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Birmingham Stove and Range

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If you've begun looking for vintage, antique American cast iron cookware for your kitchen, it's practically a guarantee that you'll hear about Griswold and Wagner, brands considered to be the "gold standard" of cast iron cookware. But when you go looking for these pans on eBay and in antique malls, you'll soon find they are almost always overpriced and expensive. Because of their popularity, Griswold and Wagner pans can be difficult to find.

However, in your search for cast iron pots and pans, you will be much more likely to find something like…this.

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Or…this.

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"What is this? Is it made in the USA? Is it worth anything? Should I get this?"

To answer this last question: YES!

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This is a cast iron pan from Birmingham Stove & Range, and this is one of the great secrets of cast iron cooking. There are many brands of antique, vintage cast iron that perform just as well as Griswold and Wagner; but because these brands aren't as "famous" they can often be found for far, far less in price. Among the most popular of that kind are the "unmarked" cast iron pans – ones that don't have the manufacturer stamp on the bottom. Many people across the country, and around the world, have one or more of these "unmarked" pans. They have no idea who made these pans, but they work wonders in the kitchen and are treasures to have, even if they are not "valuable antiques." The most common of these "unmarked" pans are from Lodge Manufacturing – the same Lodge that makes the cast iron pans you see in Wal-Mart today – Wagner, and Birmingham Stove & Range (abbreviated here as BS&R). Folks love these pans, because they can often be found for pennies…and when cleaned up, they perform like champions.

History

The Atlanta Stove Works company was founded in 1889 (originally named Georgia Stove Company) to produce cast iron stoves. Initially, their business boomed to the point where in 1902, a separate foundry was built in Birmingham, Alabama especially for the production of hollow ware and cast iron cookware to supplement their stoves. This separate foundry was named Birmingham Stove & Range.

In addition to stoves, Atlanta Stove Works also produced a barbecue grill stand named the Cue Cart, which is legendary among barbecue afficionadoes. Even today, the Cue Cart is seen as the standard to which barbecue grills are compared. (More about the Cue Cart: www.barbecuen.com/faqs/cuecart.htm#axzz2lsc4emvB )

Along with production of everyday cast iron skillets, BS&R is credited with the introduction of the popular corn bread skillet, a cast iron pan with eight separate wedges meant for making individual pieces of corn bread.

In 1957, the original Atlanta Stove Works foundry closed, leaving Birmingham Stove & Range as the sole producer of cast iron for this company. There was still a lot of competition at the time, both from neighboring foundries such as Lodge Manufacturing, and also from the new influx of foreign cast iron from Asia.

The 1960s saw BS&R integrating automated manufacturing processes into their production. This removed a lot of the hand-finished procedures from the production of its cast iron – and the result was a cast iron pan that was still good quality, but it no longer had the "smooth as glass" feel of previous BS&R pans.

During the 1970s, increased pressure from competition resulted in Birmingham Stove & Range redesigning its cookware, changing the size of its pans especially so they would be compatible with other accessories from outside the company, such as glass lids. These newer pans were named "Lady Bess."

For a while, the energy crisis of the 1970s appeared to be a boon to Atlanta Stove Works, their parent company, as manufacturing of wood-burning stoves increased dramatically between 1974 and 1980. However, the market for wood burning stoves crashed as oil-based energy prices returned to regular levels, resulting in hard times for Atlanta Stove Works. In 1986, Atlanta Stove Works, along with Birmingham Stove & Range, was sold to Martin Industries. As the company was restructured, its wood-fired stove and cast iron production facility in Birmingham was shut down. The company entered into a temporary agreement with Lodge Manufacturing to produce their cast iron, which lasted for two years; though in 1989, Birmingham Stove & Range declared bankruptcy and folded completely in 1991. As part of its debt settlement with Lodge, the patents and designs for its cookware were acquired by Lodge, who integrated them into the design of their own cookware; especially the Sportsman grill and the cornbread pan. These products continue to be produced by Lodge through the present day, and they are consistent sellers, especially the Sportsman grill (or hibachi).

