Many pieces of cast iron cookware have been handed down through the generations, and still produce fried chicken or pork chops as succulent and golden brown as when your great-grandma first used them. But how can you tell if your cast iron skillet is an antique or one of many modern reproductions? Your skillet itself holds the clues to its age and value, and unlocking those clues only takes a discerning eye and some knowledge.
How to Identify an Antique Cast Iron Skillets
Identify the manufacturer by examining the bottom of the skillet. Most companies imprint their name, logos and/or city of manufacture on the bottom. Griswold and Wagner are the premier names in cast iron cookware, and their pieces are the most sought after by collectors. Other popular companies include Favorite, Columbus, Dixie, Excelsior, Piqua and Sidney.
Identify the city of manufacture, logo and writing style and compare to your identification guide. The city of manufacture can provide further clues to your skillet's age. For example, Griswold used "Erie," without the company's name, from 1865 to 1909. Company logos and style of writing also changed over time and can narrow the date of manufacture.
Look for any seemingly extraneous letters, numbers and symbols and compare to your identification guide. These are called pattern-maker marks and identify the pattern or maker. You also may find a size marking (a number on the bottom or the handle) that can help pinpoint your skillet's age. For example, Griswold began making skillets in sizes 5 through 12 in 1905.
Examine the skillet's surface. A shiny surface may indicate that the skillet is nickel-plated, a process that came into use around 1890. In the 1920s the outside of many cast iron skillets were covered with porcelain. Skillets with two-toned porcelain overlays on both the inside and outside were new in the 1930s.
Examine the handle. A scooped handle includes a smooth recess for gripping around the handle's hole and is typical of early skillets. Later pieces use a rib handle, which does not have a beveled recess. Wood handles also were used from approximately 1885 until the turn of the century, but frequently dried out, cracked or burned with use.
Look for a heat ring on the bottom of the skillet. This slightly raised ring allows heat to circulate evenly. A ring on the outer edge of the skillet bottom indicates it was made before 1905, whereas a heat ring closer to the skillet's center, called an inset heat ring, was made after 1905.
Examine the lid, if any. If your skillet has a matching lid, it may also help pinpoint the skillet's age. Lids were not made specifically for cast iron skillets until approximately 1915, and they had a smooth interior surface. In 1920, Griswold patented a lid with concentric drip rings on the interior surface.