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Metal Antiques - Iron

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( Originally Published 1963 )

The first successful ironworks opened in 1644 at Saugus, Massachusetts, to supply New England blacksmiths. From the beginning, iron ore (in Saugus it was obtained from a nearby bog) was needed for many essential things. It is said that some of the daily production of raw iron taken from the available ores was cast immediately into pots, firebacks, and the like. Then the rest was reheated and converted into wrought iron, from which tools and other necessities could be made.

Cast iron, one of the three products obtainable from suitable ores, is hard, comparatively brittle, and readily fusible, but it cannot be forged or welded. It is poured molten into a mold to solidify in the desired shape. Although it is easy and cheap to produce, old articles of cast iron are often quite valuable because they are no longer being made or are curiosities.

Wrought iron by comparison is soft, malleable, and ductible. It can be forged or welded. However, it also is a tough product and resists corrosion. Wrought iron generally is not made directly from the ore but from iron that has been smelted. The third product derived from iron is steel, malleable and weldable and, most important, capable of being tempered to a high degree of hardness.

In Colonial days, settlers depended on the blacksmith for nails, latches, hinges, and locks for the houses they built. The blacksmith worked with wrought iron in the form of bars (bar iron), which he obtained from ironworks that were close at hand in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and other areas as well as New England. From these bars he worked or wrought an almost unbelievable number of things that made living possible. For housewives, he produced cooking, fireplace, and sewing equipment. For the men, he made tools, wagon axles, and weapons. He also shod horses and oxen and forged runners for sleighs. As families settled down, they wanted many things to make life more comfortable, and again the blacksmith found work making candleholders and candlesticks, toddy irons, doorstops, and hitching posts.

The blacksmith produced so many things for housewives that he must have been busy from morning to night and even later. A crane for the fireplace and pots to hang from it were indispensable. When a family owned a good many pots, S-hooks and trammels (notched rods that permitted pots to be hung at different heights over the fire) were needed to hang them from the crane. He made skillets and the long-handled frying pans called spiders, skewers, spits, and a long-handled tool called a peel for putting things in and taking them out of the ovens that were part of the main fireplace. He also was soon making toasters, waffle irons, and broilers.

Early toasters made to be used in a fireplace may seem crude, but often they are excellent examples of the blacksmith's craft. For many a blacksmith was a fine craftsman who was not satisfied with making a plain object. His toasters and the long-handled forks and spoons for cooking frequently were ornamented with designs formed from wrought iron. Such a blacksmith would also take time to make a cooking pot in a pleasing shape and to give even the most functional object a harmonious design. Thus, we have strap hinges with tips shaped like a bean, ball and spear, heart, or leaf.

Tools for tending the fire also were made from iron. More often than not, during the 1700's, andirons were too. Wrought-iron firedogs or andirons were simple but not unattractive, for the legs were well formed and the shaft tipped with a finial or knob. Around 1800, some andirons were cast with the shaft or upright in the shape of a Hessian soldier or George Washington. These were popular well into the 1800's and are being reproduced today. Firebaeks of cast iron were important to reflect heat and protect the back wall of a fireplace. Some of them were quite simple in design, others were most ornamental. Patriotic, religious, floral, and conventional motifs were worked into low-relief designs on these firebacks.

Door knockers have been used in this country since the days of the pilgrims. The first ones of wrought iron were fairly simple, perhaps only a small back plate with an attached ring. In spite of the popularity of brass knockers, cast-iron ones were made in quantity during the 1800's. Those in the form of an eagle, lion's head, or a leaf were common in the early part of that century. By 1850 knockers displaying Masonic emblems or with a hand clasping the knocker had become familiar. The iron foot or boot scraper that was placed by the door was comparatively simple.

Indoors, trivets were an important item. These three-legged stands were placed over the fireplace coals to keep the food in the pots and kettles hot. A quad had four legs and often was much simpler in design and construction. Smaller, simpler trivets were used under irons. Now even cast-iron reproductions of all sorts of trivets are used on dining tables and for decoration. Wrought-iron trivets were made during the eighteenth and part of the nineteenth centuries. Cast-iron trivets appeared about 1850.

Many trivets were round. Others were almost square or rectangular with a projecting piece to serve as a handle. Those that were shaped like an iron with a handle were not necessarily meant to be used under irons. Because of the shape these trivets were known as the cathedral type, probably because they called to mind the arched Gothic windows.

