Sweet, Memory: On the Subtle Magic of the Cookie Jar

The heyday of cookie jars may have passed, but as long as there are kids, and people who used to be kids, cookie-jar mentality will never die.


The cookie jar in my parents' house was—is—a glazed ceramic cylinder, beige with brown trim, its lid topped with a substantial knob for grasping. One side of it is decorated with a ring of painted flowers, birds, hearts and curlicues, and within the ring is written, "Here are the Cookies of Yesteryear." But because this is in cursive and the capital H is oddly formed, with an unexpected loop at the upper left, when I was little I thought for the longest time that it said "flere are the Cookies of Yesteryear." I just assumed that "flere" was a word, and I never asked anyone about it.

My mother's mother, who lived up the street from us in Mississippi, kept cookies in an old Royal Dansk butter cookie tin, and it was almost always full. Not of homemade baked goods, but chunky-style Chips Ahoy, or those store-brand sandwich cookies that had one chocolate side and one vanilla side. It was never anything fancy, but any day I walked in after school and found that the cookie tin had run dry was a sad day indeed. I have no memory of a time when the Royal Dansk tin actually held Royal Dansk cookies.

Cookie jars have magic powers that feel unique among kitchen vessels. No one waxes lyrical about their family's breadbox—unless the breadbox was also where the family cookies happened to be stored.* But when I put out a request on Facebook for childhood memories of cookie jars, both the containers themselves and what they contained, I was inundated.

My husband's parents do sometimes keep cookies in their breadbox. It's always worth checking.

"Butter cookies in a green glass jar. Always a highlight at my maternal grandmother’s house," said one friend. When I asked him what kind of memories the jar called to mind, he went on at length: "The taste, the smell, the room, the table it was on, how the jar always seemed full to me, family members of all ages, cousins especially, the Christmas I got a favorite blanket, etc. And I guess these just pile on themselves into a big memory fusion."

Another friend: "My great-grandma had a cookie jar that was a big pig. I would always try to sneak and get some cookies, but the lid was so heavy that she would show up like black lightning when I tried it." A third: "Oreo cookies or, seasonally, candy corn/autumn mix in a glass pumpkin. It sat next to the rotary phone on my grandparents’ kitchen counter. I’d always eat the candy pumpkins. I remember thinking that it was like taking baby pumpkins out of a Mommy pumpkin and eating them—I was a slightly gothic child."

Almost everyone who reported remembered not just the jar and the cookies, but an associated habit or memory. If I were the type to dream up spurious connections where only coincidence dwells, I might pick out some incipient lifelong character traits from these stories—say, the fact that as a child, my now unfailingly responsible brother-in-law worried that the head of his family's cat-shaped cookie jar (name of George) would fall off and crack. (But I am not going to do that.)

Two blue shelves holding cookie jars, including ones shaped like a man's head with a mustache and hat, a cat wearing a bow tie, a clown, an orange pumpkin with a stem, and a friar with

Even without veering into the speculative, it's not hard to conclude that the cookie jars my friends and I grew up around became totemic objects of our devotion. On long, tedious visits to grandparents' houses, we marked time until the doling-out of cookies commenced. My parents didn't regularly keep cookies on hand, which meant you had to check; I can recall with crystal clarity the clink the lid made as it settled askew on the flere jar, probably because I still check whenever I visit. The sight of the jar across the kitchen—where it sat on a countertop in the only house I remember from our time living in Houston—from my perspective at about the same height as the countertops themselves, stands brightly out in my mind in a parade of increasingly fuzzy and detached imagery from my youth.

The emergence of colorful ceramic cookie jars shaped like cats wearing bow ties, or jolly yet didactic friars, or the most horrifying Pennywise-like clown to ever haunt a kitchen shelf, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Most sources date their earliest appearance in the US to the 1930s; up to that point, cookie jars tended to be plain glass or metal cylinders, descendants of British biscuit jars or tins, when they were used at all. My mother says that her grandmother had no jar, and instead stored cookies in a dedicated breadbox-like metal cabinet placed among the upper kitchen cabinets.

Nowadays, too, it seems indulgent to give over precious counter space to such a chubby piece of crockery, when a sealable bag will do the job better. And, though I personally can't imagine my childhood without the promise of the mist-shrouded Cookies of Yesteryear, plenty of my cohort reported growing up with no jar in the household, and they apparently turned out well-adjusted adults all the same.

The important thing, I think, is not the cookie jar itself but what I'd like to call cookie-jar mentality, which requires only the knowledge that some foods are treats, and that, as such, they live in their own special hidey-hole. Beyond that, the container and the contained can be whatever circumstances and desires demand. My grandmother's Royal Dansk tin is one example; the empty Pringles cans that Ariel's great-grandmother used to store stacks of home-baked Tollhouse cookies are another. One friend told me her family's equivalent was a snack drawer, where "Little Debbies, fruit snacks, Nutter Butters, Oatmeal Creme [Pies], and other such prepackaged goodies" were kept. "We went to visit a few days ago and the first place my kids went to was the snack drawer," she said. The heyday of cookie jars may have passed, but as long as there are kids, and, frankly, people who used to be kids, cookie-jar mentality will never die.

My husband and I have a treat stash of our own, a shelf in an upper cabinet of our kitchen—it has to be an upper cabinet, to maintain that keep-out-of-reach-of-children feel—where we house all the goods: sweetened cereal, trashy cream-filled sugar wafers, the novelty M&M flavors one of us found on sale at Kroger. But we have a literal cookie jar, too, empty and gathering dust on top of the refrigerator. It's fat and round, decorated with vague representations of what I think are supposed to be assorted cookies, and the lid has a handle resembling a walnut.

When Shaun first brought it home after buying it at a flea market, I laughed at how homely it seemed to me. I didn't know then that it was an exact duplicate of the cookie jar owned by his grandmother, Claire, who died last year at the age of 93. At her funeral service, the eulogy given by one of her 10 grandchildren began nearly immediately with a memory of eating "S" cookies—store-bought, puffy Italian-style biscuits, of the sort made by Stella d'Oro—from that jar, to which all of his cousins murmured their appreciation in unison. It was a rare instance of cookie-jar mentality shared openly and celebrated, originating from a specific jar but not contained by it, gathering strength as it prepared to be passed on to the next generation.