As an aside, in the 1980s, the re-structured Atlanta Stove Works was involved with the development of modern-day carbon monoxide alarms. One of the first producers of carbon monoxide alarms, Quantum Group Inc., described in its company history:

"Quantum Group Inc. (Quantum) was founded in 1982 to focus on forensic science for litigation. One of Quantum’s customers wanted a CO safety shut off device because he was paying out 10% of sales in CO litigation settlements. This company was Atlanta Stove Works (ASW). In 1984, ASW and the Gas Research Institute (GRI) partially funded the CO sensor development with about $1 million each, which was injected over a period of about 4 years. Quantum and several utilities companies also contributed money to the development cost. This led to a carbon monoxide alarm that could also shut off appliances. These products were field tested in 1986." – "Carbon Monoxide Alarms and its History," qginc.com/content/carbon-monoxide-alarm

In 1996, the former site of Birmingham Stove & Range was purchased by a recycling company called KMAC Services, who completely renovated the old foundry site.

Martin Industries Inc. filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

Identifying BS&R

Birmingham Stove & Range never put an identifying logo or manufacturer mark on their cast iron pans. However, there are several unique traits to these pans that allow them to be easily identified.

BS&R cast iron pans are very heavy, and they have a weight and a heft similar to modern-day cast iron pans from Lodge. However, unlike Lodge, the cooking surface of a BS&R pan is very smooth. The manufacturer milled down the surface of the pan and gave it a smooth surface, far more smooth than the surface found on any modern day cast iron pan produced today. This adds to the appeal of these older vintage pans.

The heavy weight of a BS&R pan differs from the lighter weight of the more famous Griswold and Wagner pans. However, the weight and thickness of a BS&R pan gives it an advantage over lighter, thinner pans: it is far more resistant to damage and warping. I've found quite a few older Wagner pans, and even some Griswolds, with warped surfaces that caused them to spin when placed on a flat surface. Birmingham Stove & Range pans almost never warp (though I've found at least one). Likewise, they are incredibly durable and resistant to scratches, dents, and chips. As with any cast iron pan, their greatest enemy was rust. If you take the effort to clean up a BS&R pan and restore it to working condition, it will look nearly new, even as good as the day it was manufactured. Many of the BS&R pans found at flea markets and junkyards are decades old, often dating back to the 1930s.

The Birmingham foundry used a size numbering system to match the stoves produced by Atlanta Stove Works. These size numbers were somewhat larger than the sizes used by most other manufacturers. With most vintage cast iron pans, the most common size available is the "number 8," which corresponds to a cast iron pan or pot with a diameter of slightly greater than ten inches (not including the length of the handle). This approximates to a No. 7 size in a BS&R pan, which is stamped on the Century series as 10 1/8 inches. The number 8 pan is a full half inch greater in diameter, or 10 5/8 inches.

Size NumberCenturyLady Bess
NO. 36 5/8 IN.6 6/7 IN
NO. 4..
NO. 58 1/8 IN..
NO. 69 3/8 IN..
NO. 710 1/8 IN..
NO. 810 5/8 IN.10 1/4 IN
NO. 9..
NO. 1012 7/16 IN.12 7/16 IN
NO. 11..
NO. 1213 11/16 IN.13 1/8 IN
NO. 13..
NO. 1415 IN..

One unique trait common to all Birmingham Stove & Range pans was the design of the handle. All of their pans had handles with a scooped hole on the underside for hanging the pan, shaped in the style seen here. The hole is teardrop shaped. There is a ridge or edge along the underside of the handle from the handle to the hole. This was a simple style that instantly identified any pan as being from BS&R.

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All cast iron skillets from Birmingham Stove & Range, up until the 1970s, were made with a heat ring: a circular ridge on the underside of the pan. BS&R pans in particular had a very thick and distinctive heat ring. Also, as stated previously, each of these pans have the teardrop-shaped scoop on the underside of the handle.


"Red Mountain" series: 1930s to 1940s

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The first series of cast iron pans produced by Birmingham Stove & Range had very few markings on the underside. As noted above, they had a prominent heat ring, and the distinctive teardrop-shaped hanging hole on the underside of the handle. However, as this photo shows, the only identification stamps used were a large number and a letter, such as the ones on the pans shown above: 3 W and 5 . (5 plus a dot). The number indicates the size of the pan – in this case, the number 5 indicates it is a size 5 pan. The letter W on the left photo is a mold marker, and it could be lettered A through Z. (Some molds used two letters for identification instead of just one, as seen in the 8 K G example above. That pan is a size 8, with the mold marker KG.) This indicated exactly which iron mold was used to cast the pan, and it assisted with easy identification if pans began showing flaws as the molds wore out or cracked from use. Some pans had a dot after the size number, instead of a pattern letter, as shown in the photo on the right.


