Identifying and Dating Unmarked or Unknown Maker Vintage and Antique Cast Iron Skillets
by The Pan Handler LLC, (c) 2015.
It is fun to learn the history and origin of old cast iron cookware. Sometimes it’s the thrill of the hunt; one person’s junk might be another person’s treasure! It can be challenging to identify pieces that do not have clear maker’s marks on them. It can also be a huge learning curve.
Here are tips to help you with your research as you venture into the world of vintage cast iron skillet identification. This is an overview; there are many ins and outs and exceptions, of course.
GENERAL TIPS FOR IDENTIFICATION
Does the skillet have any markings on it at all?
The Internet has opened up a myriad of ways to identify cast iron. It is a relatively easy process to do a Google “images” search on the web for the words or markings on a piece to see if you can find a match. Be as descriptive as you can when doing your search.
For example, if you have a cast iron skillet that has only markings on the bottom that say VICTOR 722 8, try a Google images search for “Victor 722 8 cast iron skillet”, and see if a match to your pan shows up in the images. If not, try broadening the search, to “Victor cast iron skillet.”
Many images result from the search. If you click on “visit page,” it will link to the page where the pan is featured. There, if you are lucky, you will find identifying information about your pan. Caveat: I have learned that sometimes people “guess” about the origin or manufacturer of a pan, or are sometimes careless in identification. While you might find information, verifying its accuracy is always a good idea.
Is there a manufacturer’s logo or name on the pan?
If the manufacturer has placed its logo or name on a piece, it is much easier to identify the time frame within which the pan was made. There are many resources to help you identify and date a piece when you know the manufacturer.
My “go-to” reference materials for dating and identifying pieces for which I know the manufacturer are two much-used reference books: Smith & Wafford, The Book of Griswold & Wagner, Favorite, Wapak, Sidney Hollow Ware (5th ed. 2013) (commonly called the “Blue Book”), and Smith & Wafford, The Book of Wagner & Griswold, Martin, Lodge, Vollrath, Excelsior, ©2001 (commonly called the “Red Book”).
There are also very knowledgeable and passionate long-time collectors out there who have a vast amount of information about vintage and antique cast iron cookware. Most are happy to share their knowledge with beginning cast iron enthusiasts. Two clubs that have been very helpful to me, and of which I am a proud member, are: The Wagner & Griswold Society, and The Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association. Especially as I began my adventure into the world of vintage cast iron cookware, collectors on the forums of these sites were more than generous with their time and expertise in helping me identify and date vintage and antique cast iron cookware that I came across.
GENERAL TIPS FOR DETERMINING THE DATE OF MANUFACTURE
Does the pan have a gate mark?
A gate mark appears as a raised scar or slash across the bottom of pans. Gate marked pans typically do not have the manufacturer’s name on them. Gate marked pans are the oldest of the old cast iron cookware; almost certainly antique. The gate mark is a remnant of the casting process that was used in the 1800’s. In around 1890, this casting process was mostly discontinued.
Absent markings on the pan, it is often impossible to identify the maker of a gate marked piece. There were many cast iron foundries in the 1800s, and many did not put maker’s marks on their wares. If you have a gate marked piece, you have an old and valuable piece of history; you just might not know the maker.
Is the pan marked ‘MADE IN THE USA”?
If a pan is marked “MADE IN THE USA,” the pan was made in the 1960’s or after. Trade requirements were tightened in the 1960’s, and manufacturers were required to identify the country of origin on their pieces.
What is the “texture” of the cooking surface?
Pans of recent manufacture have a rougher, “pebbly” surface and thicker walls than pans of earlier manufacture. If your pan has a “pebbly” surface, it is more likely to be a pan of recent vintage, or a pan that was not made in the United States.
How thick are the walls and how heavy is the skillet?
Pans of recent vintage have thicker walls than do antique pans. They are also heavier in weight. A number 8 Lodge pan of more recent vintage is more than a pound heavier in weight than the 1906 Griswold number 8 “ERIE” spider skillet, and almost a pound heavier than a Griswold slant logo “ERIE” number 8 pan.
TIPS TO IDENTIFY THE MANUFACTURER OF VINTAGE CAST IRON SKILLETS
Some of the unmarked pans you may come across in your cast iron travels were made by Griswold, Lodge, Birmingham Stove & Range (“BSR”), Vollrath, Wagner, Favorite Stove & Range, and Chicago Hardware Foundry.
Griswold Manufacturing Company, Erie, PA: Griswold manufactured pieces under names other than “Griswold.” Early Griswold pans did not have the Griswold name on them. Instead, they may have been marked “ERIE.” If a piece has only the word “ERIE” on it, it was likely made in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s by the Griswold Manufacturing Company in Erie, Pennsylvania.
One of the most valuable, collectible, and sought-after Griswold pans is the skillet that is marked with a spider in a web, with the word “ERIE” in the spider’s body. This pan was manufactured in around 1906. This skillet, in excellent condition, can be worth thousands of dollars.
