Posted on

What is American Cookware?

vintage copper cookware, american copper cookware, old copper, tin-lined copper, copper kettle

When first starting out to create House Copper & Cookware (formerly branded as Housekeeper Crockery), I only knew I wanted to have wares that were 100% made in America, as locally as possible, and as purely as possible. Just like the “good old days.”

But with that desire comes the irresistible pull of research, as well as the need for it.

What did traditional American smiths create?

What did their wares look like? What kinds of materials were available?

It’s these types of questions that can lead to way too many interesting paths, such as my apprenticeship at Backwoods Tin & Copper, among other things. Visits to makers. Chats with blacksmiths (like my uncle, Doug Merkel). Questions to fabricators. Time begged for of mentors (of which I’m insanely fortunate to have many!).

So much of what we think of as vintage wares usually harkens back to a specific heritage. Designs painted in trays or saved under a potter’s glaze is particular not only to a time period, but another nationality. The beauty of America’s early melting pot was the great variety brought to the shores, but it also is cause for consternation when trying to identify what was actually made in our country and what was imported.

Thankfully, there are a lot of resources (happily re-printed these days by several printers, Amazon included) if one is willing to dig, as well as not be afraid to join a few groups and ask questions.

For those who are interested in learning about everything and anything to do with cast iron cookware here in the States, I highly recommend joining the Griswold & Cast Iron Cookware Association (dues are a simple $25/year and the benefits for identifying myriad unique finds are immeasurable, among a great many other networking and collecting opportunities).

If you’re up for tackling tin and copperware of days goneby, there’s everything from the annual tinsmith (and coppersmith) convergence in June of each year to the Early American Industries Association, where you can rub shoulders with metalsmiths of all walks, histories and talent.

And here in Wisconsin, there’s the Midwest Fire Fest, where tons of potters are around hawking their wares (and their information and craft) in Cambridge, should you wish to talk about the earliest kitchenware art beyond wood bowls and basket weaving.

So what exactly did American makers create that was unique to this country and was not simply a repair or an obvious echo of past European examples?

Here’s a list of my favorites…and what typically is the catalyst for creating the wares in the HCC line.

COPPER

American coppersmiths first came over from Europe with a repertoire of works they’d learned as apprentices in their homeland. However, limited copper sheet (the British only allowed the colonies to ship raw materials back, then pay to ship the smelted sheets back to America, which meant it was cut to fit inside ships, and expensive) meant adjustments had to be made, which relatively quickly led to American designs and preferences.

American copper cookware, american copper, pure copper, pure metal, pure metal cookware, american cookware, cooking with copper, tin-lined copper, house copper100% pure copper cookware made in the American style

I’m a fan of the taller pots, brought about because one had to use several sheets of copper to curl into a pot. Most handles were usually copper as well (you can imagine how hot they’d get and how bendy once the pot was hot AND full of food) or sometimes wrought iron from a local blacksmith and either detachable, or attached with copper rivets. Later, when brass became more widely available in America, handles were poured at brass foundries, but I’m partial to the original iron handles.

vintage copper cookware, american copper cookware, old copper, tin-lined copper, copper kettleAmerican copper sauce pan / pot, made by a coppersmith, photo courtesy of American Copper & Brass by Henry Kauffman

There were many coppersmith items made here – or repaired here – and one of the items that quickly became part of the American landscape were the many different types of copper lanterns, something that could be easily adjusted to preferences, design and need, as well as decoration. (this isn’t kitchenware, but it’s very American).

A handful of copper skillet examples can be attested to American coppersmiths, and so can copper boilers, which also give me the lines for the copperware we make at HC. All were made in the flat, until the later 1800’s, when machines started to make pressed cookware and accessories.

