Decoding Cast Iron Numbers and Lettering

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.

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