Cast iron cookware has a weird…almost mythological status. I don’t mean that to be dramatic, it’s just that they’d always seemed somehow on the periphery of my awareness, up on this pedestal of magical cooking savvy. Every so often a friend would be cooking with one and I’d wonder what the fuss was about.
I knew they were different…supposedly cooked better, couldn’t be cleaned in the ways we think of when we think of doing the dishes. And something about salt. And they were often heirlooms. A friend would have a scotch bowl passed down from their 54th great uncle Oog, who came across the Bering Strait 9,542 years ago. And it still cooks like new.
Maybe 2 years or so ago I heard a really great segment on NPR about cast iron. The guy being interviewed (I don’t remember who but I’ll try and find/link the segment) talked about the different makers, how it changed over the years, why vintage pieces are so coveted.
He talked about the “big” brands from the golden age of cast iron (from the tail end of the 19th through the first half of the 20th centuries), and said how Griswold is prized among collectors.
I liked the idea that something could be simultaneously historically significant, collectible, and utilitarian. After the itch didn’t subside after a few months I went out and bought a big Lodge skillet from Target.
It said preseasoned so I wasn’t worried about screwing that part up. It was new so I wasn’t worried about accidentally ruining a piece of history. It was friggin’ gigantic so it could handle the obnoxiously, freakishly huge breakfasts I tend to cook. Also it was gorgeous.
And for a mere $20, I felt like I could now be part of the club.
But…I wasn’t quite smitten. I liked it, don’t get me wrong. It heated up incredibly well and stayed that way, with fewer hot spots than my usual ceramic coated pans. It was incredibly spacious. And it has very high walls which is just what I wanted when cooking up johnnycakes.
But it just seemed out of place. I didn’t quite understand what was meant by seasoning even though I thought I did. It wasn’t quite nonstick. It felt stupidly unwieldy. Where I could effortlessly flip my eggs in my 8” ceramic pan…this thing needed a crane to get it to and from the stovetop. Or…at least I wasn’t gonna be doing any fancy wrist work. And I needed potholders.
The juice didn’t quite feel worth the squeeze but I kept plugging along chalking it up to a learning curve due to the ease of cooking on very lightweight and nonstick modern pans.
So naturally, I wanted another. But this time I wanted something truly vintage so I could see if maybe the hype found its way to me. Also, vintage meant I would have to learn how to properly season and care for the thing. Maybe that would translate into a love affair with my big Lodge.
But there was no urgency. My ceramic pans did the trick and my cast iron did a fine job with johnnycakes and homemade tortillas. Life was fine.
Until one day a Facebook ad popped up. A nearby antique shop had loads of old cast iron. Come and get it. I headed by and he said most of it had been sold…he posted the ad almost a month prior. He had a decent heap though. And I wound up getting an old Wagner “1891 Original” double griddle. It needed a bit of cleaning up. I liked that. I also liked that I recognized the name from that NPR segment. $15 later I felt like I’d bought my readmission to the club.
I got home and got to it. I scoured off the patina of rust and read 8,509 opinions on how best to season it. Preheated to 375°, smeared some canola oil all over it, set the timer for an hour.
And it was awesome!
I have had passionate love affairs with at least two electric griddles so this was right up my alley. Covering two burners meant a whole mess of johnnycakes at once. Or two tortillas at once. We eat a lot of flat breads in our house.
The surface was much, much smoother than pebbled surface of the Lodge. It was lighter despite being 50% longer. But…there were still “buts.”
The surface wasn’t totally smooth. It became nonstick much faster. But it has gutters on the perimeter that make it odd to clean. And truth be told…I was still pretty awful about understanding how to properly maintain the seasoning.
But I had renewed vigor! I got a glimpse into what it could be to cook with iron. And this skillet…wasn’t truly vintage. Wagner 1891 Original was a series cranked out for the 100th anniversary of the Wagner foundry first firing up. They were heavily mass produced, often times promotional items, and while they were technically Wagner and produce at their facilities, they’re kind of a modern, retro nod to the golden era. It was a fine piece to cook on, but not the idiotically blissful experience I was searching for.