TIN

american tin, american tinware, tinware

Examples of tinware from the 1800’s. Could be made from copper as well. Photo courtesy of The Art of the Tinsmith by Shirley DeVoe

Because copper was so expensive (and cast iron so heavy), tinware was hugely popular and common in America. And while I don’t make any tin pieces for the HC/HC lines, they are undoubtedly part of the landscape of American cookware design. I am a huge fan of the plain, silvery tin, but some pieces were covered in black asphaltum and then painted with beautiful brushed designs (these were servingware only – if you cook in it, you bake off the decorations).

painted tin, tinware, painted tinware, vintage tin, vintage painted tinware

Vintage Chippendale painted tin tray for serving. ca 1765, photo courtesy of Early American Decorating Patterns by Peg Hall

Some great examples of American tinwork can be found in a plethora of books, but if you want to get serious about tinware, start with The Complete Tinsmith & Tinman’s Trade, so you don’t have to go digging around old bookstores yourself.

CAST IRON

We had such an amazing array of American foundries and forges that I feel cast iron is intensely American, for all that it originated overseas as a pourable metal.  Even though Darby got the patent in England for creating sand casting molds, it was right after the American Revolution and we were busting to get industrious and self-sufficient here, perhaps latching on this new technology, especially in Massachusetts, with a zeal that came with victory… Regardless, thanks to Griswold, Wagner, Eerie, and many smaller foundries (Main Foundry, Martin Stove & Range, Sidney Hollow Ware, Marion Stove, and Wapak, to name a tiny few), we have an amazing array of cast iron pieces that are uniquely American.

american cast iron, american skillet, american cast iron skillet, cast iron skillet

Spider cast iron skillet, made in America ca 1840 – 1860. Photo from Early American Cast Iron Holloware by John Tyler

Oddly enough, as much as the simple round pan is considered traditional, we had a dizzying array of specialty items that now are rare, but at times were considered very useful, practical and common place. We aren’t, as a whole, making corn pone, mini bundts, cupcakes, and Danish cakes in cast iron pieces anymore, but we did at one time. I hope the cool and funky styles come back!

wrought iron skillet, iron skillet, iron, spider skillet, american

Wrought Iron American spider skillet, forged by a blacksmith, not in a foundry. ca 1810 – 1830, photo courtesy of Early American Holloware by John Tyler

But in working to create something that makes sense for today’s kitchens, I went with a tried and true skillet. American skillets in the early 1800s actually often had legs. They could be poured or wrought. As no one really needs skillets with legs anymore, though, I thought it best to stick with more modern examples.

american cast iron skillet, cast iron, skillet, vintage cast ironAmerican-made cast iron fry pan / skillet ca 1860 – 1880, roughly 12″ diameter.

 

CLAY

Spongeware. Meh. Not my favorite style of decorating stoneware. Sometimes (but incorrectly) called spatterware, the pottery is white/cream with a bright and true blue “spongy” looking decoration in stripes or all over the piece, sometimes broken up by a blue band or two. It was intensely an American design starting in the early 1700’s, with high production in New York and Philadelphia. (source)

There was also Rockinghamware, a very common, brown glazed earthenware pottery that quickly became “Americanized” in the early 1800’s. A great book on this particular and little-studied type of pottery was written by Jane Perkins Claney, and can be bought for $28.

I like the blue glaze used in spongeware, and the beautiful, hand-crafted vibe of making each piece by hand on a wheel instead of by machine and slip casting (there’s something to be said for supporting individual potters vs purchasing bulk pieces from companies who just pour clay into molds), so our pieces are created with the blue lines…because it’s still pretty darn true to history.

Yes – there’s a lot of legwork and time in putting together a true American-style kitchen and cookware ensemble…but you know me and my research.

(Which, by the way, apparently researching never ends. It’s like a sickness. Catching a research bug is outrageously fun…and annoying, likely, for the spouse who gets dragged to things and learns all kinds of extra knowledge he was not expecting to have to absorb…but I have an inkling he’s catching it too. He wants to take a class on cooper work…)

Posted on

Making a Copper Jambonnière Part 3

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

If you’ve been following the saga of pattern creation and remaking a vintage piece of copper cookware from scratch…here’s the final conclusion.  Likely you might be as happy as I am that this is done and I can start posting things like cheese recipes again…

So it was time to create the lid and handles to this crazy jambonnière project – finally! As always, it meant a large amount of guesswork, and fiddling with wood jigs.