A more common unmarked Griswold line is Griswold Iron Mountain pans. These pans were manufactured in the 1940s. Iron Mountain pans are fantastic cookers! I love my Iron Mountain pans.
The distinctive handle shape easily identifies Iron Mountain skillets. They also have a heat ring, pan number and 4-digit product number in a slightly italicized font imprinted on the bottom.
Griswold also manufactured skillets marked VICTOR, as previously mentioned. Some of the Victor pans have the Griswold name on them and some do not. Pans marked only VICTOR, with a product number, were manufactured by Griswold between between about 1890 and 1915. The later Victor pans also carried the Griswold name.
Griswold also manufactured pans marked BEST MADE, GOOD HEALTH, CLIFF CORNELL, some pans marked ANDRESEN, and some pans marked PURITAN or MERIT. If the pattern number is on the Puritan or Merit skillet it was manufactured by Griswold. If not, it was manufactured by Favorite.
Lodge Manufacturing Company, South Pittsburg, Tennessee: I often come across cast iron pans that have no manufacturer’s name on them, but have “notches” in the heat ring. If a pan has one or more notches in the heat ring, it is likely a vintage Lodge.
Unmarked pans with a heat raised letter on the underside, along with a raised number on the handle, may have been made in the late 1800s – 1910 by Blacklock, the foundry that preceded the Lodge foundry.
Vollrath Manufacturing Company, Sheboygan, Wisconsin: Vollrath manufactured many items of kitchenware from the late 1800s until today. Some of the Vollrath cast iron skillets have the Vollrath name on them, and some do not. If you run across a pan with an underlined number imprinted sideways on the bottom center of the pan, you likely have a pan that was manufactured by Vollrath pan in the1930s and 1940s.
Birmingham, Stove and Range (“BSR”), Birmingham, Alabama: BSR manufactured many pieces of kitchenware. BSR manufactured non-enameled cast iron pans between about 1957 and 1993.
Take a good look at the underside of the handle of your no-name skillet. Is there a ridge that goes all the way to the outer wall of the pan? This is a telltale sign of all unmarked BSR pans.
There are three primary BSR lines of cast iron skillets. All have the ridge on the underside of the handle that goes directly to the side wall. The “Red Mountain” series was manufactured in the 1930’s and 1940’s. These skillets typically have only a number, often followed by a letter, incised in the bottom of the pan near the handle. The number is typically about ¾” high.
The “Century” series BSR pans were manufactured in the 1950s and are quite common and easy to find. The pour spouts on these skillets are smaller than seen on other skillets. The number on the bottom of the pan is about ¼” tall. Beneath the number is the diameter of the pan in inches, i.e. No. 3, 6 5/8 IN. In the 1960s, MADE IN U.S.A. was added to the bottom of the Century series pans.
The “Lady Bess” BSR skillets were manufactured in the 1970s. They are marked the same as the 1960s Century skillets, but the name of the piece – i.e. SKILLET – was added at the bottom.
Wagner Manufacturing Company, Sidney, Ohio: Unmarked Wagner pans are commonly found. These pans were manufactured by the Wagner Ware Manufacturing Company in Sidney, Ohio. Often times unmarked Wagner pans are mistaken for BSR pans. One notable difference is that the ridge on the underside of the handle flattens out before it meets the side wall of the skillet. The flattening out is a telltale sign that the pan was not manufactured by BSR.
The bottom of unmarked Wagner pans may be smooth, or they may have a heat ring. They may be marked with the size in diameter, e.g. 10 ½ INCH SKILLET. In the 1960s, MADE IN USA was added. The pans often have a letter on the bottom of the pan in a Times New Roman-type font, and on the underside of the handle.
Wagner also manufactured pans for Montgomery Wards, calling them WARDWAY pans. They also manufactured pans marked NATIONAL and LONG LIFE.
Chicago Hardware Foundry, North Chicago IL and Favorite Stove and Range Company, Piqua OH: Chicago Hardware Foundry (“CHF”) acquired Favorite Stove and Range Company’s cookware line in 1934. The line is therefore somewhat blurred as to whether certain pieces were manufactured by CHF or by Favorite. In addition to skillets marked FAVORITE or FAVORITE PIQUA WARE, Favorite manufactured skillets with the word MIAMI outlined by a diamond on the bottom between about 1916 and 1935.(insert Miami photo here – diamond attributed to Favorite)There are also pans marked on the bottom with a number outlined by a diamond. There is debate in the cast iron world as to whether these pans were manufactured by CHF or by Favorite. Given that the diamond is the same as the “Miami” diamond mentioned above, my money’s on Favorite. CHF also manufactured lovely hammered cast iron skillets marked only with a pair of numbers on the bottom that are about 1” tall.
I hope that this little dissertation on identification is helpful to you as you hunt for vintage cast iron cookware!