The Tale of the Mystery Bowl
While I’m fairly new to the madness and sickness that comes with being a cast iron cookware enthusiast, I’ve now spent enough time around it to be able to spot some odd things. Over the last couple of months I’ve scoured the internet for different tips and tricks to identifying unmarked cast iron from the main foundries that produced it in the first half of the 20th century.
I had a few goals for my collection. I knew it wasn’t going to be huge. I don’t have a ton of space, and as an anthropologist it’s automatically implied that I don’t have a ton of money, either. And given that an international move is coming up in hopefully a bit under a year, 745lbs of cast iron just probably wouldn’t travel well.
So for my collection I wanted the following:
Something Griswold (ticked that box when I got that first piece that I spent some time talking about in my last post)
Something Vintage Lodge
Something Birmingham Stove and Range
Something gate marked
I thought maybe I’d collect #8 skillets. My Griswold was a #6 and the unmarked Wagner I came across (also see last post, this one ticked two boxes!) was a #8. It seemed a good size. And so for my gatemarked piece I decided on a gorgeous old #8 half skillet. You’ll see them sold as round griddles all the time. Some are round griddles, but with slightly higher walls than the slight incline found on true griddles (often around 3/4”), they’re somewhere in the middle. And so technically they’re half skillets. But nobody really uses them as skillets so functionally they’re griddles.
With my new found eyes for cast iron, it was time to go and have a bit of a training exercise. I headed back to the Rhode Island Antiques Mall and went right downstairs, where I knew (thought) the majority of the cast iron resided. I saw some good stuff. The little corner booth where I found my Griswold had several unmarked Wagners and a Birmingham Stove and Range (BSR).
But I’d already had an unmarked Wagner and I was committed to not becoming a hoarder. And the BSR…well, despite being unmarked the seller seemed to know they were on to something because it was $34. Technically worth it, but on the high end, especially seeing I’d have to do a decent bit of work cleaning it up. I passed, and kept walking around.
I found loads of fun stuff that I simply passed by last time. I knew the names last time—this time I knew the shapes. I knew more of the styles and different kinds of things that were made of cast iron. French roll pans, corn muffin pans shaped like ears of corn, stove flue dampers, and even a wok. I saw things I had seen last time but walked right by because all I knew is I wanted that sexy “name brand” vintage stuff.
I was probably there an hour weaving up and down the aisles and letting my eyes get some “field work” in to compliment their 7,502,976 hours of “theory” they’d taken in over the last couple weeks. I’d had my fill and decided it was time to do a quick swoop through the top floor where I “knew” there wasn’t much to see. But decided to do one quick check over the booths that had several pieces. Maybe something was buried.
And something was.
I’m not sure what possessed me to look there. But under a shelf, hidden behind a jacket. Literally on the floor tucked almost completely obscured, was the edge of something cast iron.
I thought, “it must be a pretty big skillet, let me take a look.” It was a bowl.
A…strange bowl. Not something I’d seen, not quite something I could name. But I turned it over and saw the coveted bottom gatemark.
You’ve seen it before. In my last post. I knew gatemarked pieces were decently common. But I also knew they were often also decently expensive. This thing almost looked like it had been intentionally hidden. The bottom gate mark, the three feet, and the 4. I knew this was something I was buying. And somehow…it was $18.
I headed upstairs clutching the thing like I had gotten away with something. Like someone was going to come up and say that was a mistake, it wasn’t for sale, they had stashed it and it was rightfully theirs to buy.
I made my way through the top floor and suddenly cast iron was everywhere. I saw porringers from the 1730s (or so they claimed). I saw a “wash basin” that was pretty close to what I was holding. Only much, much cleaner (a low bar, to be fair), and no feet or number. And $50. Did I want it anyway? Nah.
I found kettles and cauldrons. I found a lead melting pot that had thin cardboard glued to the bottom, presumably to hide the “damage,” which was actually the gate mark.
Why had I never seen any of this? It seemed the cooking stuff was downstairs. The big, clunkier pieces and the more delicate and fashionable pieces were upstairs. It was all over the place.
I had made my rounds and had my bowl and another unmarked Wagner that was only $10 and decided I’d clean and gift it. I was satisfied, and eager to get home and figure this thing out.
Very quickly in my searching, I realized that this bowl was quite odd. It was a bowl very much like a scotch bowl, but it didn’t have any ears for a bail handle. Scotch bowls are designed to hang over a fire to cook over an open hearth. This was clearly not designed like that. But it also didn’t have a foot rim (also called a heat ring or a smoke ring) that would have immediately suggested it go on a stove. It had three nubby little feet, well worn but clearly there. That suggested (to me) cooking directly in a fire but yet it also didn’t have a handle. It didn’t have anything that suggested a handle WAS there in the past and had broken off and was filed smooth.
