LIFE, LIBERTY, AND THE PURSUIT OF CAST IRON
How our humble medium had a hand in shaping the United States.
We know we might be a little biased, but we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, especially coming out of the historic month of July that holds our great nation’s Independence Day: the cast-iron skillet should be on the American flag.
That’s right—a cast iron. And that’s because the age-old medium played a vital role in the very creation of this nation.
A pot cast at the Saugus Iron Works in Massachusetts and carbon dated to about 1647; the oldest iron casting in the New World. A shareholder in the foundry wrote March 15 of that year “we have cast some tuns of pots, likewise mortars, stoves, skillets”.
By the late 17th century, the colonies were riddled with iron foundries, particularly in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where we are headquartered and make our pans, respectively, today. But back then, inside these rustic structures, iron ore was melted down into a form that could later be turned into finished goods, be it by cast or wrought methods, giving birth to the dawn of American manufacturing. Pots, pans, skillets, as well as hardware, tools, and implements, up to shot, cannon, and ship ballasts were all made using American iron, with techniques evolving as colonists became better acquainted with the natural resources of the New World.
By the late 1700s, America had become the main supplier of iron to Great Britain, and bigger yet, the third largest producer in the world, which naturally started to make the monarchy nervous. With commercial trade growing stiffly competitive with other countries, like the Dutch, British Parliament decided to instate a series of acts that would limit colonial independence and growth—perhaps the most important and impactful being the Iron Act of 1750.
Thos. Jefferson in describing cast iron from one of Virginia’s many ironworks operating in the late 1700s “The toughness of the cast iron of Ross's and Zane's furnaces is very remarkable. Pots and other utensils, cast thinner than usual, of this iron, may be safely thrown into, or out of the wagons in which they are transported.”
This policy restricted the construction of new furnaces and forges, as well as the manufacture of finished goods, ultimately keeping the colonies dependent upon their motherland. Suddenly, colonial iron could only be exported to England, where it would be turned into an array of products and then sent back across the Atlantic and sold around the world.
Of course, in true patriotic fashion, the colonists decided to ignore these restrictions, which some say ignited the first spark of resentment toward the British Empire that would lead to the American Revolution.
“The iron we dig from our mountains, we have just the liberty to make into bars, but farther we must not go,” complained one Philadelphia merchant in a letter to Benjamin Franklin in 1765, nearly a decade before he would lead the first Continental Congress. “We must neither slit it nor plate it, nor must we convert it to steel, though ’tis a truth well known, that we cannot have steel from England fit for use. Nay, though England admits of steel being imported from Germany, she will not suffer it to be made in her Colonies.”
Nassawango Iron Furnace erected by the Maryland Iron Company. One of the first blast furnaces in the US near Snow Hill on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Recognized as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Photo courtesy of furnacetown.org
On July 4, 1776, more than 10 percent of the signatures on the Declaration of Independence came from metal casters, and throughout the Revolutionary War, those same colonial foundries would go on to supply cannons and ammunition to the Continental Army. Later, too, cast-iron artillery would be used to protect Fort McHenry from British invasion in the War of 1812—a battle that would Francis Scott Key to pen our national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It would appear in the Mexican and Civil Wars, as well, and, eventually, in the Industrial Age of the mid to late 1800s, it would play a pivotal part in the establishment of U.S. railroads and westward expansion.
Many foundries thrived in latter half of the 19th century—a time when some of those same workers would also transition into America’s next great metal industry, steel, and the Industrial Revolution—and a few even lived on well into the 20th century. Though a relative youngster, our own foundry dates back to the 1950s.
Looking back, looking ahead, we like to think they carry the torch.
Or better yet, the flag.