Lawn and Garden Cast IronBy Mark Chervenka
Lawn and Garden
Reproductions of cast iron outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments have been appearing in large numbers since the mid 1990s. Many pieces not widely reproduced up until that time–such as fountains, birdbaths, chairs, benches, urns, planters and fountains–began to be copied from vintage originals. Wholesale prices for new items ranged from $30 to $475.
Background on originals
Cast iron outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments were at their height of popularity between 1850-1890. During this time iron workers developed the skills necessary to make decorative cast iron and Victorian interest in lawns and gardens created a public demand. Molded cast iron was relatively cheap and replaced the more expensive hand-made wrought iron used largely from the early 1800s to the mid-1840s. By the 1890s cast iron was in turn replaced by steel which was lighter, stronger and less brittle.
A few one-of-a-kind type cast iron pieces were individually designed and made for wealthy customers, but the majority of pieces were mass produced in molds and sold to the general public. Victorian manufacturers overcame the weight problems posed by cast iron by simply dividing a large design into a number of smaller castings. The small castings were individually boxed, shipped and then assembled into the final form on the grounds of the buyer.
Original cast iron urns up to five or six feet in height, for example, were typically created from 4 to 5 castings all generally under 12 inches tall and weighing no more than 50 to 100 pounds. Original garden benches were made from as many as eight to ten pieces usually in the 5 to 50 pound range. Certainly not lightweight, but these sizes and weights could be handled by a Victorian home owner and a helper fairly easily. Although these pieces look massive and imposing when assembled, most are easily taken apart and moved.
Some of the companies that made Victorian-era cast iron furniture and ornaments include: J.W. Fiske, New York City; Janes, Kirtland & Co. Manhattan, NY; Westervelt, New York City; Lorio Iron Work, New Orleans; F.P. Smith, Chicago; Kramer Bros. Dayton, OH; and Robert Wood & Co., Philadelphia.
Comparing old and new
The new furniture and ornaments suffer from the same general problems found in the majority of reproduced cast iron whether it's toys or doorstops. These typical problems are: 1) rough, pitted surfaces; 2) poorly fitting joints and seams, 3). grinding marks; 4) major differences in construction and 5) the reproduction is not as practical as the original.
Problems 1 through 3–rough surface, loose fit and grinding marks–are about the same on lawn and garden pieces as other new pieces of cast iron (Figs. 4-8). Since these problems have already been covered in depth in other articles about cast iron we will devote the remainder of our discussion to construction techniques and problems unique to garden and lawn pieces.
Benches, Chairs & Tables
All typical old cast iron furniture was constructed of a number of parts. Holes were usually cast, and sometimes drilled, completely through the pieces that required joining. Almost all joints were fastened with nuts and bolts. There were two basic types of bolts used, a flat head bolt and a round head bolt.
Flat head bolts were used on horizontal surfaces such as bench and chair seats and table tops which needed a smooth surface. The bevelled flat head bolt fits into a matching bevelled hole in the furniture which makes the bolt head flush with the surface (Fig. 10 and Fig. 13). If you find a piece that you believe is old but has another type of bolt or fastener, inspect the holes. Original flat top bolts could have been replaced over the years but the bevelled hole should still remain in seats and tabletops.
The other fastener you could reasonably expect to find in an old piece is a round head bolt. These bolts were generally used only in a deep recess of the three dimensional cast design where they would not catch on clothing or pinch the body (see Fig. 13-D). They are usually found in backs, armrests, side panels and structural supports in low areas between leaves, branches, flowers, fruit, etc. With rare exceptions, all original bolts and nuts on American cast iron are based on English inches such as 1/2", 5/16", etc.
The new reproductions are made quite differently. Rather than make a hole in both pieces to be joined, the new pieces only have a hole in one of the mating pieces. This hole then fits over a threaded stud permanently embedded in the frame or an inside threaded pocket in the frame (Fig. 12 A & B). Pieces over studs are fastened with nuts; pieces over the threaded pockets are fastened with bolts. Both of these methods leave the side opposite the joint not only flush but perfectly smooth without any holes at all.
