Originally, cast iron pots were fashioned with three legs so as to allow food to be cooked over an open flame in the home’s hearth or fireplace. Additionally, cast iron pots may have been outfitted with a handle or hook so as to be hung over the fire. In the 1700s, stoves came into common usage and cast iron cookware began to be manufactured in mass quantities in the legless, pan-like styles seen here. What is more, the processes of annealing (strengthening the iron material so as to allow for thinner cookware and, therefore, faster heating) and tinning (covering the iron with a thin layer of tin metal so as to prevent rusty or metallic tastes from seeping into the food) made cast iron cookware more versatile, practical, and desirable.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, cast iron cookware flourished in the homes of dignitaries and laymen alike, popular for its ability to evenly cook food over an uneven heat source. In Adam Smith’s 1776 version of the Wealth of Nations, the author notes that a country’s “manufacture of pots and pans” would serve as a more meaningful status symbol than its stock of gold. In fact, cast iron cookware was so valuable that George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, specially bequeathed her own collection of “iron kitchen furniture” to her son in her will. Moreover, Lewis and Clark list a cast iron Dutch Oven as one of their most valuable pieces of equipment in their wilderness travelogue.
In the late 1800s, enameled cast iron became popular; in the 1900s, however, cookware fashioned from other materials such as stainless steel, and later coated with Teflon, took center stage. Cast iron pots and pans may have faded into the background, but they will always evoke a sense of nostalgia in the kitchens of the American South, stirring up memories of Grandma’s biscuits or “famous” fried chicken.