Whatever the shape of a trivet, it had an openwork design. Simple patterns -- cross within a circle, for example -- became traditional during the 1700's. They continued to be made during the 1800's, but by 1850 much more elaborate designs began to appear. Among the numerous ones that proved popular were heart and tulips, hearts, arrows and heart, entwined hearts, peacock, horseshoe, geometrical circles, spade and star. These designs also have become traditional, arid many of them are being reproduced. There are many more. Not forgotten were flower and fruit motifs, the insignia of fraternal organizations, and portraits of presidents, other patriots, and famous people. In the late 1800's, when stoves were replacing fireplaces, many manufacturers made cast-iron trivets to give or sell to customers at modest prices.

The blacksmith supplied carpenters and builders with hinges, latches, nails, and tools. The farmer was another customer, and almost all workmen not only obtained tools from the smith but also had them repaired at the smithy. An old adze with a wood handle may be recognizable to modern eyes, but wrought-iron shears in various sizes, wrenches, and a screwdriver may not look familiar at all. When hammers were made by hand, they were sometimes shaped amusingly and with considerable individuality.

Even though most of the old tools that a person comes across now were made and used during the nineteenth century, there still are a good many that puzzle even collectors. An ice hatchet or bow drill might baffle anybody. So might an implement that combined the functions of a ruler, screwdriver, tack hammer, and tack puller. One authority has divided tools into fourteen categories to help the people who have started to collect tools recently. Since collecting and displaying old tools has become popular, it is always possible to sell any you find.

Many of the things that were made of iron during the eighteenth century continued to be made during the nineteenth. Local blacksmiths did less diversified work as iron manufacturing became an industry. Between the smith and the factory, more things than ever -some of them bulky and heavybegan to appear.

For one thing, stoves began to compete with fireplaces during the 1800's. Benjamin Franklin had invented the Franklin stove in 1742. This was a big improvement over the open fireplace because it conserved wood, produced better heat, and kept rooms free of smoke and flue gases. By the 1830's, the cast-iron stoves that were to be much more widely used than Franklin stoves began to replace fireplaces. As late as the early 1900's (and perhaps in a few places in this country even today) these iron stoves were used to heat rooms. They were made in various sizes, some of them very small, and one stove heated one or more rooms. A parlor stove usually had fanciful decoration on its cast-iron surface. Sometimes quite fantastic ornaments surmounted these stoves.

In the late 1800's, miniature stoves became common. Some of these were manufacturers' models; others were play stoves with lids that could be lifted and grates that could be shaken. Play stoves were made until about 1920.

The Victorians found many new uses for cast and wrought iron. For one thing, about 1850 they started to make furniture from iron. Cast-iron bedsteads, chairs, and tables with marble tops became common in bedrooms and parlors, and hatracks with arms in the front hall. Small sofas and chairs with intricate grapevine and floral designs are now copied for outdoor furniture, but if you find any authentic Victorian pieces, they are really salable.

Iron appealed to Victorians, and they decked their houses with it inside and outside. Railings, balconies, and trellises along porches were made in complicated designs. So were fences. In southern cities such as New Orleans this decoration is referred to as "iron lace." However, houses in New England and on the West Coast also had their quota of iron trim. A surprising number of people, realizing that its like will not be made again, salvage this sort of trim when old houses are being torn down, (either free if a person carts it away or for a small purchase price). The finest houses in any town had a cast-iron deer or dog on the front lawn and a cast-iron hitching post in the shape of a horse's head, a jockey, or a Negro boy. A jockey or boy usually was painted in gay colors, a horse's head in black.

"Iron lace" was carried indoors in the form of scrollwork shelves, brackets to support wood or marble shelves, and wall brackets to hold lamps. The latter often are used now for potted plants. Both shelf and lamp brackets are being duplicated at the present time. A round twine-holder of "iron lace" was made to be hung from the wall. It consisted of two halves that could be separated to insert the ball of twine, which was threaded through a hole in the bottom. Then there were matchholders to hang on the wall or keep on a table or shelf. Both twine-holders and match-holders were often made in designs somewhat like those of trivets.

A clock might be housed in a swollen cast-iron case, pictures were sometimes displayed in scrolled iron frames, and a few lamp bases were lacy iron. Iron kitchen implements included a teakettle, a coffee grinder, a pea sheller, and a cherry pitter. There were also hanging spring-scales about 61/2 inches long and 11/2 inches wide-some were of iron with a brass face-that registered a weight up to ?4 or 50 pounds. Another type of small scale was the steelyard, which had a long horizontal arm with a counterweight that could be moved from notch to notch.