Both of these methods--the stud and internal pocket--are easy to detect because only one of the pieces being joined has a hole. In other words, if you looked on the opposite side of any new joint, the surface would be perfectly smooth. The hole or bolt would not be visible. This is unlike old furniture which has clear open holes in both pieces being joined together. For every original bolt head or nut you see on one side, there will be a matching nut or bolt head on the opposite side.
Another difference is that the threading on the new pieces is based on the metric system, not English inches. The new hex head bolts, for example, have 14mm heads; the hex nuts are 10mm wide. Since the threaded studs are embedded in the frame and the internal threads are also part of the frame, it will be very difficult to switch the new metric fasteners with the correct English nuts and bolts.
Does it really matter how old and new pieces are held together? Yes, it certainly does; it's an important matter of function and practicality. Original pieces were made to be used as outdoor furniture and were designed accordingly. Exposed to the weather, the nuts and bolts which hold the furniture together could become rusty and break. What then? Just replace it with a new nut and bolt which cost pennies and the piece of furniture is repaired.
A piece designed as a reproduction, however, is seldom as practical and functional as the original it copies. If the nuts or studs rusted together in these new pieces and broke, how could they be repaired? The studs and internal threads would have to somehow be drilled out and new studs installed or new threads cut in. Both very difficult and lengthy operations compared to replacing a simple nut and bolt on an original.
We were unable to find any references, examples or personal observations of American-made cast iron garden furniture with these studs and threaded pockets. A fast inspection of the bolts and holes may be a quick way to eliminate the benches, chairs and tables in this new group of reproductions. Keep in mind, however, that earlier reproductions may use a removable bolt like the originals--don't ever use just one test for judging age or authenticity.
Urns & Vases
Virtually every original Victorian period urn or lawn vase was assembled from two or more separate castings. The original urn in Fig. 14 is 27 inches high overall and is made from four sections. The original shown in Fig. 17 is 17 inches tall and formed with three separate castings. Each casting fits snugly into adjoining castings by the use of interlocking rims and projections. Although nuts and bolts were sometimes used to fasten urn handles, they were very rarely used to connect the separate castings. Nuts and bolts were not practical because they rusted quickly in the soil and water inside the planter. Victorian designers relied on gravity alone to hold all the separate castings together.
Another distinguishing feature on most original urns is an overflow opening. An overflow opening was necessary to drain water out of the planter; if there were no opening, the urn could fill with water and wash out the soil and plants. The overflow opening is usually in the ring casting just below the main casting. This ring casting generally has a solid bottom which also makes it act as a reservoir for the storage of water if needed. Other holes that may also appear in this ring are generally for accessories such as optional handles (Fig. 18).
The large new urn in Fig. 19 is typical of most reproduction urns. Unlike originals, the new urns are generally made up of only one or two castings. This particular urn contains two castings shown separated in Fig. 20. The large top casting is extremely difficult to handle because of its size and weight.
Unlike originals, this reproduction urn is held together with nuts and bolts which connect top and base (Fig. 21). Nor is there an overflow opening for excess water; the only drainage is a 1/2" dia. hole in the bottom. Another clue to its recent manufacture are the threaded studs embedded in the handles which fastened to the side of the urn with a nut on the inside.
Like most reproductions, this urn doesn't make practical sense. If it contained soil, how would you hope to move it? The nuts and bolts are buried under the soil and can't be loosened. You'd have to lift the entire piece as one unit. Not a pleasant thought. And without an adequate drain for excess water, you'd probably end up with a bird bath after the first heavy rain.
All castings should have sharp, clear detail with relatively smooth surfaces. Casting flaws such as finning, pits and bumps are signs of new work. Old pieces should show evidence of normal aging and wear.
Be suspicious of any bench, chair or table that is not fastened with removable English measure nuts and bolts. Seats and tabletops should have flat head bolts in bevelled holes for a flush surface.
Be suspicious of large urns or vases not cast in three or more separate removable pieces. Original urns were held in place by gravity, not nuts and bolts. Urns 12" and more in diameter should have adequate drainage.
And don't overlook the obvious-- carry a magnet to make sure you're looking at cast iron and not cast aluminum.
Thanks to Big Grove Antiques of Fremont, Iowa for making all the original urns in this article available for photographing.