Decoding Cast Iron Numbers and Lettering

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Decoding Cast Iron Numbers and Lettering
Decoding Cast Iron Numbers and Lettering

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Whether the products were skillets, waffle irons, or griddles, nearly all vintage pieces made by major foundries had one identifying marking in addition to such things as logos.  Namely, size numbers.

The size number is typically found on either the bottom of a piece or incised in the top of the handle.  The assumption is often made that this number is an indicator of the item’s diameter in inches.  A simple measurement of both the top and bottom rims of a pan, however, proves that assumption incorrect.  In fact, these numbers instead indicate a size of old-time stove burners.

Back when wood-burning stoves were first becoming prevalent, pans were made to fit the variously sized openings in the top called stove eyes.  Essentially a stove eye is the equivalent of a modern burner.  It was a heavy cover piece made to fit eyes not being used directly.  For maximum direct heat, the stove eyes could be removed with a special lifter handle as well.

In early cast iron pans, there was typically a rim or heat ring on the bottom surface of the pan.  The heat ring provided stability for the pan and helped to maintain consistent temperature by essentially sealing the pan over the stove eye.  So depending on the brand of a particular stove and the sizes of its eyes, pans of various and corresponding sizes would need to be purchased.

Though wood-burning stoves gave way to gas, and eventually electric stovetops, this system of numbering continued as the standard for sizing cast iron cookware.

A Wagner Manufacturing Co. catalog dated 1924 provides this code for the bottom diameters of their cast iron skillets:

#2 – 4-7/8″
#3 – 5-1/2″
#4 – 5-7/8″
#5 – 6-3/4″
#6 – 7-1/2″
#7 – 8-1/4″
#8 – 8-7/8″
#9 – 9-3/4″
#10 – 10-1/4″
#11 – 10-7/8″
#12 – 11-3/4″
#13 – 12″
#14 – 13″

Not all makers followed the same standards, however.  A 1918 Griswold Mfg. Co. catalog shows similar dimensions for many skillets, with the #3 and #4 being somewhat smaller than Wagner’s, and the #13 and #14 somewhat wider.  Meanwhile a Martin #3 skillet was actually the same as a Wagner #2.  Some manufacturers intentionally produced pans slightly larger than their competitors so they could promote them as bigger and therefore better.

Numbers and Letters

As if the numbering system isn’t complicated enough, many pieces can be marked with inscriptions such as 3B, 8CX, 710C, or 1053C.  The letter or letters after the numerals, in all four of those cases, are known as pattern letters.

The pattern letter corresponds to the one particular pattern that molded a pan in the foundry.  You see each model of pan produced by a foundry had a pattern to make its molds and in the case of a common or popular size, several patterns would be made so multiple molds could be cast at once.

As these patterns wore out or would start creating flawed pans, this lettering system became an easy way for manufacturers to know which pattern needed to be replaced.

Naturally less-common pieces may have only needed a few patterns to meet the production demand, and on those we don’t typically see pattern letters with anything more than the first few letters of the alphabet.  On the other hand, for popular sizes like #3 and #8 skillets, nearly every letter may have been used in manufacturing.

Sometimes you can also find pieces with no letter after the number.  Not having this letter doesn’t necessarily indicate the order of creation or any sort of superiority.

The letters were no indicator of pattern revision, simply a means of identification among a particular set of patterns in use.  A lack of lettering can also mean only one pattern was needed to be created at a time for that particular pan model.

So regardless of what sellers may try to imply about the significance of pattern letters or lack thereof, collectors don’t generally concern themselves with what lettering on a piece.

The aforementioned pattern letters of 710C and 1053D are obviously slightly more complex than simple size code followed by lettering.  In the case of 1053D, that is a Wagner product identifiable as a regular skillet 105, size #3, made from pattern D.

Wagner even maintained a consistent system when the size number grew to 2 digits.  Aptly, sizes #10 thru #14 skillets were inscribed 1060, 1061, 1062, 1063, and 1064.

