Calling All Cast Iron Kooks

I’ve been steadily involved in the cast iron community for several years now. I’ve focused primarily on the 19th century cookware, and within that primarily griddles, with skillets being a fairly close second. That culminated in the publication of the project I cooked up more or less immediately after becoming enthralled with cast iron–The Cast Iron Field Guide. Full disclosure, that link brings you to the Amazon listing, which is more expensive than getting it from me while simultaneously paying me considerably less than when I sell them personally. So if you want it, get it from either place but I’d suggest getting it from me so you can save some money.

Since publication, and really it started during writing the Field Guide, I’ve spun off my interest in specifically the Barstow Stove Company into another book, which will be out by the end of June. But in building my network of good people within the hobby, and in handling a good bit of and looking at a whole lot more pictures of early iron, I’ve started to notice some odd markings on some of them.

Some pans have some markings, while others that are otherwise identical do not. There are a lot of markings on pans, and most of them are letters or numbers and those aren’t specifically what I mean. I mean odd markings like dots or crosses or other marks that while unclear in meaning or intention, or at least nonspecific in context, are clearly intentional.

One pan I got fairly early in my deep dive into 19th century iron is one considered to be from the Albany/Troy area of New York. This is supported by marks from early foundries being found on them (foundries going back to the 1840s), and them showing up in catalogs from the area as well as patent literature filed by firms from the area.

Here’s the pan in question:

This pan is pretty plain and a lot of people don’t like it because they don’t care for the feel of the handle in their hand. Personally I love everything about them. But many people have their gripes and those gripes aren’t unfounded. I’m also not convinced people are aware of the design or its history and origins.

One of the particular idiosyncrasies of this pan, aside from the obvious like the very slight pour lip, smooth bottom, less-than-common handle, and relatively shallow walls, are three small inset dots along the length of the top of the handle. At the time of getting this piece I hadn’t ever seen that before. I honestly hadn’t seen much at all at that point, and had seen even less of this specific style, but I put word out among my network within the hobby. While it wasn’t typical, it wasn’t unique.

Before we get into the reason I want to talk about those dots and why these unusual markings intrigue me, let me show you why you don’t have to take my word for the regionality of this design of pan. Because as always, I am much less concerned with you telling people I gave you information than I am with you having the source of my information in the first place.

Here’s another example, marked by Corning & Goewey, a firm from the mid 1850s-early 1860s that was located in Albany, New York:

For good measure, here’s an advertisement from an 1860 Albany City Directory that pretty clearly shows this pan. The pour lip is accentuated, probably so you can tell there is one. But it is a fantastic example of the overall accuracy of early catalog and advertising imagery and of how we place forms through space and time:

As a third and final example of this handle being used by different firms in the same area, here it is marked with “Spoors Pat.”:

I like this one in particular because….what in the world are we even looking at here? Is it an ash pan? Is it a really ineffective dust pan? Can it be a skillet? Well, turns out it can be and is a skillet, albeit a very unique and seldom seen one. It can be seen in this image, if you look closely:

Maybe it isn’t obvious but if you look on the right side of the stove you can make out a squared skillet nestled inside the opening there. So this was a unique pan designed to fit a parlor stove uniquely designed to have a cooking application. The rounded side of the pan would have roughly mated with the rounded internal structure of the stove and allowed it to nestle quite nicely.

The patent for this design was made filed by S. Spoor & Co. of Troy, New York on January 19, 1869. The patent was built upon by Dennis G. Littlefield of Albany, and Grove H. Johnson of Erie, Pennsylvania in a patent newly-filed on April 5, 1870 (view the patent here). Littlefield and Johnson’s patent refers to Spoor’s by name and date, also referencing the use of hollowware (including spiders) right in the patent text.

Finally, the above shown catalog image is from the 1871 Foxell & Jones (also Troy, New York) catalog and price list. That’s several different manufacturers making this handle in New York throughout a good stretch of the 19th century, with just a teensy hint that it may have poked its way into Pennsylvania.

This handle occupies a pretty nice place in cast iron history. In addition to being the handle on some of the earliest marked American cast iron hollowware, it’s often found with an August 1867 patent mark on it. That particular patent has made the rounds in countless forums and is also posted on one website that’s so rife with nonsense its usually banned from being shared in groups in an attempt to quash the incessant barrage of garbage myths, lies, and suppositions that float through this hobby.

The date refers to Andrew B. Fales’ patent of the two pour skillet. The text of the patent includes the line, “Heretofore spiders [skillets] have been made with only one lip…,” which means with that patent we’re sort of bound by logic to consider each and every double pour skillet to have been made no early than August of 1867. A hard pill to swallow for those “CiViL wAr ErA!!!!!!” claims and those who perpetuate them for any skillet with a little bit of surface rust on it. But until a single advertisement, piece of trade literature, or even dated sketch is uncovered of a double pour skillet existing prior–and people are looking constantly for trade literature of any kind in the time period from about 1820-1900–we cannot make claims to the contrary and keep our integrity intact.