And also. People try to gouge you on this stuff. Whether intentionally or due to their own innocent ignorance, they up-sell the Wagner name and these pieces (while lovely to cook on) are not the same as an early-mid 20th Century Wagner. Pay what you’re comfortable with but they’re worth like $10-25.
So after my increasing love for this griddle my radar went up. I decided I’d like to get a Real, True, Vintage piece of cast iron. Something indisputably from cast iron’s heyday. And I’d see if I’d get bitten once and for all.
In the meantime, I decided to strip the seasoning and build up a really good base. And also to build up the base seasoning on my old pal the Lodge.
I started looking around on eBay but didn’t really want to go that route. I liked the idea of hunting for one. Looking through yard sales or shelves in the back corners of antique shops and finding the treasure I sought. Also I knew next to nothing about cast iron other than a few brand names. Nothing about condition, nothing that would make me confident about finding “my” piece from a few grainy pictures on the internet.
I had some in my sights in case I cracked and just had to get something. But Julie and I decided to check antique shops first.
At the Rhode Island Antiques Mall I found a whole mess of the stuff. Most of it without names, which I didn’t want. I wanted unambiguous. I didn’t want to wonder what I was missing anymore. I wound up finding a Griswold #3 skillet and was glad I passed one up on eBay because it was a bit smaller than something I’d have in my regular rotation.
I found an unmarked #6 which seemed a great size but I wasn’t sold on it. I wanted the name.
And then I found it. A beautiful Griswold #6. Clear logo. Rough seasoning, slight rust patina. It was exactly what I was looking for.
It was in beautiful condition, though in need of restoration. But I could already feel the difference. The walls were thinner and it was amazingly light. But still felt substantial. And it was impossibly smooth. I was used to the Lodge and to the 90s Wagner griddle. This was effectively flawlessly smooth. I got home and got to cleaning.
It took some real scouring to get that old seasoning off, but I wanted the logo to be crystal clear.
And then came the seasoning. The second i took this thing out of the oven, I knew just how different it was. This thing was like a mirror.
And then came cooking on it. You know that scene in The Wizard of Oz when it suddenly snaps into color? That is what this pan was like. It was nothing short of sublime. It heated predictably…almost intuitively if that can possibly make sense. It was light enough to toss foods without prior weight training. And only two seasonings in…it was foolishly nonstick. My johnnycakes cooked beautifully and the scrambled eggs flaked right off of where they weren’t supposed to be.
Researching the logo I was able to determine that this skillet was manufactured by Griswold between 1937-1959. Firmly within the golden age of cast iron, and it was blindingly obvious why Griswold is so coveted by both collectors and cooks.
Using the handle, I was able to narrow it further still.
It may have taken a full year for the bug to incubate, but I now had full-blown cast iron sickness. What were the other brands like? What about the no name skillets? How old does our direct knowledge go?
And this is where things get deeper, rather than broader.
The earliest cast iron found by archaeologists dates back to 5th century BCE, China, where it was used for architecture, warfare, and agriculture. It’s an incredibly durable alloy of carbon with a fairly low melting point (as far as smelting metals goes…). Once melted, it’s a very pourable in liquid form.
The terms kettle (first appearing in 679) and pot (1180) both came into use to refer to vessels that could be plopped into a fire and withstand its heat. Kettles and cauldrons, first general and gradually more specific in design, would be set into a cook fire. Over the centuries they started to take the shape of things more recognizable as what we cook on. Cauldrons grew feet and ears, griddles grew handles out the side rather than over the top. Skillets with pour spouts. Covered cookware that could bake, fry, and serve. And they were made by pouring molten iron into a two piece mold made of tightly packed sand.
