At this point I would like to think things are winding down with the cast iron frenzy. The things I’m interested in researching and collecting are more specific and by extension a little bit trickier. I don’t think the passion for the hobby is going anywhere, but I think it’s safe to say that from here on out, things will be getting fewer and farther between.
Part of what started me on this weird tangent was getting ahold of a Wagner 1891 Original long griddle from the early 1990s. I fell in love with it because I already had a thing for griddles before finding my way to cast iron. Cooking problematically large breakfasts is one of my favorite past times, so long griddles suit me well.
Once firmly established as a cast iron fiend I got ahold of the number 8 round griddle/half skillet that you all met in the very first Crazy for Cast Iron post. That griddle really helped me find my focus within this hobby. For a few reasons.
The first is that the handle is absolutely beautiful. But it’s also (and this is the second reason) horribly, horribly flawed. There’s casting flash (where the iron bled out of the mold) blocking off part of the handle eye, the moulding around the handle eye is partly obscured. And the cooking surface is fairly uneven and has several spots that look like cold pours, which is where the iron had cooled juuuuust too much to be able to fully melt into itself, leaving a bit of a wrinkle, almost like soup skin, only iron.
I just loved looking at it, holding it, cooking on it. It has some stiff competition nowadays but it’s still firmly my favorite piece, if only because of the sentiment I immediately built toward it. And given that I’d already had my share of griddles in the past—from electric to steel to cast iron—it got me curious.
This one was size 8. How many sizes were there? This one was “really” a half skillet. How low were the walls on “real” griddles? How much variation is there in this handle style? How long did it run? How early does it start showing up and at what point do you call something a different handle?
If you know my lifelong passion and borderline obsession with human evolution, you might be seeing some parallels here. I’m talking about taxonomy. How do we classify what we see as distinct from another, similar thing? Where do we draw that line?
Well. It turns out that in the world of cast iron, like the world of biological evolution, it’s not always so clear cut. Why? Well, because nobody cared, basically. Just as biological evolution is blindly driven by success and failure, with outcome being a (hopefully) happy end point, foundry workers just made what sold. Utilitarian first, aesthetic later, then expedited after that.
In researching it, you can see trends appear in catalogs, but you can also see idiosyncrasies between different foundries. And you can also start seeing time periods for certain things; and that, with only a minor leap of faith, lets you start understanding when things were made (and less often, where).
So back to our griddle.
And, more specifically, to its handle.
You can see the moulding around the hole there. It’s a little bit fancy when compared to the handles you’ll see on the Lodge skillets you see at Target, or even the Griswold skillets you’ll see proudly displayed all over the interwebs. Sure it’s kind of ugly where it shouldn’t be, but ignore that.
Pieces with this handle are lumped broadly into a “family” of cast iron cookware that’s referred to as the Fancy Handles. But what I’ve found out is that this handle doesn’t quiiiiiite fit. Sure it’s a handle that is fancy. But that doesn’t make it a Fancy Handle. The Fancy Handles were made fairly early on—after skillets and things started to look less like this:
And more like this:
The two skillets (or spiders, as they were called in their respective time periods) are pretty well different, but they are different stages of evolution of the same piece of cookware. The first is probably early 19th century, but is representative of the general form from let’s say mid 18th century to around 1820 or so, with a bit of overlap in either direction because nothing is ever that definite. The second is firmly mid 19th century, probably sometime in the 1860s, potentially nudging back into the 1850s.
But I’d bet if you saw the first one in somebody’s house, you’d question what it was doing there. If you saw the second, you’d probably just think it was the skillet they had. It’s sufficiently modern to be recognizable.
Anyway, it was in this time period that the fancy handles really emerged. Early 19th century was a kind of trial and error period with some pretty goofy but altogether fantastic cookware as things went from early forms, to a weird radiation of funky stuff as foundries worked out what made the most sense for stove top cooking, to truly stunning as craftsmen perfected their crafts and style set one maker apart from the next.