Unless of course we have and are willing to immediately share the sources to back it up. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you they won’t tell you how they know. They’re either making it up or not interested in improving the hobby and more concerned with their name than with the history they claim to care about.

In comparing the patent dated pan to the unmarked one, it’s immediately clear they’re effectively the same pan–same handle, same size, same walls, same bottom. They’re the same design, with the exception of the two pour lips on one, and the three dots on the other. These two pans together is a pretty neat comparison since they’re the same size. Sometimes there are consistencies between pans of the same size that don’t really scale up or down to the other size. These were handmade patterns, so they had a lot of personality and style. Plus it was just real neat because the size 8 is very rare for the patent marked handle.

Here are the two handles alongside each other to compare:

So anyway, it became a bit of a peculiarity that some of the unmarked pans have three dots, but not all. And apparently none of the patent marked pans have three dots. BUT. And there’s almost always a but because we never have a complete picture when looking into the past. But!

About a year ago I sold the patent marked pan pictured above (for less than I paid, but that’s typically the case when I wind up selling something because I don’t like the constantly rising prices in the hobby). I have mixed feelings about having done so for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that now that the Field Guide is done and my collection can take more of a limited focus, that focus has turned to New England (where I live) and New York (where I was born), while dramatically scaling back my collection as it pertains to other areas. In the last year and a half to two years, the patent marked pans have started fetching a real high price…or at least people want them to fetch one. Which means that I wasn’t expecting to come across another for a price I actually wanted to pay.

But then, wonderfully, another patent marked 8 came across my radar. I talked to the owner and we worked out a fair price. Much to my excitement, this patent marked 8 has the three dots! They’re faint, which is interesting since the patent mark is incredibly crisp. Was this a modification of an earlier pattern to include the two pour lips and the patent date? Or did the very small circular marks simply not fill in completely? Or is it something we really can’t anticipate having happened now that it’s 150 or so years after the fact?

It doesn’t matter. Here’s it is for comparison:

I actually think the dots are easier to see in the image of the full pan. But you can tell they’re there, it’s just that this pan is unfortunately had a bit of a rough life. With the crispness of the patent, it must have been clear as day 5 generations ago.

And so, with all this out of the way, allow me to finally get to the point. There are aspects of iron that are intentional but, to us, decades or centuries later, mysterious. Our beloved hobby is rife with mythology, speculation, and outright lies to the point that it can become quite difficult to sort out fact from fiction and honestly there are some within the hobby who make quite a reputation by either inflating their base of knowledge or sources OR by simply inventing things and remaining confident, playing devil’s advocate and trusting that their claims can never be disproven and so will always maintain a shred of possibility.

In the spirit of NOT doing that, and in the spirit of community and building a foundation of solid information sourcing, compiling, and exchange, that I’m asking all of you to share your pans with unique markings! Post them in comments here, email them to me at, join the Cast Iron Historical Society and share them there. I don’t care. Just…let’s build a database of these idiosyncratic aspects that seem to make no sense to us.

Share pictures of the full pan, top and bottom. In focus and in its entirety. And then share a picture pointing out the mark, as well as a closeup of it. Share what you know of the pan, including where you got it.

Here’s a series for reference:

This pan is Danny Hoffman’s The Favorite #8. This pan is an amazing example of their iron and it includes a tiny cross mark on the underside of the handle. He’s also got a second 9 that’s kind of a mess, with blurred details and a wide amount of variance in wall thickness around the entirety of the pan. It isn’t at all up to the standard of quality set by The Favorite, which was established in opposition to prison labor and tried to set itself apart from the poor quality of prison goods by making exceptional iron–a fact uncovered by Danny himself while digging nonstop on this foundry for over two years.

This second example is not exceptional quality, and it’s also marked a size 9, but it also about the same size as Danny’s 8. The cross mark, the size mark, the foundry mark, and the details of the handle and heat ring of the pan are all muddied in comparison. All this is enough to make it clear to Danny that this is probably a recast using a The Favorite pan, rather than an original. He’s got some other speculation about why it looks the way it does, but suffice it to say that all primary documentation on Columbus Hollow Ware from the years during which they produced The Favorite suggest that there’s NO WAY this thing would have left the foundry looking the mess it looks.

That cross mark is another mystery I’d like to try and track. And there are a million different marks that pop up and are just…odd.

And I’ll start building a spreadsheet of them. What it is, what size, where it was found, what funky markings it has and where. And maybe one of these pans that can be correlated with a region will have a mark that will pop up on a pan from a different region and time period. And then we can dig into pattern or mold makers employed by foundries in the respective areas and time periods and who knows. Maybe we’ll hit the lottery and find out that the same pattern maker probably made both patterns.

That way we can work together to solve some of the real mysteries in this hobby. The trick with research like this is to approach it scientifically. We amass way more data than we think we could possibly need, because future questions may be answered by an excess of thoroughness in the past.

10-20 years from now we may have a massive amount of data and providing it to the right person at the right time can change a lot.

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