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American Copper Cookware History {Part 1}

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As an apprentice tin and copper smith, I get to play with sheets of tin and copper all the time. Of course, tin is much easier to create kitchenware with in some regards (such as how easily it solders), but in this post I’m going to wax a bit poetic about copper (no surprise?) and discuss the bare basics of what coppersmiths were up against prior to the Industrial Revolution, and how they existed.

If it weren’t for the earlier examples of copper cookware in America, we wouldn’t have the copper heirlooms from the 1700’s and 1800’s that are still prized today in kitchens around the country (and around the world). I feel there is tremendous value in understanding the art and technique behind our modern kitchenware – being aware of what came before helps us appreciate the current day. The ancestry of our current copper cookware owes much of its design, and certainly its continued use, to these older, handmade versions of itself.

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Copper cookware from the 1700’s that needs new tin lining at the shop.

Before we had delicious modern copper cookware, we had the original, handmade copper cookware. Raised, braised, crimped, and cramped, the copper sheet used for making vintage copper bowls, kettles and pots was, prior to the Industrial Revolution and machinery, much thinner. It was also more malleable, and so the simpler hand tools available could form it.

In the 1700’s, in America, coppersmiths were few and far between. This was due to a number of factors. The first is there was not much copper sheet with which to make objects. Copper was mined in the colonies, but it was sent back to England to be processed (smelted and rolled) before being re-shipped over. It was also only sent over in very small pieces instead of the super long 10ft+ long rolls of today, so coppersmiths were obliged to braze or rivet together several sheets of copper to make larger kitchenware.

The second reason there were fewer coppersmiths in America was due to very little need for a full-fledged smith at the time. Only larger cities and ports could support a full-time artisan. Many smiths had to try their hand with several kinds of metals to keep afloat in those early years – perhaps you might be well-versed in copper, but you’d also be required to repair tinware, work with silver and pewter, and likely have a touch of understanding with the blacksmith trade (though there were ALWAYS a lot of blacksmiths).

If you were not an established smith in a large town or city in America, you likely were a tinker. After spending your winters forming items out of copper (and tin), you’d then wander around the area in better weathered months selling the wares you’d made throughout the cold season, as well as taking odd jobs repairing the tin and copper pieces of your clients. Customers would usually prefer repairs over buying new.

This traveling lifestyle meant most smiths were quite good at doing most copper work with portable hand tools – pliers, snips and a hammer, for example. Eventually, a smith may have found a place to set up shop, though, and the 1700’s smiths had many types of stakes and sledges made by the local blacksmith at his wrought iron forge, as well as large and small snips (scissors). What would you do at your shop besides repair and build cookware? Well, you’d be called upon to make coppers (these were soldering tools made of copper) for other smiths, or to braise together a cramp seam of a copper vessel. By hammering and “raising” the copper sheet, you could make small bowls and kitchen tools. Using copper wire, you could make rivets and piece together even a basic coffee pot with the limited sheet sizes you’d have from the Crown.

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See the tools on the wall? Those are from the 1700’s! The ones on the bench? From the 1800’s. Still in use today!

However, coppersmiths who set up shop had a few different issues to create cookware compared to silver or tinsmiths. This was partly due to the fact that copper is a metal that, while it conducts heat beautifully, melts at a much higher temperature than tin, silver, or pewter. A hotter fire is needed to move copper’s molecules – whether that’s during tinning the interior or sealing any seams. So coppersmiths need a lot more fuel and flame.

By the early 1800’s, the coppersmiths no longer labored with snips, stakes, and small hand tools only – though tinkers still would utilize the more mobile hand tools for many more decades – they also could start to rely on faster, more efficient tools crafted for “industrializing” the trade. Copperware was still measured and made by hand, but suddenly larger metal mechanical hand-crank tools were available to raise a burr, groove, roll, cut, and wire metal pieces into shape. While smiths could still do everything completely by hand for old time sake, it was possible to make more items with the same amount of help in the shop. The increased productivity and efficiency meant that copperware could become more affordable to the public.

The additional tricky part to making copper cookware was the need to line copper cookware with tin. Unfortunately, that tin lining usually contained lead, which is a practice metalsmiths today don’t touch – we all use full pure tin, perhaps cut with a small partial percentage of pure copper. So while copper cookware lasts many generations, and thankfully the interior lead lining does not!

