We appear to have the Persians to thank for the modern cookie. Prior to the widespread introduction of sugar to Persian baking in the 7th century AD, the various baked goods that existed rarely met our contemporary standards for sweetness.
As cookies (from the Dutch koekje, for "little cake") spread around the globe, so, too, did the means for shaping and decorating them. Since manipulating dough by hand can be tedious and produce inconsistent results, ceramic and wood molds and stamps for imprinting designs were developed over time.
By the 15th century, the cookie cutter had joined the baker's repertoire. These early imprint cutters were soon followed by the type with which most today are familiar, the cut-out or outline cutter. Easily fashioned from scraps of tin, first European and, later on, American tinsmiths were busily engaged in hand-fashioning a wide variety of cut-outs in shapes ranging from animals and stars to Santa Clauses and gingerbread men.
Many of these one-of-a-kind cutters have survived to this day and are highly valued for their sturdy construction and unique designs, but the advent of the machine age proved a boon for home and business. By the mid-1800's, the mass production of cutters brought an economy of scale that allowed homemakers to afford cutters for every holiday and occasion. Businesses utilized the increasingly inexpensive cutters as advertising and promotional pieces, a practice that continues to this day.
Cutters that are marked with a firm's name or logo are actively sought by collectors who are willing to pay more than the general $1 to $10 fetched by most vintage specimens. A prime example is a plastic 1999 Domino Sugar cutter, with its original packaging, that recently sold for $132.50 at an online auction.
Aluminum cutters from the early 20th century form another sought-after group, especially those that have wood or Bakelite knobs that appeal to collectors of red- or green-handled kitchen utensils. Many of these cutters date from the 1920's and 1930's and can sell for up to $25 for rarer pieces.
Cutters that are cross-collectible also get a lot of attention, like the 1989 Wilton Batman cutter that just sold for $40.99. And cutters that commemorate special events, like the NASA Voyager Mission cutter and recipe card set that garnered a final bid of $306.00, may provide the stimulation to seek out similar items at yard and estate sales.
A recent phenomenon in the secondary markets is the strong demand for the hand-made copper cutters marketed under the Martha by Mail name. (That's Martha Stewart, of course.) Mint-in-package sets from past years are regularly fetching $200 to $300 at online auctions, and recently, a group of nine snowflake cutters sold for $376.00!
Finally, one area of collecting that has had a long history, but is still going strong, is that for gingerbread cutters. Gingerbread men date to Elizabethan England, where, it was reported, the Queen would present her guests with gingerbread cookies in their likeness.
The cutters have always been popular both practically and with collectors who appreciate the sheer variety of specimens available. Remember the story of Hansel and Gretel and the role that gingerbread played? Research suggests that the Grimm fairy tale may have been based upon a true incident, and that the sweet duo may not have been the intended murder victims, but the perpetrators!
As you can see, the world of cookie cutters is more than just sugar and spice!
If you'd like to learn more about this interesting collectible, check out the resources listed below, and
Cookie Cutters and Cookie Molds: Art in the Kitchen, by Phyllis Steiss Wetherill
Handles, Handles Everywhere: Identifying Your Aluminum Cookie Cutters, by Pam Nelson and Greg Nelson (PDF file)
Run, Run as Fast as You Can: Identifying Your Gingerbread Man Cookie Cutters, by Pam Nelson and Greg Nelson
Cookie Cutter Search
Subscriber-only database, but lots of free info including History & Facts, What's New, and Discussion List.
Hansel and Gretel: Wanted for Murder: Haensel and Gretel
Anke Culver provides the facts supporting the crime.
History of Cookies
Well-researched article covers almost all the major kinds of cookies.
National Cookie Cutter Historical Museum
Part of the Joplin (Missouri) Museum Complex.
Vintage Cookie Cutters
Informative article from Collectors Weekly.