From its humble origins getting annoyed with my 73lb modern skillet to my first rummaging expedition to the Rhode Island Antiques Mall, it’s safe to say that my enthusiasm for cast iron cookware has gone from confused to thrilled to unhinged to genuinely passionate.
Getting into this hobby, you learn a few things very early on:
Griswold and Wagner are the best
There are several other amazing brands like Birmingham Stove and Range and Chicago Hardware Foundry and you want those, too.
Very few 19th century foundries marked their pieces, so if you have something from before the 20th century, there’s probably no way of knowing where it was made.
If your piece is gate marked, it’s super old, and probably unidentifiable.
Having been around the hobby and a part of this community for a while now, I’ve also learned that all of those things I learned early on aren’t true. I mean, don’t get me wrong. There is truth behind all of it. Griswold DOES pretty much live up to the hype—it was the reason for my descent into this particular pathology. But it’s no longer my favorite.
I have others I like more. That are more aesthetically up my alley. That suit what I cook better than the Griswold did. I also realized…I don’t want all that other stuff. I don’t want all the brands or all the pieces.
I do get excited for other people finally finding something they’ve been on the hunt for for a long time.
It’s a big club, with a lot going on. It’s easy to get sucked in. Maybe it’s limited room, maybe it’s limited money, maybe its our upcoming move, but I managed to escape the trap of cast iron cookware gleefully taking over my house. I’ve found my niche within the hobby. There don’t seem to be many people here in this niche with me, but it’s a nice place to be.
And as for pre 20th century pieces? I’m confident that I’ve seen far more 19th century foundry marks than I have 20th century, and I absolutely know far more 19th century foundries by name than I do 20th.
There were quite a few, and they weren’t consolidated. With the advent of side gated castings, things started getting much, much faster, with more consistently high quality. It allowed the big name foundries to wind up being…well…the big name foundries.
Maker’s marks absolutely existed, buuuuut there’s a bit of a catch. As foundries expanded and more areas were casting at more local foundries, larger/regional foundries were often contracted to cast the holloware; and, as far as I can make out, foundries would focus on their stoves and more specialty items for them, or items that they’d improved upon—like, say, a patented tea kettle lid to stop you from getting scalded by steam when pouring. That’d be worth doing yourself.
And so many foundries offered holloware that was made almost as a kind of regional “generic,” and honestly often made by prison labor. Some of the holloware foundries would offer to put a brand on pieces for orders of X amount (say, 150 pieces) but either it wasn’t entirely cost effective, the minimum quantity was often more than the likely demand (this stuff does last a while, after all), or maybe offering brand markers wasn’t entirely common.
And so for many pieces, we’re confined to region at best. Some handles are more common in, say, the Albany area. Some pour lips are more common in Pennsylvania. Some more common in St. Louis. You get the point. There are regional characteristics, although this isn’t 100%.
And of these unique characteristics particular to certain areas, we often have foundry marked examples. Not always, and sometimes more than one foundry mark can be found on two otherwise nearly identical pieces. So at some point, you just don’t know. Or you might have to infer likely make or region based on comparisons with catalog images or marked pieces combined with features clustered in a given region.
But it can be and often is much more accurate than the common “oh it’s bottom gated so it’s probably pre 1890 but you’re never going to know more than that,” or the much touted “Civil War Era.” That’s a good one.
Patent searches can help! For instance, the double lipped skillet was patented on August 6, 1867.
That means that no skillet with two pour lips is older than 1867. They can’t be, unless you mysteriously found Andrew B. Fales’ prototype with impeccable provenance. I don’t care how old you think it is. I don’t care if someone’s family’s oral history says that a particular skillet was buried in their yard to hide it from Sherman during the March to the Sea in the American Civil War (I’m not making that one up). If it has two pour lips, the oldest it could possibly be is 1867.
And it’s upsettingly common that pieces are just listed at “Civil War Era,” when everyone reading this knows it’s an impossibility. Here’s one particularly awful ebay auction going on at the time of this writing:
So we know that much. But what about single pour? Well, those were invented earlier (no pour spouts being earlier still), buuuuut they were made concurrently with the double pour for at least 20 years after the patent was filed. You can see them in the trade catalogs.
