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What do letters and numbers mean on cast iron cookware?

Find out what these mysterious symbols indicate.
Find out what these mysterious symbols indicate.

Cast iron cookware has been the staple in kitchens for hundreds of years. They heat quickly and evenly, and reduce cooking time and fuel use. Modern production methods have made pieces even more efficient. For a century, letters and numbers have been imprinted on pieces when they are made. What do these mysterious digits mean?

In general, they refer to size, but often the size does not match with any standard measurement system, and among brands, there is no standard system either. Numbers do not equate with the inch diameter measurement of the top or bottom of a pan. A pan stamped with a “3” is not 3’ in diameter, nor necessarily 13” or any multiple of 3.

With the development of wood burning stoves, pans were cast to conform to the openings in their tops, known as “stove eyes”. This is roughly equivalent to the size of a burner on a modern stove. Variances in wood burning stove eyes by brand, however, made uniformity of cookware production impossible. Early pieces had a rim on the pan bottom, called a “heat ring”, designed to “seal” the heat input to the piece bottom, as it nestled in the eye. They also provided stability to pans with bumpy bottoms, and helped provide uniform heating. Some stove manufacturers even produced cookware that conformed to their stove eye sizes.

With the advent of gas and electric stoves, the process became even more complicated. Cooks loves the cookware, but heat rings were becoming obsolete, especially for electric stove users. Some manufacturers published lists of number and size equivalents, but sizes were not standard among brands. A “4” could have at least an inch of size difference between cookware brands, making buying difficult. Some manufacturers even produced pans only a fraction of an inch wider than a competitor’s so they could advertise a bigger (and inferred “better”) product.

Then manufacturers began adding one or more letters after numbers. In general the letters referred to patterns. Cast iron pieces were made by pouring liquid into molds. In some cases, many pieces were poured from the same mold; in other cases, a new mold was used for each piece. This one mold-one piece practice continues today for high quality cast iron pieces, making each piece one of a kind, and justifying the high cost.

Numerous letter/number combinations indicated the design patters, handle patters, and/or lid pattern used. Combinations of different patterns resulted in longer, more complex digit patterns. Eventually, catalogs were published listing what each manufacturers number/letter designations indicated by pattern, size, and even manufacturing location.
Small, raised letters or letter groups on pieces indicated the “molder’s mark,” added by the foundryman who cast the pieces. Foundrymen were paid by the piece and this system authenticated the maker. The marks also helped tally work production rate, and kept quality control standards high.

Around 1950, manufacturers began stamping actual bottom diameters in the cookware, eliminating most of the size confusion issues. For more information, click here.

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