There are oodles of absurdly, genuinely fancy handles. My skillet above is one example, although by the standard of fancy handles, it’s fairly tame.
Let’s take a look at google:
Zoom in, and take all the time you need. And this is just a fraction. And if you look closely, you’ll also see some more examples of my handle. But my handle is by no means the fanciest there. And despite what that Worthpoint image in the bottom row claims, that skillet is not “EARLY 1800’s,” in fact, if you read Crazy for Cast Iron Part 3: There’s No Place Like Home, you already know that it can’t possibly be earlier than 1867. But, it DOES have the handle in question.
And this is where the fun begins.
I mentioned in Part 3 that while the double lipped skillet can’t possibly be older than 1867 without the help of a time machine, the single lipped skillet kept on keepin’ on until well after the introduction of the double, and was made concurrently until at least the end of the 19th century (and I’ve seen some that are only about 12 years old, but that really doesn’t count).
John Tyler’s Grey Book refers to the period between 1860-1880 as “the apogee of casting perfection,” and describes it as a time of ornate moulding around the holes in handles. (I am not an amazon affiliate but if you DO buy this book, please don’t buy that $1,060 one, I’m not sure what makes it so special but unless it comes with all the cookware pictured it isn’t worth it). He also pictures a skillet with a handle much like mine as an example.
He described it as light and smooth. It looked like the same family as my griddle, but with a much better attempt at casting. I went and hunted down a similar skillet.
Much more cleanly casted and smoother than my griddle, but still not without flaws, I thought it was incredible. Feeling the range of 1860-1880 was the lifespan of this guy (as opposed to the general time frame attributed to fancy handles as a whole), I started on my hunt for more. I quickly found out that wasn’t quite the date range.
Fancy handles as a whole are generally attributed to that time frame. This handle (with several slight variations) overlapped it, but starts and ends later. It’s seen in catalogs from the mid 1870s, to the late 1920s.
A page from the 1878 Resor Stoves and Hollow Ware in Cincinnati, Ohio catalog. The handles in question can be seen on the griddle and skillet, and it looks like maybe the waffle iron as well. The full catalog can be read here.
It’s also found on cookware of widely varying quality—which I’ve described as from “WOW” to “…wow…”. They’re not quite as fancy as a whole as the others, and the others are found solely on cookware of fantastic quality.
As a result, despite this being a handle that is fancy, many collectors and cast iron historians/researchers don’t classify it as a Fancy Handle™️. I’ve personally taken to calling them “handles of moderate fanciness.” Regardless of their accolades or apparent lack thereof, they’re still my favorite.
Now, I have to mention at this point that…this isn’t the only handle that looks like this. There are many different handle designs, and many different aspects of handle designs to consider when trying to identify a piece by age, maker, or region. That moulding around the handle is mostly what I’m in love with. But that moulding stretches back further in time than does the handle on my griddles.
The handles in the center belong to my first griddle, another like it, and a skillet. The skillet in the center is a very clean casting, and the two next to it are a bit messier. One has a Roman Numeral X instead of the number 10. On the far right is another “variety” that is an overall similar handle but the moulding is inverted. I think this one is very close to 1900.
Then the one on the left looks superficially similar, but is quite different. The casting is much thinner, more delicate. And rather than a ridge along the sides of the handle, it’s more like the handle itself is almost recessed. This is called a “hollowed,” or “welled” handle, and is a generally older feature.
And in fact, it’s a considerably older piece:
This is a skillet (again, more accurately, a “fry pan” or “spider”) it has no pour lips and a rim around the top for a lid. The bottom has teeny nub feet to allow it to sit flat despite having a bottom gate mark and rounded bottom.
This is an older design. We already know that by mid 19th century things were starting to looks more recognizable. By the 1840s, handles started having holes to hang them, but the intricacy of this particular handle makes me think 1850s. But really, it’s about representation of forms, not hard dates.