Tracing the base, we added some fractions to allow for crimp seams, and went ahead to create a cover jig, which was similar, but not exactly the same, as the base jig. I’m learning, in a very tactile way, that should I ever own my own metal shop, I will inadvertently become an ad-hoc woodworker by necessity. We also went ahead and cut out a pattern to make the big top cover.

(Good thing my husband has lately been into buying every kind of saw invented…now I just need to convince him that a drill press is also necessary…)

Next we folded (twice) the band base and linked the two pieces before connecting them with a lap seam and some extra reinforcement pieces before bending the whole long band over the jig. With a little help from a lot of clamps, we finished forming the cover band inside the body to make sure it allowed for any tweaks and idiosyncrasies creating during the bending of the base.

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

Creating the jambonniere lid band

Then it was a simple (for once!) practice of burring edges, clamping the cover piece to the band and hammering the seams together before soldering.

We only had maybe…five? ten?…hang-ups along the way… It likely didn’t help that all three of my children are off school and like to create while they’re at the shop with us and are constantly adding some sort of project to get soldered…

But we had a cover that fit, for the most part, so then it was time to form the handles. This is when Bob’s mini forge comes in handy. We fired up the propane (and Bob, bless him, made a sweet little jig for bending), heated up some super fat solid copper wire, and made handles that look very similar to the old photographs.

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

Jig for creating copper handles

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

Forming copper handles over a jig after blasting with heat.

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

Buffing the copper handles

I should mention, as well, that Jan, from the Netherlands, found this blog and was amazing enough to send photos of the jambonnière pan he has in his vintage collection. The cover looks constructed almost exactly to how we did it in our reproduction, though I do covet the base, which looks either rolled to a bead or somehow wired.

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

A vintage jambonniere pan – photo sent to us by Jan in the Netherlands!

After getting the handles connected, and folding and creating a simple, thick cover handle, we riveted and checked all the seams, worked together to double bottom the base for strength, and then settled on the final polishing.

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

Top handle for copper jambonniere lid.

And suddenly, amazingly, it’s done!

copper jambonniere, copper, copper cookware, vintage cookware, vintage american cookware, vintage french cookware, pure copper, pure cookware, solid copper, jambonniere, ham pan, copper ham pan, organic copper, pure, healthy, healthy cookware, healthy copper

Finished copper jambonniere ham pan

Posted on

Making A Copper Jambonnière Part 2

My ongoing apprenticeship at Backwoods Tin & Copper has been mostly obsessed with finishing up the copper jambonnière pan – not least because we wanted to have it done to show at the tinsmith convergence in Indiana this month.

So the craziness continued.

copper ham pan, copper pan, copper pot, vintage copper, vintage copper ham pan, jambonniere, copper jambonniere

Tinning the copper jambonnière in the flat.

After finally creating the bottom pattern that seemed to work, we set about organizing the sides of the jambonnière. Besides knowing they should be about 8” high, we had to figure out a length and a process. This, apparently, was another part where we had to make a few examples and mess up a few  more times.  (I’m starting to realize that creating a new pattern from scratch is about 65% of making copper and tin wares…)

copper, copper pot, copper jambonniere, jambonniere, tin lined copper, vintage french copper, vintage copper

Preparing the sides for wiring.

Bob finally was able to figure out that putting the wire in when the two sides were joined as a huge circle was the best way to handle it, but that was only after we’d tried to form the sides on the hollow mandrel first, and then wire it. We ended up poking the steel out of the soft tinned copper.

Whoops.

