The makers of today’s vintage cast iron were meticulously detailed craftsmen. They made glassy smooth interiors, handles molded to seamlessly fit into a gripped hand, and walls and pour spouts whose curvature was perfected down to minute angles. Each brand had a well-conceived signature design, but for many brands of yesteryear, where consistency ended and mystery unfolded was with markings.
A skillet’s markings could range from the company’s name to a set of cryptic letters and numbers to mysterious notches to nothing at all, and much of the inconsistency was a result of marketing. For example, a Wagner skillet made to sell in a specific store would forgo the Wagner label and rely on its signature characteristics for brand identification. Oftentimes, the letters and numbers you’ll find on the bottom of a vintage pan denote a pattern number or correspond to a particular cooking surface on a stove the pan might’ve been sold with, and unusual notches could be a maker’s mark incorporated into the piece to identify the actual person who crafted it.
When you find a cast-iron pan whose provenance is unclear, there are certain characteristics that will clue you in to its maker and age. “Typically, I will look at the handle first,” says Robert Kellermann, who is a descendant of Joseph Lodge, founder of Lodge Cast Iron, and the company’s primary source for identifying vintage or otherwise unmarked cast iron.
“I’ll look at the shape of the handle’s hole, if there is one, the contours of the top and bottom, and if there are any raised or incised numbers or general markings,” Robert says. “If there are markings discernible, the typeface used could be a dead giveaway or at least point you in the right direction.” He also advises those looking to identify vintage cast iron to take a close look at the helper handle or tab design (if the pan has them), at the position and design of the heat ring on the bottom, and at the pour spouts to determine the maker.
If your vintage pan does happen to have a brand label, comparing its logo design and font to other pans of the same brand can help give you an idea of when it was made. For instance, Lodge’s iconic egg logo was created in 1973, so you can guarantee any pan that simply has the name “Lodge” carved into the back is at least more than 45 years old. Robert says a quick way to determine if the pan is early or pre-20th century is to look for a gate mark on the bottom side. “A gate mark looks like a slash and was a by-product of older iron casting methods,” he explains.
Here at Southern Cast Iron, readers routinely ask us for advice on how to identify their vintage and unmarked cast iron, and while it’s impossible to provide a definitive guide on identifying every maker, there are plenty of tools to help you uncover the mystery behind your pan. From scouring the Internet to hitting the books, these are the resources that have given us the most success.
STOCK YOUR BOOKSHELF
Having a collection of books to reference at the ready is an invaluable tool in identifying cast iron. If you’re an avid cast iron enthusiast, odds are you’re familiar with Schiffer Publishing’s collection of resourceful cast iron guides. Collectors call them by their color.
The Book of Griswold & Wagner, also known as “the blue book,” contains valuable information and more than 1,000 photographs that can assist in identifying and dating many obscure cast-iron pieces. This expansive guide covers everything from skillets and Dutch ovens to coffee grinders and teapots produced by Griswold and Wagner, as well as brands like Wapak and Favorite. It is the companion and precursor to
The Book of Wagner & Griswold, which is referred to as “the red book.” In addition to Wagner and Griswold, this volume dives into the history of pieces produced by Lodge, Vollrath, Excelsior, and Martin.
“The gray book” or Early American Cast Iron Holloware by Pennsylvania collector John Tyler documents some of the oldest cast iron you’ll find anywhere, with some pieces dating back as far as the mid-1600s.
There’s also Alabama collector Jon B. Haussler’s Griswold Muffin Pans, or “the yellow book,” which covers Griswold’s vast production of gem pans. This book is a must for any serious collector; however, today, the prices you’ll find in it and the other Schiffer books are out-of-date. It’s best to search eBay and other online seller sites to determine the current going rates for these pieces.
For beginners just diving into cast iron hunting and collecting, Ken Margraff, who owns Cast Iron Savannah, a cast iron restoration business in Savannah, Georgia, suggests A Cast Iron Journey by James P. Anderson. The author’s love of cast iron developed when he found and restored the old cast-iron pot his father had taken on camping and hunting trips when James was a boy. James wrote the book to help and encourage others who are just stepping foot into the world of cast iron find quality and worthwhile pieces. The small green book covers buying, cleaning, and seasoning cast iron, but it also holds a great deal of information and photographs for identifying pans from multiple makers.
TURN TO FACEBOOK
In today’s modern world, one of the greatest sources for identifying cast-iron cookware is social media. On Facebook, there are dozens of groups comprised of tens of thousands of members, ranging from cast iron collectors and experts to home cooks and cast iron newcomers, who are more than willing to share their knowledge. Most groups encourage members to post photos of unmarked pans on the group’s page under which fellow members will flood the comments section offering advice.
Cindy Baer of Missouri is an administrator of Cast Iron Enthusiasts, one of the most well-respected cast iron groups on Facebook. It was started by expert restorer, collector, and identifier Chris Baker in 2015. He’d seen the amount of misinformation floating around on the Internet, and he founded Cast Iron Enthusiasts to create a space for open and accurate discussion to help people who were interested in finding out more about their beloved cast-iron pieces. “We have many members who are collectors and experts at identifying and safely restoring cast iron, and they are always willing to share their knowledge,” says Cindy.
Cast Iron Cookware Identification is a group solely devoted to determining a pan’s maker and era. Dozens of people post daily, so even if you don’t need help identifying your pan now, you’re likely to learn something new about what to look for at tag sales, thrift shops, and antiques stores.
For a dive deep into the details of specific brands, check out the Griswold, Lodge, and Wagner Cast Iron group, and with more than 45,000 members, Cast Iron Community is another group that is moderated by the makers of well-known cast iron conditioner BuzzyWaxx, one of which is Ned Adams who runs the Dutch Oven Daddy blog. This page is dedicated to the general love and use of cast iron, but members often post photos requesting help with identification.
SEARCH THE WEB
Sometimes, the best way to find information on your mystery pan is by simply scouring the Internet. Proceed with caution, though, as you’re likely to find some false information out there. However, there are plenty of helpful photos and videos that can lead you in the right direction to identifying your cast iron. The Cast Iron Collector is one website we’ve found that has excellent detailed information on identifying brands such as Birmingham Stove & Range, Vollrath, Lodge, Griswold, and Wagner. They also host an active discussion forum on their site where participants can ask questions, attach photos, and comment back and forth on topics of interest. A browse of YouTube for videos that can help uncover the history of your pan is also worthwhile. To learn about the pricing of a special piece you own, eBay tends to be a helpful tool.
If you’ve been working to identify a cast-iron pan, these resources are an excellent place to start. But keep in mind, these are just a few of our favorite resources in a world of many. As you begin or continue your hunt for vintage cast iron, we hope these tools will help shine a light on the stories of your mysterious, age-old finds. For some vintage and unmarked pieces, there’s a chance no one will ever discover their fascinating histories, but that’s part of the allure of cast iron. Their pasts may be buried in time, but the pans continue to find new lives at the hands of generation after generation of new cooks.