Anyway, this particular skillet has had a fairly rough life, but despite the pitting, you can clearly see it was very well crafted. It’s thin and light. It heats and cools quickly. The thin, welled and moulded handle helps to keep it from overheating. It’s a stunning piece of workmanship that’s apparent even through 150+ years of hard use and potential neglect. This is from a different time period and made with a different level of care than the handles in the center of that picture.
Back to those; what’s the deal? What would account for such a widespread use of a strikingly handsome handle over space and time, with widely varying quality, and rarely found with a foundry mark?
Within the cast iron world, it’s often discussed and assumed that many stove makers contracted out their hollow ware, focusing instead on their stoves and high end/specialty pieces. For orders over a certain quantity, the reselling foundry’s name or logo could be added to the mold, but for the most part these were sold unmarked.
This on its face seems reasonable. Foundries focusing on somewhat “generic” hollow ware could focus on quantity and not be beholden to the high standards of stoves and more highly finished/specialty hollow ware. I plopped that notion in my head, still and always wanting to learn more.
Then in my incessant searches on Google and in forums, and my non stop prowling of catalogs, and querying those who know more than I do, I started seeing a suggestion come up that piqued my interest:
Pieces with these handles may be prison-made.
It was a fascinating thought! I knew some pieces were claimed to be the product of prison labor, but they always seemed to be debunked. Without ever seeing substance behind the argument I just logged it in my brain and kept looking at these skillets and griddles and hoping to find more to flesh out the history.
Numbed from staring at endless pictures and eBay listings and endless mythological drivel about the age of bottom gate marks (some say pre 1900, some say pre 1890, some say pre 1880, almost all say “no way of knowing the maker,” but more on this later), I headed over to the Iron Works Facebook group to search through posts, discussions, and file archives to read what they had available on prison labor in the iron industry.
There is quite a bit of discussion in various threads there. Ranging from people who collect prison-made iron, to describing the existence of prison iron as a “stranglehold” on the industry. I also found a tentative timeline of around 1860 and for close to 50 years. Enough to whet the appetite. As far as primary sources, there were mostly screen shots from Google books, and one full document entitled, The Prison Labor Problem: 1875-1900 (which I subsequently downloaded from Google).
Published in the Summer, 1934 edition of the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, it is far more broad than just cast iron. It goes over the impacts of prison labor throughout the 19th century, primarily discussing attempts at reforming prison labor made after the Panic of 1873 (referred to as the Depression of 1873).
Prison labor had been pretty thoroughly gutted from the collapse of industry during the Panic, and going forward the continuous strengthening of trade unions eventually led in 1877 to a ban on contracting any federal prisoners for industrial production. This was circumvented by instituting a plan in which pay would be by the piece, rather than through a contract.
In addition to other things, this shifted the labor structure such that the Warden would be in charge of not only securing contracts (for PIECES, not labor), while also minimizing just how much of an impact prison labor was having on free workers.
An 1883 article in The New York Times explains that the cost of contracted prison labor was so cheap that many foundries had pretty much stopped making their own hollow ware. While a free foundry man would make about $22 per week, ($7.33/day), the same labor done by a prison foundry worker would cost 60 cents per day. There was no way to compete, and to further add to it, the sheer volume of prison produced goods had a large impact on setting prices.
The foundries were stuck. And prison ware became more and more common, crowding out the higher quality but higher priced hollow ware of the free foundries. From what I’ve seen, it felt almost monopolistic at the time. And if you checked out the NYT article above, you see it wasn’t restricted to iron.
There is reams of information out there on just how pervasive this problem was.
The 1879 Report of Special Committee on Labor states that with the exception of stoves, almost all iron production is made by prison labor at such a low cost that the only hope of free production competing would be the prospect of child laborers producing for $5 per week the same amount as grown men working prison foundries (pages 17-18).
