhol died, there was this big craze in buying cookie jars,” she said. “I opened a store selling vintage clothes, but I also sold cookie jars and salt-and-pepper shakers.” She always liked selling cookie jars, and the market boom at the time led her to focus solely on that side of the business. After closing the store for about five years to focus on online sales, she reopened and eventually moved to her present spot on Lincoln Avenue nearly three years ago.
Like many other businesses, the economy and trends have taken their toll. The cookie jar trend has slowly given way to turquoise, pink and mustard Pyrex bowls with the old-fashioned patterns favored in the ’60s and ’70s. However, DiRenzo-Bolduc sees that people still want something that reminds them of childhood. “I have good warm feelings of what I sell,” she said. “There’s nothing more symbolic of childhood than the cookie jar.”