What’s in a number? It’s a question commonly asked when it comes to cast iron, as these symbols—6s, 8s, 10s, and so on—were often inscribed onto the handle or bottom of many an antique pan.
For decades, numbers were staples of these skillets, so much so that new pan companies have started to numerically mark their own, paying tribute to the old practice. Which is one, it turns out, to be as useless today as our most recent Alma. (No offence to either.)
But like any good question, the answer is shrouded in its fair share of myth and controversy, though we do know that its origins date back just over two centuries, when the Age of Enlightenment would bring about many a pivotal innovation and invention, especially pertaining to our kitchens.
For our purposes, perhaps the most important development arrived on the eve of the 1800s with the process of standardization. Sure, we used measurements back in those days, but we still hadn’t figured out how much easier life would be if we just developed some standards, aka models to which we could compare things. In other words, through the 1700s, even as we created the influential likes of the lightning rod, the piano, the smallpox vaccination, we still had yet to make two nails—let alone skillets—that were exactly the same.
Standardization arose out of the Industrial Revolution, with standards implemented to both improve and increase production. Many say it all started with Eli Whitney, the New England inventor of the cotton gin, who in 1797 proposed the manufacture of flint-powered firearms with interchangeable parts. Up until that moment, each gun was made one by one, piece by piece, bit by bit, by the hands of a single gunsmith. But credit is due across the pond, too, to two Englishmen, Marc Brunel and Henry Maudslay, who were also then crafting identical pulleys and precision tools for shipbuilding, as well as an early production line.
With the invention of identical, interchangeable parts and products, manufacturers were able to make large runs of the same item for the very first time, while consumers could also now easily replace their worn-out goods. Standardization enhanced product uniformity and effectively quality, and as manufacturing advanced, so, in many cases, did the standard of living.
Exhibit A is the early cookstove, invented in the first half of the 1800s. A dramatic upgrade from open hearths in terms of cleanliness and safety, not to mention the overall experience of cooking, these enclosed stoves, eventually made out of cast iron, quickly became a fixture for middle-class homes.
Unsurprisingly, foundries got in on that craze, and with it, the making of cast-iron cookware as an easy add-on. These stoves had a variety of openings on their cooking surfaces, known as eyes, which ranged in size and effectively number, atop which sat different pots and pans. Thus, a cast-iron company’s number 3 stove eye paired with their number 3 skillet—an early standard! Sounds simple, right, but of course, it isn’t.
Contrary to popular belief, more often than not, these numbers did not equate to exact or even actual measurements, such as the diameter of the eye or pan, as proven by the Favorite 1, or better yet, the Griswold 0. On top of that, a Lodge 10 was not the same as the 10 of a Wagner, or any of the other guys, making for standardization within brand but missing the industry-wide memo.
Even as some companies shifted away from stoves, the numbers still stuck as the original pan patterns continued to be used for decades. Others closed, their records lost to history, only further intensifying the great debate over these numeric systems that has carried well into the 21st century.
Butter Pat Aunt Alma
Today, to make matters even more confusing, we’ve decided to use letters.
Where the handle’s base meets the pan’s rounded edge, you’ll find a small loopy squiggle—in fact, an initial—with each pan named in honor of a woman who has influenced us in some seminal way. They are mothers, wives, grandmothers, great aunts; maybe one day, sons and fathers.
We figured, since the numbers are antiquated with our modern stoves anyways, we might as well use a design element that means something, if only to us, and that tells a story, if only one just slightly less complicated.
It is in indeed an homage to the past, to the tradition of numbering cast irons, to all of the practice’s legend and lore. But at the core, these letters, literally hand-drawn by our founder and located at the grip of our own fingertips, are meant to remind us about people.
About the former foundrymen who also inscribed early cast irons, using a simple stylus to carve those numbers right into the pattern’s clay. About Estee and Heather, Joan and Lili. Even little old useless Alma.
That they were here, and we were, too, before the measurements or mass production or machines took over. That hopefully we will be long after.
Little did we realize in the beginning, but with these names, the pans themselves would become personified—an unintended consequence but welcome embodiment, through the meals they make and the community they create in the kitchen, of what makes us human. Which, of course, is anything but standard.
Though, for that, in a way, we could call them standard bearers, too.