Great-Grandma’s big, heavy cast iron skillet sits at the back of your cupboard, taking up room. Too bulky to use as a weight for your arm curls, but heavy enough to perform well as a doorstop, at one time, the cast iron skillet seemed to have outlived its usefulness in the kitchen ‒ until cooking magazines and TV food programs grabbed onto the old and turned it into the new. Suddenly, shiny, colorful, enamel-coated cast iron pots and skillets popped up everywhere. But before you toss the old to buy a newer version, take another look at Great-Grandma’s skillet. It just might be a valuable antique.
The Making of an Antique
It’s not likely that your skillet originated in China’s Jiangsu province during the time between the 5th to 3rd century B.C. Yet, that’s where historians date the beginnings of the use of iron. The Silk Road most likely brought iron to what are now the European countries, but it took many hundreds of years before weapons and armaments were forged from iron and turned into cookware.
How cannons evolved into Dutch ovens is another creative bent in history. Abraham Darby, an Englishman, found a way to cast the iron into thin-sided pots, added a trio of little feet on the bottom, giving birth to a pot that was perfect for cooking over an open fire. The year was 1707, and his patent set off a revolutionary development in the creation and production of cookware.
By the end of the 1800s, American producers had joined in the production of cast iron cookware. American companies held the reins of cast iron production in the United States, and the demand grew as production prices diminished along with consumer costs.
Producing Original Cast Iron Skillets
From the 1800s to the 1900s, all cast iron cookware was handmade from a mold, thus, the term “cast” when defining cast iron. The mold allowed intricate, manufacturer-designed elements to be incorporated into the design, including the producer’s logo. It also resulted in cookware that was lighter weight than the machine-produced cookware of today.
An example of the advantages of handmade molds: Lodge’s vintage cookware weighs approximately 1 pound less than that produced today, and the thickness of the sides is considerably less than today’s production.
Original cast iron always had a smooth surface. If yours has a surface that seems like fine sandpaper, it’s most likely a newer version or not produced in the United States.
Makers of Original Cookware
Griswold is the great-granddaddy of cast iron cookware. Originally a manufacturer of hardware, the company moved into the cookware business in the 1870s. Located in Erie, Pennsylvania, Griswold’s reign as the king of cast iron skillets, pots, pans, grinders and waffle irons extended into the 1950s, when lighter aluminum and Teflon products hit the market. Original Griswold skillets are collectors’ items and bring high prices on the open market.
In 1957, another cast iron cookware manufacturer, Wagner, bought out Griswold and closed the Erie production facility. An original cast iron manufacturer, Wagner had been in the cookware business since 1891 and was located in Sidney, Ohio. Its production quality surpassed that of Griswold and gained international fame.
Along came The Randall Corporation that bought Wagner in 1952, and McGraw Edison purchased Griswold in 1957. Later that year, Randall bought the Griswold line and united the two companies, shutting down the Erie plant. But soon after their full acquisition of Griswold, another company, Textron, bought both Griswold and Wagner, signaling the end of their quality cast iron skillet line.
Wapak is another Ohio-based cast iron producer that flourished in the early 1900s. Its life span was short, and the plant closed in 1926. While the company wasn’t around long, it did leave a treasure trove of collectibles in its wake. Casting flaws and ghost images indicate less-than-perfect manufacturing controls, which most likely led to the demise of the company but also add character to the cookware still in existence.
And that brings us to Lodge, the only continuously owned cast iron cookware manufacturer in America. Founded in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, in 1891, the company is still family owned and still producing cast iron. Advancements in technology and enhancements of cast iron have enabled the company to remain competitive in the field of cast iron cookware.
Identifying Antique Cast Iron Skillets
Look at the bottom of a cast iron skillet. If you see a slash several inches long but no other manufacturing markings, you’ve hit the jackpot. That slash is known as a “gate mark,” and it’s a leftover from the casting process. It also means the skillet was produced prior to 1880.
If you see a ring around the bottom rim of the skillet, you’re also in antique country. Since stoves were originally made of wood, the “heat rings” were incorporated into the cast iron design to lift the pan so it wouldn’t touch the wood stove directly. Since the heat ring denotes use on a wood stove, it also means the piece is an antique!
“Makers marks,” in cast iron history, not bourbon history, are the easiest way to identify antique cast iron. With the name and logo emblazoned on the bottom of the skillet, its origin can be traced and even dated. While makers marks have undergone continual change, each mark fits onto a timeline for dating.
