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Cast Iron Furniture
(Article orginally published July 1952)
The tradition of formal gardening as enjoyed in old England was transported to the Colonies in the 17th century. A visit to the gardens of Virginia's colonial mansions, at Williamsburg, Westover, in fact everywhere in the tidewater region, repays one with views of old gardens in elegant profusion. The Dutch tradition of gardening was displayed in large estates on the Hudson and in the town gardens of Albany and New York. The small garden tradition, as well as the elegant expansive garden was a part of Pennsylvania from its founding. Early in the 19th century we find newspaper advertising by gardeners, seedsmen and nurserymen, even advertising the espaliered fruit trees, trained to grow against a garden wall.
From 1820, or perhaps earlier, there was desire, on the part of our citizens who were getting somewhere in terms of this world's goods, to extend the higher living standards expressed in their homes right out and all over the grounds. Lawn and garden furniture and ornaments, fountains and urns of cast iron went into production in foundries at Boston, New York, Albany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Saint Louis. Within a few years the idea of iron chairs and benches captured the imagination of practically all our people. Little foundries began buying examples made by the big foundries, recasting them without so much as thank you, and selling the product locally. No town of any importance was without its iron garden furniture mart.
The cost of transportation was solved by shipping by water. All the big producers of the ornamental cast iron ware and furniture were near ocean piers, or a navigable river. Little gardens not over 20 x 20 feet in size had cast iron chairs and perhaps a bench.
Now, with an almost universal return to the earlier ideals of outdoor living in all seasonable weather, Cast Iron Furniture is enjoying a revival. It has been tried, and found excellent, by our ancestors who appreciated the fact that cast iron garden things could be left outdoors winter and summer, requiring only an occasional repainting.
Kathryn Kent, some five years ago, conducted a six months research into who made American cast iron furniture, and where. She discovered that little foundries everywhere, and big foundries in the cities above mentioned made the product, in a volume running to thousands of tons annually, for many decades. The popularity of the cast iron elegancies was not confined to private gardens and lawns. Almost every American city and town began thinking of piped water supply by the 1840's. Nearby streams were dammed to make pools; the impounded water was pumped to reservoirs on high points of land, the water piped from there through mains, and flowing by gravity. Almost every town at once made the reservoir a park and furnished it with cast iron benches, fountains, urns, and statuary! At about the same time, public cemeteries were opened, and a similar park-like place provided. Again the furniture was cast iron. So great was the sale of this goods that one Philadelphia foundry opened a large branch foundry at New Orleans, thus saving considerable shipping expense.
Since identification of any piece of cast iron Garden Furniture is an almost hopeless task unless the name of the maker is cast on the piece, it has been thought best not to attempt classification by foundries. Some pieces are marked and some are not and the value difference isn't a cent a pound between the marked and the unmarked. What is important is a pictorial catalog of the furniture itself, showing types, and the scope of the operation.
Public parks were also good customers for this cast iron furniture, especially the seat furniture. No wonder a hundred or more foundries made it. No wonder thousands of tons of it were in every city and town's gardens and parks. If there is any mystery about it, after a hundred years, it is not in reference to that which has survived; the mystery is what became of all the rest of it. Practically every piece of it in the South, during the War between the States, was melted into cannon and shot; into war material. When iron became scarce, and the price of scrap rose during the 1910's to 1920's, such items as we speak of here went back to the furnaces.Now most of what remains is antique, at least by the standards of those who do the collecting. Some of it isn't being purchased for garden use. It is destined for living rooms.
And why not use cast iron furniture in one's living room? As long as twenty years ago some smart decorators were buying up chairs of cast iron, painting them oyster white or Paine's Grey, and fitting the pieces with colorful, tied-on cushions. Sun rooms, porches, terraces, grass plots, anywhere . . . there's the place for cast iron furniture. The limit of usefulness, perhaps, is the ingenuity of the user.
The examples of cast iron furniture here pictured are drawn from the original catalogs and posters of manufacturers. All of them date from the 1840's to 1850's. Originals are to be found now in the antiques shops. Already some recasts have been made. But recasts made today are as costly, if not more so, than the originals. You can sometimes identify the old ones by the many coats of paint on them which, by now, display a crackle glaze which sometimes curls up and shows almost 1/4 inch of old paint. This can be knocked off, or softened and removed. The task is easy because the base is good old hard cast iron.