Wednesday, April 8, 2015

An Antique That Lasts a Lifetime

QUESTION: I love to cook. And I love to cook in my cast-iron skillet. I’ve had this skillet for nearly 50 years and it never fails me. I bought it at a second-hand store to use for camping, but I liked it so much, I began using to cook with in my kitchen. The name stamped into the bottom is Griswold. I’ve seen others like it at flea markets and would like to know more about it. What can you tell me about the company?

ANSWER: While other antiques may last as long or longer as a cast-iron skillet, few can be used regularly and still retain their value. Your skillet is a real classic. And if you take care of it and use it regularly, it should last another 50 years.

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. The thing weighed 2 1/4 pounds, so the lady of the house probably developed some pretty heft biceps. From then until the early 19th century, cast-iron cookware had great value, so people took care of it and guarded it as a prized possession. 

However, cookware made of it 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. Today, cast-iron cookware comes pre-seasoned.

By the 1840s, open hearth cooking had been replaced by the cast-iron stove which enclosed the fire in iron and shielded the cook from an open flame.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.

Today, the cast-iron skillet dominates most Griswold collections and is nearly always the first piece a new collector buys. Good luck with your skillet and keep cooking.

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