What a Crock

updated 05/29/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1995 01:00AM

IT WAS ONLY A CRACKED OLD JAR with a lid shaped like a walnut, but for the middle-aged man who dropped in about eight years ago at Lucille Bromberek's Cookie Jar Museum in Lemont, Ill., it was a moment stolen from time—a double of the jar his mother had when he was a child. "It brought back memories," says Bromberek, who sold it to him for about $30. "You can build so much happiness around a cookie jar."

Satisfying people's sweet tooth for nostalgia is Bromberek's mission. Her 2,000-square-foot museum, on the second floor of a former antique shop, is a Louvre of kitchen kitsch, containing about 2,000 jars from all over the world, most gathered by Bromberek herself. (Unimpressed by her fame, she once turned down an invitation to appear on David Letterman's show: "I said, 'No, I'm tired of traveling.' ") Rich in jars resembling teddy bears and toy soldiers, the collection also boasts jars shaped like taxis, clocks, even a tepee. The oldest, from the 1880s, is a square biscuit jar made of Wedgwood china.

Oddly enough, Bromberek, 70, never had a cookie jar when she was growing up in Akron, Ohio, one of 10 children of parents who worked at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. She started collecting in 1975 after being treated for alcoholism and after the death of her husband, Ed, a quarry owner in Lemont, Ohio. A counselor in her rehab program suggested that she take up a hobby. Remembering fondly that Ed had given her a chef-shaped cookie jar on their first anniversary, she says, "I went gung ho." Her two-story house was soon filled with jars found at yard sales and flea markets. She evicted the upstairs tenants to make more room and in 1979 rented the space she has now. Today, because of the increasing popularity of cookie jars—Andy Warhol's 150-jar collection sold for $247,000 in 1988—some of Bromberek's early 50-cent purchases have soared in value. She estimates that one piece—an early 20th-century representation of an African-American woman wearing a yellow bandanna—is now worth $3,000.

Understandably, handwritten signs throughout the museum warn No Touchy, but when it comes to lid-lifting, the offenders aren't whom you would expect. "The adults," she says, "are worse than the children."

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