Identifying Unmarked Iron
Before we start, it's important to note that what collectors call "unmarked" ware does not necessarily pertain to just any piece which simply has no markings. Many small foundries of the 18th and 19th centuries put no markings as to maker on their pieces. Perhaps they only served a small market, everyone they supplied knew the maker, and that was sufficient. It is likely that much of what those small foundries made was the result of copying other makers' wares, and who made what and copied from whom was better left unspoken. The identification of older unmarked pieces, particularly those with bottom gate marks, remains one of the most-often-asked questions in vintage cast iron cookware collecting. Sadly, the answer is almost always, "We'll never know."
But there is a category of unmarked pieces that we can identify, so let's continue with those.
Unmarked 20th Century Cast Iron
Part of the allure of vintage cast iron cookware, besides the fineness of the castings, are the unique trademarks and detail work the foundries of the past cast into each piece they produced. Pattern makers were both skilled craftsmen and artists, in some cases even carving small, unique figures ("maker's marks") into their work to identify themselves. There are instances, however, where the parentage of some 20th century cast iron ware seems mysteriously unclear.
Much of what's known to collectors as "unmarked" cast iron has quite a bit to do with marketing. In addition to store brands, like those made for companies such as Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward, several major foundries produced unmarked versions of their goods for sale in hardware, department, and building supply stores. As such, these no-name pieces could be sold at a lower price without sacrificing the brand image and value of their main product lines.
Product differentiation in the various channels was achieved by the use of paper labels affixed to the unmarked iron. A couple of manufacturers actually made the decision at some point to cast all of their pieces without inscribed trademarks, instead relying totally on the adhesive labels.
What's interesting about unmarked pieces is they are typically on par with if not equal to the quality of their marked counterparts. While the majority are not considered collectible, per se, they can represent excellent value as "user" pans, and can usually be obtained at a fraction of the price of comparable fully-marked ones.
Here are some unmarked pieces you're likely to see, and information on how to identify who made them and when. Some of them actually enjoy collectible status. Bear in mind that, as with marked pieces, transitions between designs did not necessarily occur abruptly, so all dates given are generalizations. The characteristics described apply to skillets unless otherwise noted.
Click on any item with a icon for a gallery of photos:
Birmingham Stove & Range Co. - Birmingham, AL
1930s-1940s "Red Mountain" series
Early 1950s-Mid 1960s "Red Mountain" to "Century" Transition*
*Difference in Red Mountain and early Century series mainly a 1954 branding change. Pieces up to and including Century series may also have been sold branded as Atlanta Stove Works.
1961-1970s "Pioneer" series
1970s "Lady Bess" series
Late 1980s "Conbrio" series
Chicago Hardware Foundry
- Hammered pieces usually unmarked except for numeral 8 or 9 followed by size number and often pattern letter at 6 o'clock
CHF "Number in Diamond"
Size number inside diamond-shaped outline at 6 o'clock, often followed by pattern letter
Lodge Manufacturing Co. - South Pittsburg, TN
1900-1910 "Blacklock"¹ ²
(From 1910 to the early 1930s, Lodge put its name on its products.)
(After 1987, Lodge resumed putting its name on its products.)
Griswold Manufacturing Co. - Erie, PA
Unmarked a/k/a "Iron Mountain"¹ (1930s-early 1940s)
Undocumented Unmarked Skillet Series
Wagner Manufacturing Co. - Sidney, OH
Unmarked Smooth Bottom Skillets
Vollrath Manufacturing Co. - Sheboygan, WI
Sometimes, manufacturers marked their pans, but not their lids. Here are some examples identified:
Lids have raised, broken concentric rings, staggered, each with 8 tapered segments for basting drippers, some with positioning lugs at edges similar to Vollrath, and a unique handle shape
Dutch oven lids have small circle with eight radiating curved lines for basting elements. The pots are marked Eclipse St. Louis. Lids with similar design but with arrow points on the ends of the curved lines may be imports
Lids have raised, broken concentric rings, staggered, broken into varying numbers of segments for basting drippers, unique handle, and raised size number on top
Lids have raised points in radiating lines for basting drippers, and incised rings forming concentric bands on top
Birdsboro Casting Co. - Birdsboro, PA sold unmarked smooth bottom skillets, some with handles reminiscent of BSR, others with "scoop" shaped handle bottoms. Chicken fryers have heat rings. Small pattern identifier numbers at 6 o'clock. Marked with paper labels only. NOS Chicken fryers seen with sprue marks suggest recast copies made from older no-notch Lodge.
Krane Manufacturing Co. - St. Louis, MO sold this unmarked enameled chicken fryer and other pieces in the 1960s. Although in most all other respects like BSR, the underside of the handle is grooved; lids are inscribed with an R inside a diamond.
Sears Best Made Dutch Oven - Featured in the Sears 1936 Golden Jubilee catalog, the maker is uncertain. Sometimes seen, without provenance, attributed to Columbus Iron Works.
Some unmarked pans for whom the maker is unknown are seen frequently enough to merit inclusion here.
There may be more than one unknown maker of skillets sharing these characteristics. Skillets have:
Pieces including skillets, chicken fryer, and dutch ovens have:
While unmarked pieces produced by the major name brand manufacturers can often be identified, those made by the myriad small foundries of the 19th century and earlier usually cannot. Knowing exactly who made these early pieces and when is more often than not impossible.
Typically, the only characteristics which distinguish these older pans are confined to molder's marks (usually the foundryman's initials), a decorative handle design, or the shape and style of the bail handle attachment ears. Sometimes, certain designs can be narrowed down to a particular century or part thereof, or to a geographical region. Or, if there are marked counterparts of identical design and dimensions, they may provide a clue.
Gate marked bottoms are often an indication of late 18th or 19th century production, however, use of the technology continued into the 20th century on large format pieces like sugar kettles long after the majority of cookware manufacture had moved to side gating.
¹Has published collectible value.