First through a kind of pipe called a sprue, which let the molten iron flow in very quickly and often resulted in rougher surfaces due to erosion of the mold. This method leaves round scar/s on the piece almost like octopus sucker marks.
Around the second half of the 18th century, a new technique called bottom gating was developed. This allowed the molten iron to flow down and fill the mold from the bottom, which was a much more controlled flow with less erosion of the mold but (from what I’ve come to understand) a higher risk of cooler iron creating kind of lumpy looking flow marks in the final piece. The gate mark on these pieces look like a straight scar, often visible on the inside.
Common knowledge is that there’s typically not a whole lot that can be known about gate marked cast iron. Truthfully that isn’t the case. You’re probably not going to narrow it down to year, and more than likely you’re only going to be able to narrow its origin to region rather than foundry. But there’s still a silly amount to know and learn. And a lot left to discover.
For this post though; it’s old, it’s historical, often times you can see the story of cast iron and the production process in the casting flaws that are often visible, many of which crop up around the gatemark itself. This particular griddle is one often attributed to a group called “fancy handle,” and they’re indicative of the period of iron casting during which handles went from strictly utilitarian to more aesthetic while simultaneously labor saving.
I’ve found very similar skillets on Cast Iron Guys and they’ve dated them to approximately 1860-1880. 1880 is when gatemarked pieces started falling out of fashion, while 1860 is when you start seeing the fancier handles pop up more regularly. Given the numerous casting flaws on this piece, I’m comfortable secretly considering it on the older end of that. ~1870. (edit: I would later learn through catalog research and talking to people who frankly know more than I ever will about cast iron that this handle was produced from around 1875-1920, but more on that elsewhere).
In these two pictures you can see those wrinkled casting flaws, as well as the fancy handle. It’s a beautiful handle, but I picked this piece specifically because of the flaws. You can see where the iron flowed into the v-shaped notch around the hook eye, and also where the iron had flowed into and partially obstructed the hole itself.
These are two pictures of the same piece. Typically called a round griddle, this guy is technically a “half skillet” because the walls come up a bit higher than the slight lip of a griddle. On the left is the condition when I got it. The right is after cleaning but before seasoning. You can see abundant casting flaws all around the perimeter of the pan. They’re like wrinkles, and probably happened as a result of sand that wasn’t densely packed enough, or perhaps the iron had gotten a bit too cool and instead of flowing smoothly, it kinda globbed up against itself.
Here it is again, top and bottom, cleaned up and ready for action. You can clearly see the gate mark in the cooking surface. Aside from the 8 on the handle (indicating the size), the only other marking is a V on the base. That’s not much of a help identifying the piece though, as letters like that tend to be mold marks that helped foundries track how many pieces were made from a specific mold before it failed. That ring around the base is also a bit informative. Called a “heat ring,” it served/s two purposes. The first is that it would sort of interface with the eye of a cast iron stove.
The second is that back when casting wasn’t super duper scientific…flaws weren’t just aesthetic. Handles might be kinda whatever, but if you have a long, flat plane that forms the base of something…and it’s not flat…it’s not gonna be a good thing. Boiling liquid in a container that rocks isn’t going to be in that container next time you boil liquid. That ring helped with stability.
Here it is again. 140 years old and Still going strong.
Johnnycakes were made on the fancy handle #8, eggs and potatoes on an unmarked #8 skillet that turned out to be Wagner. I found that one for $10 in an antique shop, horribly gooped up.
Going back in time a little bit from this fancy handle, I have a fairly mysterious bowl that I’m still in the process of researching.
This bowl is a weird one. I haven’t found anything exactly like it, but I’ve turned up a few things that are pretty close, and close enough to make a few calls on what it is and when it was made. First, let me show you the rest of it.
This is the bowl in the condition I got it. Honestly I was pretty surprised at the condition given the suggested age. I didn’t know a whole lot about cast iron, but I knew this was a weird piece. The three dots on the bottom are the remnants of legs. That instead of a heat ring suggests a couple of things. No heat ring plus bottom gatemark means this thing predates the common presence of stoves. Heat rings became a thing when cast iron stoves started finding their ways into houses and people stopped cooking over their hearths. The legs suggested it would be placed into a hearth to be warmed.
