This article notes the popularity of cast-iron in the 19th century, describing the wide variety of items that were made of the material. It originally appeared in the July 1944 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
In the broadside political caricatures which were produced and circulated quite freely in America from the beginning of the Jackson era down to the administration of Andrew Johnson, we find reflected much factual and psychological data of use and interest to antiques collectors. American caricaturists were both opportunists and extremists. They aped both the style and philosophy of Gilray and dipped into Greek and Roman classics and Shakespeare for their inspiration and theme. Often they portrayed their subjects in settings which included contemporary furniture and fittings, very much as Rembrandt and other masters pictured episodes in the life of Christ in Dutch, Spanish, or Italian settings of the day and time of the artist.
In certain of these caricatures high officials are pictured seated in huge Victorian chairs of the sort never carved by cabinetmaker or fashioned by stage property man. But these chairs did exist — in cast iron. And thereby hangs a very pretty and not insignificant chapter in the history of American antiques.
I mean cast iron furniture. Cast — not wrought. Cast in sand moulds; bolted together. Furniture of the same pattern as the iron balconies of the old South — most of them were cast in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania, and “northern” points west.
The iron founders of America constituted one of our most important production units, even before the Revolution. Tradesmen and artisans were usually “to order” producers. But the founder accumulated stocks. He made goods for sale by others. And he was wise in the ways of retailing, wholesaling and product designing long before other producers took a leaf from his book of experience.
The founder kept in step with architectural styles, decorating fads, furniture design. His was a unique position in that all he needed was one good model. After that multiplication was a matter of sand, flasks, furnace, coal and iron. So the founder hired his pattern makers from among the best talent available, kept his eye on shifting styles and modes, and watched for the chance to make “it” — no matter what — of cast-iron.
Expensive soapstone sinks and carved marble basins? They had hardly been introduced before cast-iron replicas or substitutes were made. Tile stoves? Cast-iron was right aside of them. Wrought iron hinges? Here is an imitation in cast-iron! Carved eagles and statuary for buildings? Carve one and take as many as you please — at so much per each — in cast-iron!
It is no wonder that the lace-like pillars and railings for balconies designed for outdoor living should have partners in cast-iron furniture — in chairs and tables and other pieces. It was logical and, as we shall see, profitable to make and sell such goods.
There is a phase of early American living habit that is seldom mentioned and seldom considered today. I refer to our early capacity for emotional grief over the death of members of the family and the consequent importance of cemeteries as “parks” where grief could be enjoyed and a measure of consolation imparted. Sweet sadness and sorrowful joys were considered very praiseworthy attributes of mind. Cemeteries were spots for the living to weep and for the dead to rest. Benches and chairs were standard equipment of the well-kept cemetery plot. Exclusive grief and exclusive sleep, even in death, called not only for cemetery furniture but also for fences and gates.
As the lovely mansions of Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans gained their iron lace-work facades and storied balconies, our burial grounds gained miles of fences and acres of furniture in cast-iron.
Bedrooms, living rooms, offices, boudoirs also were furnished in iron pieces. The day of the cheap “iron” bed may have been the early 1900’s or the gay 90’s. Certainly some horridly prison-like examples were made in those years. But the day of the pretty iron bed, the bed frame of cast-iron, was 1840 to 1860. And the iron founders made lovely ones, of course, because they had lovely patterns to work from.
Here is a gleaning from the catalogue of just one manufacturer of cast-iron furniture. The catalogue was issued in the mid 1850’s, by Chase Brothers, of Boston. It deals with “useful and ornamental Bronzed iron goods, consisting of bedsteads, hat and coat racks, toilet minors, mantel pieces, pier brackets, picture frames, parlor and salon tables, chairs, inkstands, garden chairs, urns, fountains, lions, dogs, grayhounds, and so forth.”
Actually the catalogue lists many other objects, including andirons, boot jacks, brackets, candlesticks, cradles, fire fenders, grate trivets, hall chairs, toy houses, patent “pantrepetic” mirrors, medallions of distinguished Americans, match safes, paper weights, sinks, wash basins and architectural pieces.
Two major type beds are offered: a French pattern and a spool turned example. They are available in three widths. The spool turned bed, called the “Cottage” bedstead, was available with curtain rods.
Sixteen different bracket patterns were offered, “Modeled at great expense by the best designers.” You could buy them in black, bronze or genuine gold leaf; the latter costing almost double the “bronzed” price. Two bellows stands, one andiron pattern and two fire sets are illustrated. Castor frames, candlesticks, music and reading stands, pincushions and match safes are not illustrated. Four regular type tables and one toilet table are shown. A double pedestal table is fitted with a marble top. Warren’s “centripetal spring” chairs (patented 1849) are offered in four styles. As may be noted in the illustrations, the centripetal idea made use of a petal-like assembly of band springs. It put the spring between the seat and the base and not in the upholstery of the seat, by use of curled hair or coil springs.
Among the garden furniture items illustrated by the Brothers Chase are rustic settees, piazza settees, chairs for hall or garden and a chair “for garden, piazza or cemetery.” Also a settee (with a back similar to the head board of the cottage bed) of “large and very rich style,” for four persons.
Garden and public square fountains are pictured in three styles. Guardian lion and guardian dog are shown mounted on iron pedestals. There is a garden urn but alas, no pictures of the “Medallions of Distinguished Americans.” There is a “pew rack” for church use that is a casting of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” unillustrated. There are thirteen different kinds of estate, plot and cemetery fencing.
Eight different styles of cast-iron “chimney pieces” are shown. All the architectural members were cast at one pouring. The “fronts” of these mantels are finished in plate glass, under which there is pearl, silver and gold colors, or finish in “the style of the richer kinds of marble.” Three of the mantels offered are distinctly Georgian. Five are emphatically early Victorian.
If but one manufacturer of ornamental cast-iron work contributed this much to the gaiety of our forefathers, and thus proved that our forefathers’ gaiety was at times heavy in fact as well as fancy, how much more was contributed by the dozen or more other important iron founders and the hundred or more who did local or specialized business?
I’ll admit the answer is not yet. Nor do I put it forth as one man’s or one woman’s job to find it. But here is a fruitful field for some original research and a vast story for telling. In my opinion, you will learn most and quickest from a search of early founders catalogues. They may be quite a lot scarcer than examples of cast-iron furniture but, when you find one you will find a whole chapter full of information and pictures which authenticate, document and date beyond a shadow of doubt.
The era of demand for authority is fast dawning in the American collecting scene. When your authority is a printed book you can challenge all corners, especially when your printed proof is from a contemporaneous source and not the printed opinion of an enthusiast half a century after the fact.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.