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.
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.
100% 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.
American 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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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-made cast iron fry pan / skillet ca 1860 – 1880, roughly 12″ diameter.
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…)