But this is where the mystery starts. Most pieces like this have either bail ears to take a bucket-style handle (called a scotch bowl), or they have a handle (called a spider), or they have a flat bottom, two handles, and a flat lid (a Dutch oven). This thing has none of that. I have stared at it for hours at this point and there are no points where ears or a handle used to be but were then polished smooth after having broken off.
If this is a footed bowl, older than stoves, that sits directly in a fire, and has no handle…how did they lift the thing? Sure they’d have some kind of cloth to grab hot cookware but without a handle it’s still gonna be complicated. And bail handles can easily be suspended over a hearth. This seems all sorts of weird.
Enter the high hearth trivet, or the butler’s trivet, or the salamander. Depending what you wanna call it, it’s basically a wrought iron or brass end table with a handle. Cookware would be placed onto it, slid over the coals, and voila. Broiler.
Neither of those are my images. Please don’t sue me.
And for satisfaction’s sake. That bowl cleaned up beautifully:
Stoves were in use by the first half of the 18th century, but really didn’t find their way into the kitchens of typical United States citizens until the 1830s when the wood burning cast iron stove was introduced. So based on what we know about casting and home cooking apparatus, we can confidently say this bowl was produced after the second half of the 18th century (gatemarked, not sprue marked), but before the second half of the 19th century. Potentially 1780-1830. And it’s beautiful. And has some chunky funky casting flaws on the bottom.
Finally, by the end of the 19th century, as larger foundries started firing up and the big names in cast iron started coming to life, side gating was developed. This allowed molten iron to flow into the mold at one or more points in an even more controlled manner, filling from both sides evenly. This resulted in nearly flawless castings that were inevitably produced much more quickly. The gate marks were on the lips of the pieces and ground off. If you have a modern cast iron skillet, look along the rim, you’ll see where it was ground smooth.
I have an unmarked Wagner #5 skillet that shows this pretty well:
While even larger foundries continued using bottom gating methods up well into the 20th century it was typically for larger pieces and so it gets pretty clear cut to ascribe a given piece to a time frame based on the gating methods.
Side gating is firmly 20th century, bottom gating is typically late 18th-late 19th century but you’re more likely to see a piece from 1860-1890 in your regular travels, and many larger pieces (ham boilers) and smaller foundries used bottom gating until well, well into the 20th century. I’ve personally been tricked by a skillet with a mid 19th century design. I know I was tricked because a guy who worked at the foundry recognized it as having been made AFTER he left, and he left in 2009. Bottom gating is a tricky method of dating at best.
Older pieces tend to be bowls and griddles with bucket-style “bail handles,” and spiders (later called skillets) with fairly long legs and fairly longer handles to sit comfortably and safely in a hearth for cooking.
And then going back into the early 18th century and beyond, you’re looking at sprue (top) gating.
And within a given time period, designs can often help you narrow it down a bit more. But you’re probably not getting more specific than a 20 year window at best for old pieces without well-established provenance.
But for the late 19th century foundries—Griswold, Wagner, Birmingham Stove and Range, Lodge, Chicago, Piqua, and many others? There is so much history there. You can go absolutely insane researching different logos and designs. You can seek out specific flaws or pieces. Before Lodge, there was Blacklock. That burned down after only a few years in production and Joseph Lodge went on to found Lodge, which is still around and the only cast iron cookware foundry in the United States. Blacklock is highly coveted and very historic.
Cast iron is a wonderful way to build up your permanent/heirloom cookware while simultaneously surrounding yourself in functional history. You can go as crazy as you like. Collect all the pieces put out by Griswold in all their logos! Maybe you love a certain size skillet and you wanna have one from every maker you can.
Me, I’m trying to hold myself to a small but entirely useful collection that tells its own story.