It also goes on to describe the harsh conditions enacted by the foremen:
It is repeatedly, from multiple sources, and in multiple documents referred to as a monopoly, degrading the integrity of the trade, and of far inferior quality than goods produced by free laborers.
The following excerpt from page 284 of the 1888 Report of the Iowa State Board of Health gives multiple accounts of how pervasive this problem was:
In essence, this was mass production by exploitation of human labor. More or less this was indentured servitude in the wake of chattel slavery being outlawed. I’m sure it wasn’t directly caused by it, but there is absolutely a correlation with the end of slavery of increased reliance on prison labor in various industries.
And it persisted well into the 1920s. The latest publications I’m coming across are discussions of the impacts of prison labor on industry, published in 1925. This particular document (primarily covering cotton goods) has a good amount from foundry workers about the impacts of prison made goods on the foundry industry. This late in time, it includes the introduction of aluminum cookware as cheaper and lighter, therefore being an additional competitor even when prison-made hollow ware may not have been a factor (discussion starts on page 149).
Interestingly, the latest depictions of this handle are from almost 1930:
If you notice at the top, it says this is from the 1928-29 catalog. It’s handwritten, so how can we possibly know it’s correct? Well, see that cast iron wheat stick pan on the right side? The patent for that was granted in 1927, so if that date is wrong, it’s still close enough for what we are trying to do.
Take a look over at the left side. The griddles, and the “skillets or spiders” are both depicted with this handle. But they don’t pop up in later catalogs. It’s also relevant to note that they are never found without a bottom gate. Bottom gating was falling out of fashion by the 1880s and by the 1890s, the foundries that would go on to become the highly collectible 20th Century brands were firing up and using the newer side gating technique.
As an aside, Stratton & Terstegge was a manufacturer of stoves and hollow ware who contracted out their work and also were a wholesale reseller of hardware and cookware from other manufacturers, which is why you see Griswold and our handle in the same catalog.
There is an argument to be made that these are stock images and not necessarily representative of the cookware being sold. BUT, as there’s never been any solid evidence to support it, and throughout the 19th century, catalogs were fabulously accurate (see the above Resor page and catalog for a beautiful example), we’re kinda forced by logic to assume not much had changed. I wiiill be digging into that a bit more in the future though. I can’t leave well enough alone when it comes to research.
Best as I can tell, this handle runs from right around 1870, through to the late 1920s. With several slight variations, they appear all over the place with widely ranging casting and finish qualities. They’re also only found with bottom gate marks, which by the end of their run was an obsolete (though persistent!) casting technique. They are almost always unmarked, found listed in wholesale catalogs, and the start of their reign coincides with the tapering off of many foundries making their own hollow ware due to low cost prison labor contracting.
They continued on until the late 1920s, when the influence of prison labor was waning in the iron industry. Just in time to be replaced with the popular, truly mass produced, high quality brands that so many collectors seek out today.
I can’t “prove” the case for these handles. Not yet. But their life span coincides nearly perfectly with the monopolization of hollow ware production by prison contracting. Come the 20th Century, side gating was allowing faster and cleaner production of freely produced hollow ware, which was now produced in quantities that could potentially compete for price.
The strangled foundries of the late 19th century that stopped hollow ware production in the face of a tsunami of prison made products were already too far gone to weather high quality mass produced cast iron AND modern, light weight cookware.
It is a very strong circumstantial case. No other cookware fits the bill of time frame, ubiquity, anonymity, and bizarre range of quality. More digging in digitized records or (once the end of the world ends) physical archives can potentially flesh it out more.
But until (and regardless of whether) it’s proved or disproved it’s still an excellent look into the changing face of labor in the United States at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th.
Really it almost doesn’t matter if it’s even possible to know for sure. Curiosity about the handle of a cast iron griddle led to thousands and thousands of pages of information and primary source documents that let us know what was going on at the time these were made. It’s hard to ask for more out of research like this.