J.F. sends me a very heavy cast iron cooking pot, a saucepan, with a very long hollow handle made of cast iron. It’s black, with a slight curve to the inside of the vessel, and it’s marked upon the bottom with “Vintage No. 5 J and J Siddons, West Bromwich, 4 pints.”
Why is the handle so long?
This is an amazing piece of engineering, called a Gypsy Pot, used in the middle 19th century for cooking over an open fire, perhaps in some cases placing the pan right into the hearth. The long openly cast handle was meant to keep the heat from your hand, J.F.
These were made in the 18th century by the Romany gypsies who cooked outdoors with cast iron, usually hanging large cauldrons on a tripod over an open fire. But they also used these saucepans to heat liquid right on a fire. There’s collectors for these gypsy pots, as they are called, because they function so well as a camp pot.
The J and J Siddons Foundry is still around in West Bromwich, Sandwell, West Midlands, in an area that from 1800 or so was called The Black County. This is easy to imagine because the area was the heartland of the iron foundry universe, with hundreds of chimneys pouring black smoke from the coal needed to “found” into the air.
These days Andrew Siddons runs the business, which is mainly providing construction parts in iron. He tells with pride of the air quality control of his era.
The foundry was founded by his great-great-great grandfather in 1818 with that relative’s brother. The business was called Luke and Jesse Siddons and was based at their quaintly named Hilltop Foundry.
In 1946, the next set of brothers took over the business, which became J and J Siddons Foundry — for Jesse and Joseph Siddons.
What else did the foundry make when this gypsy pot was cast? Almost everything in cast iron, but notably flat and sad irons, for laundry day. And you might ask, “What is the difference?”
Both had to be heated on a stove or in an open flame to iron those clothes, but the sad iron, as opposed to the flat iron, had a rounded convex base, which made it easier to roll over a pleat and less likely to burn the fabric. Both types of Siddons irons could have had a handle of cast iron in some cases, which the woman of the house would grasp with a thick mitt. Or in some cases, these irons had a detachable wooden handle that fit over the cast iron with two double hinges.
The Siddons Foundry made British Weights and Measures, little disks of iron that would be placed on scales to weigh out your flour or tomatoes by the kilo, but perhaps the most interesting thing made in the mid-19th century by the Siddons Foundry was the cast iron glue pot.
This was two pots in one, and many times they did not separate. Called a Bain Marie, one pot held hide glue strips, which were melted down into a fluid state by heating the water in the outside pot. Before the advent in World War II of a universal adhesive, hide glues were what we had. And they were used in almost all fine woodworking, not to mention other uses.
Piano makers could not make a piano with the glue pot, which were set on their own little stoves, or on a coal shop stove, or heated directly in the hearth. Why were hide glues so effective? And, sadly, we know most of the glue came from horse carcasses; slaughterhouses in the 1800s were dedicated to horse-glue making (awful!) for these purposes.
Hide glue does not “creep.” In other words, it has some flexibility and will not crack, and to this day is the preferred glue for piano makers and restorers and fine craftsmen in wood. Siddons Foundry was premier in making these little pots and most craftsmen had a few of them in various sizes in the 19th century.
What I love about J.F.’s pot is the shape of the handle as it arcs and angles up, and that is why I call it a brilliant piece of engineering as the heated liquid inside would be leveraged away from the handler.
And it is beautiful to look at, like a piece of sculpture in cast iron, invented by the Romany gypsies.
Collectors of early gypsy cast iron cookware would pay J.F. $200 for this pot.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.