Griswold Manufacturing was a bit more complex in their numbering system, with the numbers seemingly unrelated to the size of a piece.  For example, a size #6 Griswold skillet has a pattern number of 699 while a #7 is pattern 701 and a #8 is pattern 704.

Another point of confusion in identifying these pans is the fact that in not all cases were the pattern numbers unique to a particular model number.  Both Griswold and Wagner have produced pieces of multiple models with the same pattern letters.

On the other hand, some early pieces are seen with multiple pattern numbers on the same size and type of pan.  This may help to explain the reason behind Griswold’s system evolving as it did.

For example, on early Erie skillets, as many five or six different numbers appear: #6 (699,701), #8 (704,705,706,707,708,709), #9 (710,711,712,713), and #10 (715,716).

While the original plan was possibly to have a unique number for each and every pattern or maybe to change numbers when the design was updated, the whole system was scrapped around 1905 when a more consistent numbering and lettering scheme was developed.

Small Raised Letters or Numbers

There is also a case where you may see a small raised number, letter, or group of letters on a piece.

Those would have been added to the mold at the time of casting and are known as molder’s marks.

Since foundry workers were usually paid by the piece, these marks not only helped tally how many pieces a molder produced on a given shift, but also showed whose work was not up to standard.

Molder’s marks can sometimes be positioned slightly askew, showing the haste they were sometimes added with.

Raised letters tend to indicate a particular molder while numbers are more likely indicative of a foundry shift.

Other Alpha-Numeric Markings

Around the 1950s, manufacturers began to use specific dimensional descriptions on the pieces, such as “10 5/8 IN.” or “6-1/2 Inch Skillet” spelled out.

These markings would either be used with, or in some cases, in favor of traditional size numbers.

Later some makers added metric dimensions as well.  For the most part, pans with such markings are not considered desirable collectibles.

A few exceptions are early unmarked Wagner Ware and some Birmingham Stove & Range Co. “Century” pieces, which are dubbed as good users.

In one other instance, you can find a number incised on the bottom of the handle of some small pans.

These seem to be limited to 1-4.  The reason behind this is that for efficiency small pieces would sometimes be cast in groups simultaneously in the same mold.

Multiple patterns would be arranged and connected by runners in what was called a gang mold so that all the cavities could be filled by a single pour of iron.

In the same way as pattern letters identified quality issues, these small numbers or sometimes just a pattern of dots was used by manufacturers.

Other Usage of Letters

One other use for letters was as model identification.  This method was used extensively by Lodge Manufacturing in the late 1950’s to early 1960’s.

While many seem fairly obvious, some letters were a bit cryptic unless you had the original label or packaging for reference.

Following are a list of most of those common codes used:

AS – All Star Pan
AT – Ash Tray Skillet
B – Breadstick Pan
BE – Bacon & Egg Skillet
C – Cornstick Pan
CAF – Camp Fryer
CB – Corn Bread Skillet
CC – Combo Cooker, Indoor/Outdoor
CF – Chicken Fryer
CK – Country Kettle
CO – Camp Oven
CP – Fluted Cake Pan (Bundt Pan)
CP – Cactus Pan
CS – Chef Skillet
D – Danish Cake Pan
DO – Dutch Oven
DOF – Deep Fry Oven w/cover & basket
DOT – Dutch Oven Trivet
FB – French Bread (2-loaf Vienna Roll Pan)
FBK – Flat Bottomed Straight Kettle
FF – French Fryer w/basket
FP – Fish Pan
FS – Foursome/4-In-1 Skillet Set
GC – Glass Cover
IC – Iron Cover for Chicken Fryer and Dutch Oven
LG – Oblong (Long) Griddle
M – Muffin Pan (6-cup Turk Head)
MP – Melting Pot
NG – Round Griddle, New Style
NTP – No Trump Card Pan
OG – Round Griddle, Old Style
OS – Oval Serving Griddle
P – Popover Pan
PP – Perch Pan
RBK – Round Bottomed Straight Kettle
SC – Skillet Cover
SK – Skillet
SP – Sauce Pan or Stew Pan
SQSK – Square Skillet
TB – Top of Stove Broiler (Axford style skillet)
TK – Tea Kettle

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