The use of cast iron for cookware is centuries old and many of the vintage pieces can still be used today. For example, cast iron Dutch ovens were used by the settlers of the United States as they traveled westward. Without their wood burning stoves, the camp Dutch oven provided a way for the travelers to cook their meals over an open fire.
Wagner Hollow Ware Company (Pre Wagner Manufacturing Company)
The official start of the Wagner Manufacturing Company was in 1891 and you can see the centennial commemoration of this in the 1991 version of the cast iron frying pan. However, the Wagner brothers, Bernard and Milton, actually started making metal castings of light hardware for general stores back in 1881. In addition, the brothers manufactured tin hollowware for government contracts. Tin hollowware is describes general tableware like sugar bowls, tea or coffee pots, soup containers, hot food covers, water pitchers, platters, butter plates and other metal items that went with the dishware on a table. Hollowware does not include flatware. Bernard and Milton Wagner are credited as the first to cast iron for cookware in Sidney, Ohio. WagnerWare was born.
(A short footnote about the Centennial Commemoration of the 1991 version of the skillet, The Wagner’s 1891 Original Cast Iron Skillet - though it stated “Original,” along with a date, this line of cookware was manufactured in 1991 through the late 1990s. You can tell the quality difference pretty much immediately. modemac over at Cast Iron Chaos has some additional details also.)
Wagner Manufacturing Company
This is the start of the Wagner cast iron dynasty as we are familiar with it. Two other brothers, William and Louis, were added to the mix in 1891 which triggered the beginning of WagnerWare cast iron cookware. With the momentum of population growth and expansion, the Wagner brothers had a market ripe for growth and built the most modern and technologically advanced manufacturing facility for casting iron at the time. Wagner Manufacturing was able to produce world class cookware, rivaling and later surpassing the other powerhouse in the cast iron cookware arena, Griswold. WagnerWare Cookware was awarded in several nationwide as well as some international expositions, including but not limited to expositions in Chicago, Nashville, Paris, Buffalo, and St. Louis.
Uniting Wagner and Griswold
In some circles, this is stated as “Wagner acquiring Griswold” but it is not that simple. The real story is slightly more complicated and is quite common when small family operated business grow into large corporations. Companies are bought and sold, consolidated and dismantled, and the cast iron cookware business is no different. The Randall Corporation purchased Wagner Manufacturing in 1952. McGraw Edison Inc. bought Griswold on March 29, 1957 and then sold it in December 1957 to Randall who already owned Wagner.
Beginning of the End
Effectively, the Griswold manufacturing plant in Erie, Pennsylvania was shut down in 1957 and any Griswold cookware made after this period was out of the Wagner Manufacturing Sidney, Ohio plant. This was the beginning of the end of the high quality cookware that both, Griswold and Wagner, were known for. Well, that might be a little bit harsh but most experts do agree that the quality started to decline in quality at this point. In 1959, the final nail in the coffin came when Randall sold off Griswold and Wagner to Textron. It is widely accepted that post 1960 Griswold and Wagner cookware is not in the same collectable class as the pre 1960 cookware. General Housewares Corp. bought Textron Inc. in 1969 and that included the Griswold and Wagner cast iron cookware lines. One could argue that those cast iron skillets, dutch ovens, and griddles that were made after the merger and acquisitions are better than the ones made after 1990 or so, and that probably not far from the truth. However, if you compare a modern day, Made in China, cast iron skillet to a 1970, Made in the USA WagnerWare cast iron skillet, to a 1920 Griswold or Wagner cast iron skillet, the difference will be clear. An interesting note is that cookware that declares it was Made in the USA are typically not considered collectable pieces.
In 1996, a group of investors, which included a former employee of Wagner, purchased the Wagner and Griswold cookware lines. This was known as the WagnerWare Corporation. They continued manufacturing for another 3 years before closing their doors in Sidney in 1999. In 2000, the American Culinary Corporation purchased the rights, legacy, and remaining facilities of the Wagner and Griswold lines. The former employee noted above is Peter Pike and is the President/CEO of the American Culinary Corporation. It is clear that Mr. Pike is dedicated to the legacy and quality of the Wagner and Griswold names.
Are you interested in buying vintage cast iron?
Please check out my post on how I acquired my first piece of Wagner Cast Iron. It might be a different scenario than you think!
Curious about enameled cast iron? The pretty, colorful stuff – read this blog entry for some of the finer points of Enameled Cast Iron vs. Cast Iron.