But never mind all that. Enough of what we can learn about the history of cast iron cookware from cast iron cookware. What about what we can learn about the world of a century+ ago from cast iron cookware? And for that, I’ve turned my sights to my home city—Providence, Rhode Island.
In Rhode Island’s Industrial Revolution, we learned about the rich industrial history of Rhode Island. We also learned about the various foundries and their contributions to said industrial history, and even to the American Civil War effort—making things like tools and even steam engines for naval ships. But beyond that, and relevant here, there were also numerous cookware manufacturers. Of them, I’m going to talk about two: Spicers & Peckham, and Barstow Stove Co.
Founded in 1850 by George Thurston Spicer, Spicers & Peckham was a prominent and award winning stove manufacturer in Providence, Rhode Island. I haven’t ever seen anything they made other than pictures of stoves, although this catalog does depict a full fange of cookware. However, what caught my eye was where it says “Foundry, Cove Street.” I’ve been living in Providence since 2003, and while I’m sure there are streets I wasn’t familiar with, Cove Street wasn’t anything I’d heard of.
In my search I learned that a good portion of what we experience as Downtown Providence today used to be underwater. Founded essentially as a harbor, a large cove allowed for shipping goods to and from the area.
By the middle of the 19th century, part of it had begun to be filled in, with rail tracks now making there way through the city. Being founded in 1850, George Spicer must have been pretty excited to have his foundry directly on the Cove and new railway:
And in a map from 1889, you can see Spicers & Peckham nestled right into the bend of Aborn Street, and abutting Cove Street:
In 1900, the name had been shortened to Spicer Stove Co., perhaps as a result of its acquisition by Barstow Stove Co. Its size had also been considerable reduced. Here you can also see the extent of the rail line, and what had been Cove Street now seems to be West Exchange.:
And Now, in 1920, it’s completely gone:
As a last bit showing the full transformation of the city, here is a Google satellite image from the date of this writing, I’ve circled what’s left of the cove basin, now part of Waterplace Park. You can see Sabin and Fountain streets, which were visible on the old maps. West Exchange is still there, too, but obscured by Interstate 95. Along with the highway and rebuilding of Providence went the buildings that housed the Spicers & Peckham Foundry:
Barstow Stove Co. was founded by Amos Chaffee Barstow in 1836, just a bit earlier than Spicers & Peckham. Also renowned for their ornately casted stoves, they’d win a “Best Stove Award” at the 1873 World’s Fair.
In 1849, the company expanded to 120 Point Street in Providence, to a building that actually still stands today.
As far as I can tell, quite a bit more Barstow cookware has been found marked. While no skillets (called spiders at the time) or griddles have been found marked (to my knowledge as well as the knowledge of people far more knowledgeable than I), they were indeed produced, as evidenced by the same catalog:
I have become particularly fascinated with Barstow, as enough is known to be able to find information on them, but there is clearly more to know. In my personal collection I have one piece of Barstow cookware:
I’ve also started collecting their paper ephemera. Here is one envelope that sent some kind of correspondence from their Providence office to Oxford, Mass., on what looks to me to be October 27, 1860:
At some point they expanded to Boston and New York, and I’ve gotten ahold of billheads (sales bills) from each location. They haven’t arrived yet but once they do I’ll add them to this post.
As already mentioned, Barstow Stove Co. acquired Spicers & Peckham in 1900. This made them the only stove and holloware foundry in Providence, and the largest foundry in all of New England. With the industrial powerhouse that Rhode Island became by the end of the 19th century, it’s maybe no surprise.
However, with early industrialization came early Great Depression for Rhode Island, and by 1930, Barstow Stove Co. was no longer in business despite having moved from coal and wood fired stoves to gas by the 1920s. I don’t know what happened to the property from 1930 on, until 1974 when TOPS Electric moved in. And, as you saw earlier in this post, they’re still going strong today.