It was just…a bowl with feet. How would you even use something like this?
My search continued and speculation began. Placed directly into a fire, this thing would be almost impossible to get out without modern oven mitts or some kind of implement. Maybe something like a pizza peel that would let it slide into the fire without grievous injury to the chef? I posted in a cast iron cookware group on facebook. While nobody knew quite what it was, everyone thought it was cool and one person offered to help search. Her search turned up nothing. Just…like a scotch bowl, but not.
Eventually I found my way to Cast Iron Guys, which is essentially two guys that are insanely enthusiastic about cast iron and the history there. They hunt down old rusted iron and recondition it. They sell what they recondition, and sales are accompanied with the broad history of the piece. I looked through their online inventory and found two bowls that seemed quite similar.
One of them was identical except it had no feet. It was described as being used with a hearth trivet in order to slide it over a fire without requiring immediate hospitalization. The other was identical except it had a heat ring, meaning it was designed for use on a stove.
This led me to several possibilities. It having feet but no heat ring suggests it was maybe a similar bowl to the no-footed one, with the feet simply giving it more stability when sliding in and out of a hearth. That it does NOT have a heat ring means that it either predated the stove or predated it being commonplace. Both exciting prospects and narrows my window to roughly 1780 (after the introduction of bottom gated castings) but before about 1830 (when iron stoves started making their way into households).
I reached out to Cast Iron Guys and continued my research. I wasn’t finding anything that was changing my mind. I simply could not fathom how this thing would be cooked with in the absence of a hearth trivet. I also placed an order for a book entitled “Early American Cast Iron Holloware, 1645-1900.” I thought if anything had any more insight, it would be this. Combined with the Pacific Ocean of knowledge between the two Cast Iron Guys, I figured I had it in the bag.
In the meantime, I bought a lead test kit to just be safe. Once certified lead-free, I started searching for a lid. This thing may have been useless without an implement to hold it, but it’s the 21st century now. With modern oven mitts, a lid would turn this into a Dutch oven/chicken fryer.
I found what looked to be a beautiful lid. A Griswold #8 self basting lid, this fella has a crack in a way that suggests it was maybe dropped at some point and landed on the handle. I knew nobody would want it, it was apparently the right size, and as such it was perfect for this misfit bowl.
So the coloring looked awkward, but once stripped, cleaned, and seasoned, that all changed.
I hadn’t found anything new and was fairly comfortable in my assessment of tail end of the 18th through first half of the 19th century. Nothing else quite made sense to me. Really…this bowl didn’t even make sense. Why was it even made?
A few more days went by, and I heard back from Cast Iron Guys’ John Leshanski. And as luck would have it, two days after that my book on cast iron holloware was delivered. The verdict was in.
With the introduction of the considerably smaller, wood burning cast iron stove, foundries were sort of trying to figure out what to do next. There wasn’t exactly a precedent for what made good stovetop cookware for households, but it was becoming quickly clear that hearth trivets, long-legged spider skillets, and scotch bowls didn’t quite fit the bill.
And so starting in the 1820s, foundries began modifying existing molds to sort of retrofit hearth cooking pieces to make some more sense on a stove. According to Leshanski, this particular piece likely had a handle in its previous life. The handle, as he sees it, was removed from the mold (with the legs likely shortened), transforming this hearth spider skillet into a bowl suitable for a stove top.
These pieces weren’t entirely practical. With no handle, this would have still been mighty difficult to handle even without contending with a hearth. The short legs would keep it close to the stove top, but without sitting directly on top, heat would still escape. But that’s what you had to work with in the first half of the 19th century if you were fortunate enough to have a stove in your home.
In the book on cast iron holloware, author John Tyler lists a nearly identical bowl with a slightly larger rim. He mentions how without any form of handle this would be difficult to use, but the thick seasoning buildup shows that it was indeed used as a heating vessel. Slightly different than my bowl, this one seems to have been used to heat water because it had no seasoning and a slight rust patina inside. Mine was seasoned inside and out, meaning however it was handled, it was used for cooking.
In any event, both Tyler and Leshanski agreed that this bowl was cast between 1820-1840. The earliest dates in my window may have been chopped off, but I came out of my research quite satisfied in my own assessment.
What it comes down to is that for a brief period between 1820 and 1840, the home kitchen was evolving. It was becoming more accessible to people who didn’t live in literal castles. Foundries scrambled to come up with cookware that would be suitable, and these pieces are the result.
Bowls like this and probably dozens if not hundreds of other bastardized bits of holloware tell the story of the modernization of households, and it’s nothing short of mind blowing and humbling to still be able to cook in them.