J.E. sends me a cast iron roaster pan and cover. “Wagner Drip Drop Skillet Roaster #8” is emblazoned in bold raised lettering across the cover. There’s a good market for this rugged cookware, especially from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and especially for the Griswold, Sidney and Wagner brands.
Chefs love to cook with these heavyweights because cookware made of cast iron is valued for heat retention, durability and high heat capacity.
We see a resurgence of interest in these hard-to-lift pots, and I often think my grandmother, who was under 5 feet, might have been extraordinarily strong for her size.
J.E.’s pot takes both hands to manipulate. Some of the 12-inch or bigger circumference pots, when filled with boiling water or fat, must have been a formidable lift.
In Europe and America, cast iron was used for cooking before the mid-19th century, when the kitchen stove was invented. In the history of humans eating, the kitchen stove is a VERY late invention.
Previously, food was cooked in a hearth fire, using Dutch ovens, and suspended or long handled pots.
Many had feet or even legs to raise them above the cinders. Some hearths had built-in chains for suspension of pots. The flat bottom cast iron pots were used when the kitchen range became popular in the late 19th century. By the way, J.E., the size of your ring on your range matters to these pots. A ring too small for the pot may damage the pot, worst case, but a small ring used for a large pot leads to inadequate heat absorption.
Teflon and aluminum pots pushed most of the cast iron companies out of business in the 1960s, but some cooks held onto their grandmother’s cast iron, especially those made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the market (because of the famous chef Nigella, amongst other) has made them “hot” again. Not to mention that since the lockdown, most of us have taken up slower forms of cooking!
Some cooks even prefer old cast iron to the more modern version of cast- iron cooking, the enamel-coated cast iron pots. They can chip, and chips cause less than good overall heat absorption.
These pots are cast “as a whole,” handle and all, and therefore can be used to sear as well as to provide a nice bake, storing heat for much longer than any other material.
J.E. resuscitated this skillet roaster from her old storage locker, unopened for 12 years.
The ridges in the top of the lid make it the “Drip-Drop” – that is, the roast inside will be “self-basting” as condensation mounts.
Yet she must re-season the pot: then, no soap, no dishwasher, after re-seasoning. She must apply, using heat, multiple layers of fat. Once this is done, she must wash the skillet with only hot water and a brush, OR she can rub the pot with coarse sea salt applied with a crushed-up brown paper bag.
Collectors are picky about dating their Wagner Ware cast iron pots. Founded in 1891 in Sidney, Ohio, the family-owned business led the market for years, was purchased in 1952 and is still in production today.
So is Griswold manufacturing, which was purchased by Wagner in 1957; the brands on these pots will say Wagner. Not only did Wagner make cast iron cooking utensils when it was a family concern, they hired great industrial designers of the second quarter of the 20th century, and made fabulous deco-designed cast aluminum covered pans.
I have one large enough for a medium sized fowl. The pot resembles The Grey Goose.
Griswold, the other top brand in cast iron, bears a distinctive cross-shaped brand mark. Founded in 1865 in Erie, Penn., the factory became famous for its secretary, a Miss Ella Moses, who handled her customers’ letters for 50 years. She gave advice on the products as well as on recipes, finally coming out with her own cookbook, given with purchase.
She became the world’s advertising face of the Griswold brand in the 1920-30s.
A word on the cross-mark brand: A larger cross means an earlier pot (1915), and a smaller mark means a much later pot: 1940-1957. If you do not see “Erie PA,” the pot is made after 1957-1965, at which point the brand Griswold left the market.
A well-known historian of Griswold and Wagner cooking pots is also a chef. Check out Joanna Pruess’ “Griswold and Wagner Cast Iron Cookbook.” J.E.’s pot in great condition can command up to $500 today.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s column appears every week in the News-Press. Email questions and photos to ElizabethAppraisals@gmail.com or mail them to Ask the Gold Digger, P.O. Box 1359, Santa Barbara 93102-1359.