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
- Skillets: If heat ring, unbroken and inset
- Ridge on bottom of skillet handle does not flatten out at sidewall of pan
- Lids have indented dimples for basting drippers
- Dutch oven lids also have pour spout "ears"
- Corn stick pans have alternating-direction cups, "curved M" shaped loop handles, and are usually marked only with numeral 7 and a letter or letters
- A corn stick pan marked 74 with two rows of four and a skillet handle was sold as a "Handy Dan" corn stick pan.
- Corn bread skillets were made in two sizes, marked 6CBS or 8CBS and Patent Pending
1930s-1940s "Red Mountain" series
- ¾" high size number, sometimes underlined, typically followed by pattern letter(s) or dots in various positions at 6 o'clock
- Size number and pattern letters crudely formed, often askew from 6 o'clock position
- Older examples often seen with number at 6:30 and pattern letter at 5:30 or with pattern letter below number
- Large pour spouts
- Lids have indented dimples in a more-or-less random pattern for basting drippers, size number and pattern letter incised on top near or under handle
- Skillets sizes 3,5,7 with letter S are reduced-size economy price skillets
Early 1950s-Mid 1960s "Red Mountain" to "Century" Transition*
- ¾" high, neatly formed size number, typically followed by pattern letter(s) or dots at 6 o'clock
- Pour spouts somewhat reduced in size over previous, indicative of early automated molding process
- Pieces so-marked sold before 1954 likely labeled as Red Mountain; after, as Century
- Some early automation period lids have tab handles
*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.
Late 1960s "Century" 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
- Chicken fryers with letter A, B, C, or D in diamond at 6 o'clock
Lodge Manufacturing Co. - South Pittsburg, TN
1900-1910 "Blacklock"¹ ²
- Skillets have outside heat ring
- Raised size number on top of handle
- Raised molder's mark letter on bottom at 6 o'clock
- "Smashed T-shaped" handle reinforcement rib
² Lodge founder Joseph Lodge was a partner in The Blacklock Foundry, predecessor to Lodge Mfg. Co. That these characteristics describe a Blacklock skillet are conjecture, as no marked Blacklock skillets are known to exist. A collector guide book includes a photo of a skillet with the above characteristics in its Lodge section and asks "could it be from the Blacklock foundry", but with no further elaboration. Collector groups have attempted, inductively, to fit skillets with these characteristics into the Lodge timeline.
(From 1910 to the early 1930s, Lodge put its name on its products.)
- Skillets have inset heat ring with single notch opposite handle at 12 o'clock
- Raised size number on top of handle or ¾" high size number at 12 o'clock
- Raised small molder's mark letter at 6 o'clock
- Some earlier "no-notch" patterns were re-purposed, but otherwise have the same characteristics
- All skillet & DO lids have grid of pointed tips for basting drippers, may have raised letter molder's mark on underside
- A line of pieces with an unusual "scalloped" heat ring consisting of crescent-shaped segments is believed to be from this time period
- Skillets have inset heat ring with 3 notches at 9/12/3 o'clock.
- ¾" high size number at 12 o'clock
- Pattern identifying marks incised at 6 o'clock or raised shift identifier on a small flat blob of metal above the size number (late 1940s-early 1950s)
- Later, letters denoting pan type, e.g. "SK" skillet, "DO" dutch oven (late 1950s-1980s)
- After ca. mid-1960s "Made In USA" added at center
- Lids have grid of pointed tips for basting drippers, size number and diameter or pan capacity incised on underside
- Corn stick pans have 5, 7, or 9 uni-directional cups, outward-curved ends for handles, with round or elongated hanging holes, button or bar-shaped levelling feet, and often the number 27 and letter C on the 7-cup
- Divided cornbread skillets have hole in center
- Hammered toy skillets typically with 00, 0, or 1 markings
(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)
- Inset heat ring
- Unique handle shape, with untapered oval opening (except size #5)
- Italicized numerals on bottom of pans and underside of lids
- ½" high size number at 12 o'clock, 4-digit p/n at 6 o'clock
- Lids have raised, concentric, staggered, broken rings of 4 long segments each for basting drippers, p/n incised on underside, and raised numeral size number on top
- An identical line of unground pieces was also produced
Unmarked Skillet Series¹
- Inset heat ring
- Italicized numerals
- ½" high size number (7,8,9) at 6 o'clock
- Three digit p/n at 12 o'clock (754,755,756) with pattern letter below
- Reduced dimensions suggesting patterns were altered later Victor economy brand
Undocumented Unmarked Skillet Series
- Smooth bottom skillets
- Italicized numerals
- Size numbers 7,8,9 absent
- Three digit p/n above 6 o'clock (377,378,379)
- Ghosts of pattern number seen on marked Griswold skillets with identical handle style
- Smooth bottom
- Unique artistic numerals
- ½" high size number at 12 o'clock
- Three digit p/n at 6 o'clock
- Three holes in handle
- #3/668 and #4/669 skillets only
- Believed to be Griswold due to similarity of font to some other pieces known to be made by Griswold. Other unmarked pans exist with the same font and whose ghost marks can be found on marked Griswold pans
Wagner Manufacturing Co. - Sidney, OH
Unmarked Smooth Bottom Skillets
- Size number incised on top of handle
- Some earliest examples unmarked except for size number on handle; are IDed by other Wagner characteristics
- Descriptive size at 6 o'clock, e.g. "6½ INCH SKILLET" or "5 QT." (absent on early examples)
- "Made In USA" added mid-1960s, below description
- After the acquisition of Griswold in 1959, pieces typically referred to as "unmarked Wagner" made in Sidney, Ohio were also sold under the "Griswold Early American" label
- Lids have raised scallop-toothed concentric rings for basting drippers
- Divided cornbread skillets have typical late-style Wagner handle
Late Unmarked Lid
- Solid concentric rings for basting drippers, incised markings and raised size numeral on bottom, and a unique bevel-edged handle shape indicative of a lid made from a Griswold pattern after the Wagner buy-out
Vollrath Manufacturing Co. - Sheboygan, WI
- Size number with or without dashes, may be underlined, at 3 o'clock, oriented sideways
- Outside heat ring; smooth bottom versions exist
- Hollowed-out skillet handle bottom, with very long reinforcement rib extending to the hanging hole
- Tops of handle ends appear "stretched" and curved slightly downwards
- Dutch ovens are identifiable by their wide undivided loop bail attachments with handle attached across diagonally
Sometimes, manufacturers marked their pans, but not their lids. Here are some examples identified:
Favorite Stove & Range Co. - Piqua, OH
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
John C. Kupferle Foundry Co. - St. Louis, MO
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
Martin Stove & Range Co. - Florence, AL
Lids have raised, broken concentric rings, staggered, broken into varying numbers of segments for basting drippers, unique handle, and raised size number on top
Renfrow Ware - Los Angeles, CA
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.
"Southern Mystery Skillets" (SMS)
There may be more than one unknown maker of skillets sharing these characteristics. Skillets have:
- Inset, unbroken heat ring
- Raised size number on top of handle
- Distinct handle reinforcement rib and pad
- Tiny pour spouts (two styles seen)
- May or may not have raised molder's mark at 6 o'clock
"Hammered Ugly Unknown"
Pieces including skillets, chicken fryer, and dutch ovens have:
- Large indistinct hammering dimples
- Smooth bottoms
- Incised dots, sometimes letters on skillet handle bottoms
- Size number inscribed on top of skillet handle, often askew
- Lids have raised size number on top, pour spout "ears"
- Poor casting finish and detail on undersides of lids
- Dutch ovens have protruding tab handles with holes, no bail
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.