And then there was the math. I’m not very good at math, which is why my husband handles the company accounting for House Copper, etc (thank heaven!) but this tinsmithing math also deals with fractions. Which, to me, is even worse, because they’re never normal fractions – a gripe I often voice when at the tinshop. I believe after Bob tinkered for hours after I left (read: defeated and needing to get my children from school), he ended up with sides that measured 26 5/16”.

copper pan, copper ham pan, copper jambonniere, jambonniere, copper pot, tin-lined copper, vintage copper, pure copper, custom copper

Forming the sides of the jambonnière by hand on the hollow mandrel.

But we still had to free-hand form the sides to match the base, and then create a jig to fit inside the jambonnière base that we then sawed apart and screwed back together in order to create a tight enough structure to allow for seam setting.

We spent more time measuring and creating jigs than we actually did making the base!  But the bottom seam is set, and then we soldered it with a lot of heat.

copper pan, copper ham pan, copper jambonniere, jambonniere, copper pot, tin-lined copper, vintage copper, pure copper, custom copper

Setting down the base seam of the jambonnière

Next will be some time to organize a cover that fits our insane bottom pan shape.

If something ends up measuring something along the lines of 26 15/16” I think I might cry.

Posted on

The (re) Making of an American Copper Skillet

In case it hasn’t been obvious, I’m a little enamored with the notion of recreating American copper cookware pieces that have been lost along with the slow disappearance of the hand-made, coppersmith trade itself.

So – surprise! I’ve made a skillet next.

Though most copper skillets were relatively small in terms of today’s expectations (and uses!), they all had high sides (not rounded) and a sharp edge. In fact, they were nearly identical in terms of form and shape to cast iron skillets, even though the copper pieces were made by hand and usually had relatively long wrought iron handles.


vintage copper cookware

Copper skillet in the tinshop in Metamora IN

Today, you’ll usually see low-sided copper skillets – some lined with tin, and some with stainless. They are softly curved, and have shorter handles. Part of this is because most of us don’t need to hang our copperware right next to the hearth, or stick it in and need an easier way to grab it out of the fire. It’d be very hard to wield the copper skillets of the 1800’s on today’s stoves, or put in the oven.

But I still believe there’s a place for the traditional, slightly tapered, straight-sided skillet in our kitchens. We just have forgotten they existed, and so have stopped looking to use them.

{Photo from American Copper & Brass book by Henry J. Kauffman}

Imagine a cast iron skillet that performs just like a copper pot!? That’s kinda what I thought. And I’m stupidly over-excited about this next piece. Thanks to the help from my good friend and product architect, who can take my sketches, the finds in old books, and my rough descriptions and make it a transferable file, and the master smith I apprentice under…AND all the guys from the tinsmith convergence this June, who are weighing in…as well as the feedback from the people actually spinning the bodies…

Well, it’s coming along!

It’s a big piece – bigger than the other pots in the House Copper line, and it’s thicker too (3mm) because I’m not flaring or rolling the edges (many older, (smaller) versions had wired rims or a beaded edge to help with strength, especially since these were usually formed by hand out of a thinner gauge copper sheet). And though the ductile handle won’t be long, it will still look similar to what was typical in the 1800’s for wrought handles.

house copper

Prototype of the 12″ American copper skillet

And of course, it will be lined with tin.

The skillets of old (and especially ones contributed to an American smith) are hard to find according to Henry Kauffman’s books, and yet they were the easiest to make for the beginning apprentice coppersmith. As it was typically formed from one circle and required no soldering, cuts (other than the circular blank itself) or fancy forming, it was typically a “trial” piece made with nothing but a stake and a hammer.

Traditional coppersmith copper skillet formation. {Photo from American Copper & Brass by Henry J Kauffman}

I’m excited to see each piece come to life – the guys in Ohio will be spinning the copper components from the Texas copper and the handles poured by the family-owned foundry in Lodi CA. And as for the actual drilling, riveting, tinning, polishing and buffing? Well, that’s going to happen (if all goes well) by…me. Because it will help with the pricing so more people can get pure metal cookware in their homes. And because I’d like to use much of what I’m learning in my own apprenticeship.

It’s just like the good old days, isn’t it?