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If you've had any experience with cooking in cast iron, you'll know there's a difference between the modern-day cast iron pans and the classic antique iron cookware. Cast iron pans made today are heavier, with a rougher cast surface; whereas vintage cast iron pots and pans from the early 20th century have a far smoother cooking surface, and are lighter in weight and heft. (This doesn't mean modern-day cast iron pans are worse to cook with than antique iron, it only means they're slightly different.) And if you know anything about acquiring and collecting antique 20th century cast iron, then you know that the brand names to look for are Wagner and Griswold.
Collectors of vintage cast iron cookware often come across entries on eBay or other sites that promote a "vintage" cast iron skillet supposedly manufactured by Wagner in 1891. These items are promoted in this way in order to entice the buyer and make him think this is a genuine antique cast iron pan from the year 1891 – after all, it says "1891" right there on the pan! In fact, this particular line of cast iron was manufactured from 1991 through 1999:
The Wagner cast iron company was purchased by the Randall Corporation in 1952. The same company also acquired the Griswold manufacturing company in 1957, and both the Wagner and Griswold lines of cast iron cookware were manufactured at Wagner's foundry in Sidney, Ohio from 1957 through 1999. Randall sold both Wagner and Griswold to the General Housewares corporation in 1969, and they were the producers of these brands through the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
In 1991, General Housewares produced a line of "Wagner's 1891" cast iron pans especially to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Wagner cast iron company in 1891. The "1891 Original" indicates the original year when Wagner began producing cookware. It's not uncommon for pans of this brand to sell for $5 to $10 or so in some antique and second-hand stores.
When brand-new, these pans were sold in boxed sets:
General Housewares continued to manufacture cookware with this logo from 1991 through 1999. General Housewares' Wagner cast iron foundry shut down in 1999, and production of these pans ceased at that time. It is worth noting that the American Culinary Corporation purchased the Wagner and Griswold brands in 2000, but they no longer manufacture cast iron under these names. American Culinary continues to promote these modern-day Wagner cast iron pans, but there do not appear to be any pans in existence produced after the Wagner foundry shut down in 1999. The Chow Hound discussion board includes a discussion of modern Wagner cast iron pans, in which people state that they have been unable to obtain any "modern" Wagner cast iron pans from American Culinary:  On the other hand, there have been sightings of a few "Wagner" skillets of Chinese manufacture, apparently made after the Sidney, Ohio foundry closed in 1999:
Despite the manufacturer's statement that this is an "1891 original," the pan bears very little similarity to actual cast iron pans made by Wagner in the 1890s – other than being round and made for cooking food. Several aspects of this "Wagner's 1891 Original" pan provide evidence that this is of modern-day manufacture as opposed to the antique design. Here is the current design of the Wagner cast iron skillet logo as displayed on the Web site for the American Culinary Corporation: Modern Wagner Cast Iron Skillet
Meanwhile, the Cast Iron Collector Web site provides photos of many genuine vintage cast iron pans from the early days of Wagner Manufacturing, including photos of actual Wagner skillets from the 1890s:  and .
Be sure to note the following characteristics of the modern "Wagner's 1891 Original" cast iron pan:
If you see this pan being sold as a "vintage antique" at a high price, be sure to laugh out loud and point it out!
Of course, even the "Wagner's 1891 Original" is a cast iron pan. If you're simply looking for an inexpensive cast iron pan to cook with, there's only one reason not to pick up one of these if you come across it at a low price. These pans are prone to warping at high heat, and because of this, collectors and users of cast iron cookware consider the "Wagner's 1891 Original" to be an inferior piece of iron. I've come across several of them myself in antique stores, and I find that if you lay a "Wagner's 1891 Original" pan on a flat surface, there's a chance that it could wobble due to a warped bottom. Be sure to check for warping before purchasing one of these pans. It may not be a collector's item, but if it's not warped then it still performs with the reliability of a good, solid piece of iron cookware.
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