“Ghost marks” are almost invisible trademarks on the bottom of cast iron skillets that indicate a manufacturer other than that of the company claiming to be the producer. Often, a company such as Wapak bought product from other manufacturers and didn’t do a good job erasing the original maker’s name. Or Wapak simply copied another company’s mold and used it for its own production. Curiously, this fault, or trademark infringement, adds to the value of the cast iron.
And, finally, the “Made in America” label. Due to trade requirements instituted in the 1960s, the place of manufacture of each item was required. If your skillet indicates its place of origin, it’s not an antique.
Griswold Identifying Marks
Like many manufacturing companies, their identifying marks changed over time. Original Griswold pieces didn’t even identify the maker; instead, they merely used the place of origin ‒ “Erie” ‒ molded onto the base of the cookware. The Erie mark indicates that the piece was made somewhere between the late 1880 or early 1900s. Other pieces use names other than Griswold.
Logo marks on Griswold products are many, and each indicates its value in today’s antique market. A spider in a web with the word “Erie” inscribed on the spider is a true treasure. It is considered to be one of the most valuable collectors’ items. Made around 1906, the skillet would probably bring a few thousand dollars at auction.
Another collectible from Griswold is the Iron Mountain line. Featuring a heat ring around the bottom and a distinctive handle with an oval cutout, the bottom features a 4-digit identifying number and an italicized pan number.
Other Griswold products’ origins are sketchy, and experts use a roundabout way to identify them. At times, the company produced the “Victor” line between the years 1890 and 1950 and identified Griswold as the manufacturer. Some of the Victor products don’t recognize Griswold as the producer.
Further confusion with the Griswold line are the names “Best Made,” “Good Health,” “Cliff Cornell,” “Andresen,” “Puritan” and “Merit.” The Puritan and Merit pans that have product numbers on the bottom are recognized as being produced by Griswold.
Interpreting Wapak Markings
Looking at the different Wapak logos inscribed on the bottom of their skillets is like reading a code manual for the Central Intelligence Agency! Seven variations of the logo can be traced back to age and, thus rarity. Six of those logos use the name Wapak, while the seventh, Oneta, indicates a lower-priced and lesser-quality product.
Ghost marks from the Griswold and Wagner companies are a common feature of antique Wapak skillets. Casting flaws are another mark of Wapak cast iron, often reducing the price of the collectible but making it more reasonable for the lover of vintage cast iron.
If you see the head of an Indian on your skillet, known in collectors’ circles as the “Indian head,” “Indian medallion” or “Native American,” you are in luck. These logos mark the most valuable of the Wapak skillets and top the rank as highly treasured collectibles.
The Wapak “chicken foot” logo indicates the skillet is the second-most valuable of the line. It extends the letter “P” in the word Wapak at the bottom and splits, like a split hair.
Other Wapak logos include the name written in block letters and forming a slight arch and another in block letters in a straight line. The Wapak “Z” logo indicates manufacture between 1903‒1926, and the “tapered” lettering of the company name indicates production took place between 1912‒1926.
Lodge Cookware Through History
Sold even today in the finer cookware shops, Lodge can be called the only remaining manufacturer of original cast iron cookware. Not all the pieces came with identifying marks, but there are some clues that lead to a name and place.
If you see a heat ring on the bottom of the skillet and no other markings, look for notches in that heat ring. One or more notches tell you that the skillet is vintage Lodge and was probably produced in the 1930s. Three notches with the words “Made in USA” tell you it’s a piece made in the 1960s by Lodge.
An identifying mark that has evolved since Lodge started producing cast iron cookware is its handle. Forged in the shape of a teardrop, the Lodge handle is its most obvious mark but doesn’t indicate age. Look on the handle for a raised number, a small molder’s mark on the bottom at approximately 6 o’clock, or a T-shape that appears on the bottom of the handle near the joint with the skillet. All are indicators that the piece was made by Lodge and is most likely vintage.
Treasure hunters may find a skillet with no marks other than a raised letter on the bottom and on the handle. They are in possession of a skillet made before 1910 by Blacklock, the foundry that formed the base of what is now Lodge in the cast iron business. Still family-owned, Lodge has evolved with the times and technology and remains competitive in the business of cast iron cookware.
- The Cast Iron Collector: Trademarks & Logos
- The Pan Handler: Identifying and Dating Unmarked or Unknown Maker Vintage and Antique Cast Iron Skillets
- Southern Kitchen: The history of American-Made Heirloom Cast Iron Skillets
- Estate Sales.org: Vintage Cast Iron Guide
- Boonie Hicks: Wapak Hollow Ware Co.
- The Kitchen Professor: History of Wagner Cast Iron
- Griswold Cookware: The Wapak Hollow Ware Company
- Lodge Cast Iron: Our Signature Teardrop Handle