If your list of New Year’s resolutions involves eating better, or if you’re a collector of vintage cookbooks, you might want to start collecting antique and vintage cast iron pans or skillets. While this area of collecting began getting warmer a few years ago, it’s becoming downright hot right now. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get a deal — you just have to know what you’re looking for! (And, if you aren’t into cooking with old cast iron pans, knowing what you’ve got sitting in your cupboards might mean trading heavy pans for some hefty cash in our Marketplace!)
Our collection of cast iron pans began by taking advantage of bargain prices at local farm auctions. After using one antique cast iron pan, we fell in love with the ease of cooking and the simple flavor of real foods again. Since cast iron pans are created from a single piece of metal, they provide an even distribution of heat which is great for any kind of cooking. Cast iron retains heat better and longer than other types of cookware and it even adds a bit of extra iron to your diet. Properly cared for (which isn’t as hard as some people make it sound), cast iron pans can — and have — served for centuries. All of that adds up to great value. And who doesn’t love collectibles they can use without worrying about ruining the value of? Since discovering antique cast iron pans last year, our collection has grown rapidly.
In terms of condition, the best antique and vintage cast iron pieces are easy to spot: If it’s in good enough shape to use, it’s in good enough condition to collect. That means you want to avoid anything cracked, warped, or pitted — especially on the bottom. However, other “damages” such as “dirty and greasy” pans, those which have rusted, or even those which have been painted can be stripped, re-seasoned, and restored to perfect working order rather easily.
Of course, not all cast iron pans were created equal.
For one thing, age matters. For most collectors and cooks, the best cast iron cookware was made before the 1950s, with 1957 the real cut-off for real collectible cast iron cookware. (By this time, both aluminum and stainless steel begin to replace cast iron, which greatly affected production quality.) CastIronCollector.com has a great guide for identifying the age of cast iron cookware from the trademarks and logos found on the pans themselves. Identification is easy, as most antique and vintage cast iron cookware bears the maker’s mark and factory location as well as the pan size or catalog number on the bottom.
And that brings us to the heavy-hitters, or big names, in cast iron cookware collecting.
Griswold, of Erie, PA, and Wagner, of Sydney, OH, are the two most sought-after names in antique cast iron pans. But nearly any cast iron pans made in the U.S.A. (between the 1800s and 1957) are collectible and worthy of buying. Other company names in collectible cast iron cookware include Sidney Hollow Ware Company (also of Sidney, OH), Wapak Hollow Ware (of Wapakoneta, OH), Favorite Stove & Range Co. of Piqua, OH (also marked and sold under “FPW” for Favorite Piqua Ware and “Puritan” for Sears Roebuck), and Lodge Manufacturing Company (South Pittsburg, TN), which is the only US company still producing cast iron cookware. (Lodge reports record sales for the past five years — proof of the popularity of cast iron!)
As with all popular antiques and collectibles, fakes and reproductions exist. One tell-tale clue of recasting is the same “shrink” which exists with pottery; while these pans are slightly smaller than the originals they were made from, they are also heavier.
For those of you who like collecting by the numbers (which is easy with old cast iron skillets), remember this:
Pans number 0 and 1 really are number one — they are rare four-inch toy pans.
Pan numbers 2, 11, 13 and 20 (and their lids) are challenges to find.
Pan numbers 3, 6 and 8 are quite common, since they were part of every “newlywed” starter set. That makes them an ideal starting place for new collectors and cooks.