"Century" series: 1950s to 1960s

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This is a "number 8" size pan of the "Century" series, with a diameter of 10 5/8 inches. It's slightly larger than the "number 8" sized pans from other manufacturers, such as Lodge or Griswold. Be sure to note the following:

If the pan has a MADE IN USA stamp on the underside, this indicates it was made after the year 1960. If the MADE IN USA stamp is absent, the pan is older and was cast before 1960.

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This original label shows that BS&R added a sticker to each of their pans, even though they did not include their own name on the pan itself. Click on the picture for a larger image of the label.

BSR Century Label


Corn Bread Skillet: 1960s to 1980s

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Birmingham Stove & Range can be credited as the first company to produce the popular cornbread pan, a cast iron pan with eight wedges for individual pieces of cornbread. (This pan can also be used to bake cookies, brownies, and many other delightful foods.) When BS&R's designs were acquired by Lodge in the late 1980s, Lodge kept the basic design; though they added a hole in the center of the pan. This is the way to tell a BS&R cornbread pan: it has a solid center and no hole. This pan is sold today as the Lodge wedge pan.

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The story of the creation of this pan was posted to Facebook's Cast Iron Cooking group:

"… we met with a fellow who has possession of several old catalogs and spent about an hour talking to him about the history of BSR. Some of it was recorded, but some lost. He also remembered the guy who invented the sectional corn bread skillet! He was the guy in charge of the production line and he wanted that cornbread skillet for a long time but no one ever listened. Finally, one day they decided to indulge him and the thing took off! They couldn't make enough of them! He had some great stories!" – posted to Cast Iron Cooking on Facebook by "Veri Similitude" on November 12, 2013

We haven't yet discovered the approxmate date when BS&R began producing the cornbread skillet; however, a few rare first-generation pans had a stamp on the bottom stating PAT. PENDING (patent pending), indicating they were manufactured before BS&R had officially been granted the patent. After this first generation, every single one had a MADE IN USA stamp on the underside. This indicated it was made after the year 1960, suggesting the cornbread skillet was introduced in the 1960s.


"Lady Bess" series: 1970s to 1980s

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BS&R completely redesigned their cookware in the 1970s, due to increasing financial trouble. The size of their pans was changed in order to be compatible with other accessories from outside the company, such as glass lids. The heat ring was also removed from the bottom of all of their pans This photo of a "Lady Bess" BS&R dutch oven shows a "number 8" (NO 8) sized pan measuring 10 1/4 inches, as opposed to the 10 5/8 inch size of the earlier pans. The mold marker stamp was returned to the pan (BC70). These more modern BS&R pans are harder to find than the older vintage pans.


"Pioneer" series: 1970s

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During the 1970s, BS&R produced a short-lived series of cast iron pans with wooden handles. Not much is known about this line of cast iron pans, and more information would be appreciated.


Lids

Birmingham Stove & Range lids differ from most other cast iron lids. While other lids have ridges to allow condensation to collect and drip onto the food as it cooks, BS&R lids have "dimples" or indentations on the underside of the lid.

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The handle on top of the lid was intentionally designed with one end larger than the other.

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Sportsman Grill

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The Sportsman Grill started out as the Birmingham Stove & Range Sad Iron Heater, used with coal or wood. (A number of antique elongated cast iron "griddles" in antique stores are actually sad iron heaters.) A BS&R salesman from Louisiana had the idea of selling these sad iron heaters as fish fryers; and BS&R redesigned the heater, calling it the Sportsman Grill. The earliest of these BS&R Grills still had the four-legged design of the sad iron heater, though they quickly converted to a more stable three-legged design for outdoor use on uneven ground. The original patent on this piece was issued to Atlanta Stove Works: [1]

Here's a later model of the Sportsman Grill. On the Cast Iron Cooking group, James Goodman compared this with the one above, and he wrote:

"I see lots more differences. Your grates are squared off. Mine are rounded. Yours has two feet in the rear and mine has one. I also looked at my Lodge Sportsman and it has feet just like my model. My conclusion is yours is from before 1960, and in my opinion lots before. Those square end grates are unusual in all I can see. I see other differences but small. If he can get it cleaned up he (or you) will have a nice piece. Value??? I have no idea since I don't sell anything."

