Cast iron cookware can be some of the most inexpensive tools you can buy for your kitchen, especially when you consider their long lifetime of 150 years and beyond. You can find new cast iron skillets for as little as $40 per piece which makes them an excellent investment for the future.
Before we go into details, we have to warn you that vintage cast iron is so valuable that there are a lot of fake ones in the market. Take this quiz to find out if your cast iron pan is real or not:
Vintage cast iron was manufactured very differently than its modern counterparts. It was all made by hand. The cast iron/steel was hand-poured into sand molds which gave the maker more control. The result was lighter cookware which was then ground down with stone to make the pan's surface smooth and flat.
The long lifespan of cast iron along with the growing demand for second-hand instead of new makes vintage cast iron a common find in the antique market. The value of antique cast iron skillets can start at similar to new prices, but a super rare Wagner or Griswold can fetch up to $1,500 apiece. A mint condition, super rare "spider skillet" made in the 1890s by Griswold is worth up to $8,000.
Maybe you are lucky enough to have inherited some cast iron from a relative or you want to shop for antique cast iron but don't know where to start or what you should look for. If your pan was made before 1957, it's considered vintage cast iron. We've created a guide for you to learn how to tell how old a cast iron skillet is, differentiate brands and pan types, and figure out how much each piece is worth.
If you want your cast iron last forever, check out this step-by-step cast iron care guide:
Do you want to learn to identify real cast iron by yourself? Here are the steps you should follow:
The best way to quickly narrow down your cast iron cookware's origins is by checking the bottom for the insignia from a manufacturer. Some of the most popular and quality vintage cast iron makers of the last two centuries were as follows:
These companies were founded in the late 1800's and early 1900's by blue-collar Americans throughout middle America (Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin), providing families with high quality cast iron cookware that lasts.
The Griswold name is well-renowned as the cream of the crop when it comes to vintage cast iron. They were especially well-crafted and the manufacturer paid extra attention to detail.
You must pay attention to the sizes and shapes of logos and properly research the particular one you're dealing with. These logos often changed throughout the years and are a great indicator of the age of the cast iron. For example, there are two Griswold logos - a newer one that is about 2 inches wide, and an older logo which is much larger at 4 inches wide. The new pans with the small logo don't have any real collectible value yet while the old logo pans can fetch a pretty penny.
This number refers to a measurement of the diameter (length) across the bottom of the pan, but the stamped number does not signify the exact diameter in inches. A 10 on the handle doesn't mean it is a 10-inch pan. This goes completely against modern sizing standards. Skillets today are sold by diameter across the top - 10-inch, 12-inch, and so on.
There is a reason for the stamped numbers that do refer to size, but by much different measurements. Originally, cast iron was made to fit wood stoves that were commonly used for cooking in the 1800s and 1900s. There was an opening at the top that the cast iron pan sat upon, so the number was an indicator of compatibility between the pan and the type of stove it could be used with. These pans were often made by the same company that made the stove, and every company had a slightly different system.
Here is the traditional number system from a Wagner catalog, along with their corresponding size in inches:
#2 – 4-7/8″
#3 – 5-1/2"
#4 – 5-7/8″
#5 – 6-3/4″
#6 – 7-1/2″
#7 – 8-1/4″
#8 – 8-7/8″
#9 – 9-3/4″
#10 – 10-1/4″
#11 – 10-7/8″
#12 – 11-3/4″
#13 – 12″
#14 – 13″
Today, we don't use wood stoves and a cast iron skillet can fit on any stove, so the measurement standards have changed to indicate inches of diameter.
With antique cast iron, there are certain numbers that are very common and some that are very rare.
Sometimes an old cast iron skillet may have numbers accompanied by letters as well. They're referred to as "pattern letters". Manufacturers would create a number 3 mold for example. But due to demand, they needed to have more than one mold in use at once.
They then used letters to differentiate between these identical mold patterns. A "3B" pattern would end up slightly different from "3C", for example, because the identical molds would wear differently with use and eventually become less identical.
The letter is a way to differentiate and identify exactly which mold the pan was cast from.
There are often numbers on the bottom of a piece of cast iron cookware that are clearly not a size number. 704, for example, may be imprinted on the underside of the pan. As cast iron became more popular and manufacturing increased on a national level, manufacturers created pattern numbers that were unique for the particular model, type, size, and pattern produced.
To add some extra fun to the mystery, the manufacturers all had their own versions so the pattern numbers are not identical across the board. If you're confused about a particular number on the bottom of your pan, a quick Google search will help turn up some more detailed information on the specific vintage cast iron model in question.
These pans can be hard to identify with the lack of distinguishing markers. These were made unmarked in the same way that 'no-name' products are made today. Retailers and manufacturers alike didn't want to tarnish and cheapen the name of the store brand cast iron, but wanted to have a pan available at a lower price point.
The funny thing about these unmarked pieces (and quite different compared to most no-name items made these days) is that they are often very similar, if not the same quality of the store brand labeled cookware.
When considering the value of vintage iron, the condition is key.
Vintage cast iron can be found in a variety of places, for a variety of prices that don't always coincide with the true value.
The best place to score a great deal on cast iron is at a yard sale, where the seller may price low not realizing the full value of the piece that they own. Antique markets can be hit or miss in terms of value. Online sources like eBay and Etsy have the most readily available and wide range of choices but it's still important to research the product well before you purchase. Many vintage vendors will try to get you to overpay for your cast iron.
If you want to get into vintage cast iron collecting, arming yourself well with thorough research is definitely the name of the game.
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