I go on about how to line copper cookware on YouTube, but even if you don’t go the next steps to watch, just sit back and stare at your cookware and think about it’s predecessors: how it was all made, by hand, piece by piece. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

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What is American Cookware?

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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.

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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

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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…)

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Making a Copper Jambonnière Part 3

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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.

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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.

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Jig for creating copper handles

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Forming copper handles over a jig after blasting with heat.

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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.

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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.

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Top handle for copper jambonniere lid.

And suddenly, amazingly, it’s done!

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Finished copper jambonniere ham pan

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The Truth about Copper Moscow Mule Mugs

I was going to post a recipe today. Very “garden fresh and organic!” and all that.But instead there’s all this buzz about copper: copper Moscow Mule cups, copper cookware, unlined copper.

And before there’s yet another article published that cites the same source or two, I thought I’d throw my hat in the ring as an American coppersmith and copper cookware manufacturer. I bend copper using tools from the 1800’s, I apprentice under a master smith, and I can tin my copper pots. Suffice to say, I touch a lot of copper.

So first and foremost: copper itself, in the proper amount, is not poisonous.

In fact, it’s a micro-nutrient the World Health Organization says everyone needs to live and many of us fall short of our daily dietary intake. (Sources: US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, Copper Development Association UK/ CDA Inc (USA). Copper is safe in the proper amount.

There are two exceptions to unlined copper: Jam Pans and Bowls. Jam pans are not lined at all because of the science that goes with the sugar process that happens during cooking jam. Bowls aren’t lined because of the science that goes with egg whites and the fact that you’re not heating them.

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But COOK with acidic foods in unlined copper? I’m the first to tell you it’s not safe.

That means using unlined copper with tomatoes, many kinds of hard alcohol, limes and lemons, wine, and the like is a big no-no. (Here is a really lovely chart showing the alkaline and acidic nature of many foods and drinks). Copper is reactive, releases copper molecules easily, and too much of a good thing is never…good.

Copper gets a tricky reputation because we all apparently have long memories when it comes to it (because it was the first metal we really utilized as Neolithic farmers, perhaps…). Some people talk about copper and lead in the same sentence, and that’s also true – back a LONG time ago, copper cookware pieces were held together with solder (“metal glue” as my kids call it) that contained a lot of lead, so people would eventually get lead poisoning. Thankfully, we’re all wiser, and now solder for old cookware repairs are 100% lead free.

And thankfully we’ve learned to line our copperware with something.

The Moscow Mule mugs out there – if they’re silver on the inside – are usually made from stamped/formed/spun aluminum or stainless, with a thin coat of copper on the outside for looks…or even copper paint! Why? Because it’s cheaper and easier to do that than to actually use pure, real, solid copper. These mugs are readily available and relatively inexpensive to make if you’ve got a factory to spin ‘em. So you’re not actually drinking out of a copper mug, but a stainless or aluminum one just dressed up to look like copper.

(How to know if it’s aluminum and not real copper? Pick it up – it’ll be really lightweight! Stainless will be a bit heavier but you’ll also see the circular spinning marks inside so you know it’s not tin or nickel.)

Sometimes you’ll find real, pure copper mugs lined with tin (we do it, but we do it by hand – there’s no other way to tin something), especially vintage pieces. And yes, I know we have the unlined version in the shopping list. I have to tell Bob that he might want to take it off. He has received orders in the past for people who want unlined copper drinking cups – they leave the water (a neutral! no pH!) in the unlined copper overnight and drink it in the morning, believing the copper to have purified the water due to its antibacterial properties.

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Something else that I want to point out – there are several articles that mention using nickel as a lining. That’s totally true and possible to do as the two metals bond, but there’s a reason most of us cookware makers don’t line the copper with nickel much any more – if at all – (and this is true for American coppersmiths as well as the many over in Europe) and that’s because of nickel allergies. If you have a nickel allergy, make sure your copper cookware is lined with something else.

Nearly all copper should be lined.

It can be stainless steel, tin, nickel, silver, (heck, gold would bond as a non-ferrous metal) and even ceramic in some cases.

And while there are endless debates on which type of lining works best for copper cookware or even copper moscow mule mugs, as long as you don’t see any copper where you’re putting food or booze, you’re just fine.

Bottoms up!

PS – this article on Refinery29 is also really great on this super current topic.