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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

An Antique That Lasts a Lifetime
by Bob Brooke


While other antiques may last as long or longer as a cast-iron skillet, few can be used regularly and still retain their value.

Cast-iron skillets have been around since 1642. The first one made, a small, three-legged covered pot that held one quart came from a foundry in Saugus, Massachusetts. It weighed 2 1/4 pounds, so the lady of the house probably developed some pretty hefty biceps. The cook on the Lewis and Clark Expedition not only cooked with cast-iron pots but brought them along as gifts to the Indians. Back then, cast-iron cookware had great value, so people took care of it and guarded it as a prized possession.

While weight was certainly a disadvantage, weight was also associated with some of cast-iron cookware’s most important advantages. When a heavy cast-iron skillet reached a cooking temperature, its mass retained and spread heat evenly over the entire cooking surface. There were no "hot spots" to cast iron and, when a cook added a metal lid, food could be kept warm for the duration of the meal.

However, cookware made of cast iron was brittle, prone to rust, grainy, unfinished and difficult, if not impossible, to repair if cracked. It was also "reactive." Acidic foods, such as vinegar, tomatoes, and citrus, re-acted with the iron and changed the flavor and color of whatever the cook was preparing. The solution seemed to be to season the it. A non-stick surface wasn’t natural to cast iron. It had to be created by seasoning or curing the piece. A cook would repeatedly coat a pot’s inside surface with animal fat and place the utensil in a 250- to 300-degree oven for two to three hours. After wiping away any excess fat, he or she would lightly rinse it with hot water, using no soap, then thoroughly dry and store it in a dry place. Many people never ever put a used piece under water.

By the 1840s, open hearth cooking had been replaced by the cast-iron stove which enclosed the fire in iron and shielded the cook from an open flame. Cooks placed their pots directly on solid iron plates—not open grates—that formed the top of the stove. In later models, foundries cut deep holes into the top and made the iron plates removable. With this innovation, a pot could be placed into the hole for a snug fit and was as close as possible to the flame. Stove manufacturers found it to their advantage to add a line of cast-iron cookware that perfectly fit the removable iron plates or “eyes” of their stoves.

By the mid-19th-century, foundries that made cast-iron stoves also made cast-iron cookware— also called hollowware. The Selden brothers, John and Samuel, operated a foundry in Erie, Pennsylvania, where they manufactured butt hinges and other household hardware. In 1863, they added cast-iron cookware to their expanding product line. Because of the areas widely known foundries, they marked their earliest skillets, muffin pans, and Dutch ovens with one word, “Erie.”

In 1868, Matthew Griswold joined the Selden brothers. Unlike his partners, Griswold believed in patenting the products developed in the foundry. He patented just about everything. The name "Selden and Griswold" appeared on many cookware items shortly after 1868. At Samuel's death in 1882, Griswold bought out the remaining family members and changed the name of the company to his own. He cleverly kept "Erie” on some of Selden's most popular pieces, but added “Griswold” above it.

The Griswold Manufacturing Company and its predecessors produced superior cookware in an industry dominated by inferior, low-quality goods. In the late 19th century, cast iron was often made by prisoners. The top of the Griswold line was "extra finish ware"—cooking utensils with a polished exterior, a milled interior, and top edges so tight that the connection between the pan and the lid was a waterproof joint that even the thinnest knife couldn’t penetrate.

Women noticed the difference. Unlike the products made by its competitors, pieces made by Griswold were thin and lightweight. After centuries of super heavy pots and pans, Griswold overcame cast iron's weight problem.

Women also noticed the company's distinctive trademark. Griswold featured a cross, a sign of quality, on most of its products. Over the firm’s long history from 1850 to 1957, Griswold Manufacturing Company produced over 180 cast-iron items. Included in the "non-cookware category" were cast-iron ashtrays, burglar alarms, fire. sets, gas heaters, sadirons, mailboxes, pokers, display racks, shovels, spittoons, sun dials and tobacco cutters. They introduced gas stoves in 1891, kerosene heaters in 1895, and parlor stoves in 1900.

After the Griswold skillet, the most popular and desirable items for collectors are the muffin pans. Their variety is astounding with 59 different types of pans for brownies, golf balls, gems, bread and popovers, among others. And they come in over 200 variations for 2, 6, 8, 11, or 12 square, round or oval muffins in black cast iron, aluminum, chrome, or enamel. The rarest, selling for $1,800 to $2,500, are the turk head pan, circa 1925-1930 (#13), the Elie bread pan, circa 1900-1925 (#26) and the wheat and corn stick pan, circa 1925 (#2800).

Although collectors can still find new Griswold items today, through its current owner, General House Wares Corporation of Sidney, Ohio, the story ended in 1957. The company just couldn’t compete. The maker of the world's finest handmade cast-iron cookware found itself up against cheaper, mass-produced, stamped sheet metal wares. Purists put the final Griswold date even earlier. The Griswold family ceased their involvement in the company in 1946 when they sold the business to a group of New York investors. Subsequent to the sale, the quality of casting dropped significantly.

Today, the cast-iron skillet dominates most Griswold collections and is nearly always the first piece a new collector buys.

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