Irons had always been a necessity for the weekly household chore that traditionally was done on Tuesdays. During the 1800's they began to be made in greater variety. Regular flatirons were made in several weights, the better to press different materials. A numeral impressed on the upper surface of an iron indicated how many pounds it weighed. The housewife usually kept some half-dozen irons heating at the fireplace or on the stove. It was quite a feat always to have one ready at the desired temperature.

Heavy cast flatirons with handles of various shapes were known as sadirons. These were tiring to use. Still other cast irons were hollow so that they could be heated by filling them with hot coals. Special irons, oddly constructed, that rocked or rolled were fluting irons, indispensable during Victorian days to flute or ruffle crisp fabrics.

Old flatirons are snapped up quickly at church fairs and auctions. Contemporary owners use them for bookends, paperweights, doorstops, and almost any purpose except the weekly chore of ironing.

During the last half of the nineteenth century and particularly in the 1880's and 1890's, mechanical and pull toys were made of cast iron or tin. They may not seem quite so ingenious as the mechanical toys carved or whittled from wood, but they were gaily painted and lifelike in miniature. Cast-iron circus wagons were made in such variety after 1890 that a whole circus parade could be assembled. The various cage and band wagons were modeled after those used by circuses of the time. Fire engines, wagons, carriages, and even the post-1910 toy automobiles are also now collectors' items.

So keen are toy collectors that they often will be satisfied with toys made as late as the 1920's. Especially valuable are the Schoenhut toys, made by a firm of that name in Philadelphia from 1872. Schoenhut is still manufacturing toys, although quite different ones from those made just before and after the turn of the century.

Penny banks made of cast iron were popular between the 1860's and 1910.

Originally, the mechanical ones were made as toys, but because of the American belief in thrift, particularly strong during Victorian days, they also were given to children to encourage savings. Cast-iron banks in the shape of buildings, animals, men, or other figures, with a slot for dropping in coins, are known as still banks. Much more fun are those that are animated in some fashion when a coin is inserted.

Some of these mechanical banks are as simple as a dog that jumps through a hoop in order to deposit a penny in a drum. Somewhat more complicated is the one on which a cow kicks over a bucket and a boy when a coin is inserted. A baseball bank on which a coin is caught by the catcher as the batter misses was first made in 1870. A 1909 bank titled "Teddy and the Bear" consisted of a small cast-iron figure of Theodore Roosevelt, which fires a gun to deposit the coin and causes a bear to pop out of a tree stump.

"Teddy and the Bear" is one of the many mechanical banks that are now being reproduced. One made recently from original molds and hand painted sells for about $16, but one made in 1909 sells for $75. That is, if the mechanism still works. Old mechanical banks range in price from $40 or so to several hundred dollars, depending on their rarity and condition.

According to the Seaman's Bank for Savings in New York City, which has the largest collection of cast-iron mechanical banks, many of them sold for as little as a dollar in their day. There are no records of their having been given as premiums. They were manufactured chiefly at small iron foundries in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. However much they were used, these cast-iron mechanical banks usually still work, and that is more than people in the next century will be able to say of the plastic ones made during the last ten years.

Mechanical banks are not the only things made of cast iron that are being reproduced at the present time. Trivets in many of the traditional patterns, lamp and shelf brackets, Franklin stoves, firebacks, andirons, and some Victorian furniture arc being manufactured. Some craft places are reproducing hinges and latches, fireplace and cooking equipment. It is often difficult to tell whether or not trivets, Shooks, and many small things are one or 100 years old.

Nineteenth-century lamp brackets sell for $5 to $10 if they are complete with wall plates. Similar patterns or copies are priced at $5 to $6. A matchholder sells for $5 and up, and a twineholder for about $7.50.

A simple pair of andirons with knobs topping the shafts should bring about $16.50, an S-hook $1.50 or so. The cherry pitter that seems so unnecessary now can be sold for close to $5. Toys in good condition sell for comparatively high prices. On the other hand, tools in which collectors' interest is fairly recent still sell for modest prices even if two or three unfamiliar ones are included in an assortment. A good many of the cast- and wroughtiron pieces that would seem to be white elephants actually can be sold.

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