The history of American-made heirloom cast iron skillets
Whether you’ve snagged a brand-new Smithey or dug up an heirloom Griswold at a garage sale, acquiring a cast iron skillet (or three) is a time-honored tradition of American cooks. But while so much of today’s quality cast iron comes from the U.S. of A, this cookware material had a long history before it even reached our shores.
Here’s how it became such an indelible part of the American culinary story.
Early use: China, cannons and kettles
The oldest cast iron artifacts date from early 5th century B.C. China, in the Jiangsu province, and such tools were widely used in the region by the 3rd century B.C. Cast iron slowly made its way to Western Europe, likely via the Silk Road, and wasn’t an important material until the 14th century A.D.
In Europe, it was mainly used for artillery until the 1700s, when it started to be used for bridges and building construction, as well as for cooking pots. Englishman Abraham Darby is credited with revolutionizing cast iron cookware; in 1707, he patented a method for casting iron into relatively thin pots and kettles, a process that made them cheaper to produce. With three feet on the base and a heavy, handled lid, these early pots were used for cooking over live fire and were most akin to the types of Dutch ovens used today for outdoor cooking.
As indoor kitchen stoves became more and more widespread throughout the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, cookware began to evolve as well, and flat-bottomed cast iron skillets became essential pieces of cookware in both Europe and America. Industrialized manufacturing also helped the spread of cast iron cookware, as these skillets and pots became cheaper and cheaper to produce. Towards the end of the 19th century, three iconic American cast iron cookware brands were founded, cementing the pan’s popularity acrosss the country.
Griswold and Wagners: American orginials
Founded in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1865, the Griswold Manufacturing company was, for almost a century, the leading American manufacturer of cast iron cookware. Even today, over 60 years after its sale to competitor Wagner Manufacturing, Griswold skillets are the epitome of quality heirloom cast iron and are considered collectors items. (My mother inherited a Griswold pot from her mother, and I am not-so-secretly coveting it for my own use.)
When the company started, it manufactured separable butt hinges and other light hardware products before moving into cast iron cookware in the 1870s and eventually expanding their line to include skillets, pots, grinding mills and waffle irons. Co-founder Matthew Griswold was involved in politics, and was twice elected to Congress as a Republican. His son, Matthew Junior, helped to develop the city of Erie by building its railway station and post office. Griswold Manufacturing continued to flourish, dipping its toes in aluminum and electric cookware, until the mid-20th century, when more modern products, such as Teflon skillets, began to take over the market. The family sold its stake in the company in 1946 and, in 1957, Wagner fully acquired the company and closed the Erie plant.
While it was founded in Sidney, Ohio in 1891 as a cast iron cookware company, and is best known for its quality cast iron, Wagner Manufacturing quickly moved into more diversified stock. It was one of the first companies to manufacture aluminum cookware and, by the early 20th century, was distributing its wares globally. Its successful manufacturing of this lighter style of cookware is likely how it remained in business far longer than Griswold.
Lodge Manufacturing: A Southern competitor
Lodge Manufacturing was the South’s answer to Griswold and Wagner. Still located South Pittsburg, Tennessee, Lodge is one of the oldest continuously running cookware manufacturers in the country. It was founded in 1896 by Joseph Lodge and is still run by family members today. If you’ve purchased a new, affordable cast iron skillet in the last few decades, it was most likely made by Lodge.
According to the company website, Lodge was able to survive the Depression and, later, the floundering interest in cast iron mid-century, by innovating its product line with items such as garden gnomes and transitioning to an automated molding process for its skillets. In 2002, the company introduced its first pre-seasoned cookware, and in 2005 began producing enameled cast iron products.
The changing (sur)face of cast iron
Lodge’s newer products appealed to the dueling, and at times, counterproductive, American desire for both authentic and easy-to-use products. Pre-seasoned skillets allowed home cooks the ability to get cooking in cast iron without much thought, but they couldn’t replace a long-coveted heirloom. These pans, while still great pieces of cookware, simply function differently than, say, an old, well-loved Griswold.
As was the practice in 19th and early- to mid-20th century cast iron cookware manufacturing, all of Griswold and Wagner’s cast iron skillets were polished smooth after casting; this extra step made it easier for the skillets to acquire a smooth, nonstick surface after seasoning. Today, you can find smooth cast iron from premium producers, such as Smithey, FINEX and Nest Homeware, or, if you really want to put some elbow grease into it, you can turn a pebbly skillet into a smooth one with sandpaper (at least according to Dave Arnold).
But whichever style you choose, cooking with cast iron is an important link to American history.