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Another later model grill, this one stamped with BS&R's parent company of Atlanta Stove Works. This grill is in excellent condition, and there's a possibility it could have been produced by Lodge, during the period after 1986 when BS&R contracted with Lodge to produce its cast iron pieces.

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When Birmingham Stove & Range closed completely in 1991, the design for the Sportsman grill was passed on to Lodge Manufacturing in order to settle BSR&'s debt to Lodge. Lodge continued to produce the grill under its own brand, and the Lodge "hibachi" sportsman's grill continues to be a popular and regularly selling product today. Lodge made minor modifications to the design of the grill, but it is still essentially the same design produced by BS&R in its later days.


Sportsman Fish Fryer

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The Birmingham Stove & Range Sportsman's grill is a rare item, especially the first generation with four legs instead of three. The oval frying pan, originally made and marketed as a fish fryer accessory for the grill, is highly sought after by cast iron enthusiasts.

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When Lodge Manufacturing produced cast iron for Birmingham Stove & Range between 1986 and 1989, they gave the fryer a rounded handle similar to their own handle design:

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How much is BS&R cast iron worth?

Truthfully, not much. Because there isn't a manufacturer logo or stamp on these pans, they are largely unknown to modern day users and collectors. This is an important reason why cast iron pans from Birmingham Stove & Range are largely forgotten except by historians. These "unmarked" pans are unknown to the general public, and these pans can found at yard sales, flea markets, junk dealers, and places all over the country, often for pennies. I've bought more than one rust-coated BS&R pan for two dollars or even less, because the person selling it had no idea what it was (other than "a rusty old frying pan"). BS&R cast iron pans are widely available and not especially difficult to find, often at throwaway prices.

(On the other hand, the Sportsman's grill is a collector's item and can sell for hundreds of dollars in good condition! The Sportsman's grill has the Birmingham Stove & Range name on it, as opposed to their "unmarked" skillets.)

However, if you are looking for one of these pans to use in your kitchen – then that's the good news! It means that you are likely to find a BS&R cast iron pan somewhere, without a lot of effort. You'll only have to pay a very low cost for the pan…if you don't actually get it for free by finding it in a junk pile somewhere. (This actually happens frequently to people all across the United States.) The pan may be dirty, rusty, and encrusted with grit or even decades of old seasoning – it's not likely to be in brand new condition. But, that should not stop you from acquiring a BS&R pan if you find it in this manner. These pans are almost indestructible! It will not require a lot of effort to restore this cast iron pan into a condition as good as new. And when the pan is restored, you'll have a kitchen treasure that cooks like a champion!


Some Useful Links

YouTube: Identifying Old Cast Iron Pans – a video guide to identifying cast iron skillets made in the early 20th century, including Birmingham Stove & Range.

Unique Birmingham Stove & Range Cast Iron Pans

Some very unusual cast iron pans from Birmingham Stove and Range have been discovered by members of the Cast Iron Cooking group.

From Glen Moody, posted to the Cast Iron Cooking group on November 23, 2013:

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From Rich Bails, posted to the Cast Iron Cooking group on November 23, 2013 – a tiny Red Mountain:

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This is a BS&R deep skillet or chicken fryer, and it doesn't have a heat ring in the manner of regular BS&R cast iron skillets. It still has the markings that identify it as a Century series pan, with the abbreviated NO. 8 for the size:

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Some information from Cast Iron Collector: "You'll occasionally see on the bottom of some pieces what appears to be the head of a screw. This is not a repair of a defect, but rather a quality control measure some foundries used after the advent of automation. If a pattern became suspect of causing defective pieces, it would be marked so the pans made from it could be easily identified. A simple method of marking involved driving a screw into the pattern. A curiosity at most, and collectible value is not affected."

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Posted to the Cast Iron Cooking group on February 19, 2014 by Chris St. John: "And finally what appears to be another Red Mountain series, marked 5 Bx, and another marked 8Y. But notice that the marks are obviously scrawled by hand, rather than printed like the other Red Mountain."

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