This pan watched the turn of the 20th century from the kitchens of one of the most glamorous rail routes in Europe.
- Type: Tin-lined saute pan in hammered finish with cast iron handle fastened with three copper rivets
- French description: Sauteuse étamée et martelé avec queue de fer munie de trois rivets en cuivre
- Dimensions: 42cm diameter by 13cm tall (16.5 inches by 5.1 inches)
- Thickness: 3mm at rim
- Weight: 9816g (21.6 lbs)
- Stampings: “WL O”; “WL OC”
- Maker and age estimate: Unknown; 1895-1910
- Source: barttof
The “WL” stamps on this pan mark it as the former property of Compagnie International des Wagons-Lits (CIWL), a railway operator based in Paris whose trains carried thousands of passengers from its founding in 1874 through most of the 20th century. CIWL’s first-class sleeper cars were luxury hotels on rails and their dining cars served haute cuisine on fine china. The busy onboard kitchens cooked with French copper pots and pans stamped “WL” for Wagons-Lits and a second code for the train to which it belonged.
The other WL pans I’ve profiled have a numerical code that I believe refers to the serial number of a particular dining car, but this pan is unusual in that it carries not numbers but instead the letters “O” and “OC.” Looking at the list of CIWL routes, I think the O is for Ostende (now Oostende) in Belgium, whose enormous rail station rebuilt in 1838 connected passengers on ferries from England with the rail lines on the continent.
“WL O” stamp
Based on my assessment of the age of this pan, I think it first saw service on the Ostende-Vienna Express that operated from 1894-1914 and 1925-1939. The route (shown in red in the map) was established as a luxury first-class line running once a day between Ostende, Brussels, Cologne, Mainz, Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Passau, Linz, and Vienna. (Service from London included a ferry to Ostende.) It was designed to appeal to British tourists and became the primary route between England and the Balkans. The train consisted of 23 sleeper cars, 15 baggage cars, and seven dining cars. Over the next few years, additional segments were added (numbers as shown on the map):
- 1895: Ostend-Carlsbad Express, summertime only;
- 1896: Ostend-Vienna-Constanţa Express with ferry connection to Istanbul;
- 1896: Ostend-Vienna-Trieste, once a week, until 1900;
- 1900: Connection at Vienna to the Orient Express to Istanbul.
The connection in 1900 to the Orient Express at Vienna made the Ostende-Vienna Express an alternative corridor between London and Istanbul. According to the 1903 edition of Bradshaw’s Through Routes to the Capitals of the World and Overland Guide to India, Persia, and the Far East, passage from London to Istanbul along this route took 72 hours and cost £17 11s 6d, faster than the Orient Express from Paris and costing £5 less. The fare for the Ostende-Vienna Express from London all the way through to Istanbul would be roughly equivalent to almost £12,000 in 2019 currency, versus £14,000 for the Orient Express originating in Paris.
The Ostende-Vienna Express operated until the outbreak of war in 1914. In 1925 train service resumed with two-class service under the name “Ostende-Vienna-Orient Express.” CIWL operations were interrupted again in 1939; service restarted again in 1947, but as a regular three-class train without the luxurious accommodations. The era of CIWL’s glamorous sleeper train travel had drawn to a close.
“WL OC” stamp
The second stamp reads “OC” in a different location and typeface, and I think it indicates a different period of service for this pan.
One possibility is that “OC” refers to the summertime “Ostende-Carlsbad Express,” a spur of the Ostende-Vienna Express route running to the resort town of Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic). According to documents I’ve read, the Ostende-Carlsbad Express consisted of designated sleeper cars that were disconnected from the main train at Nuremberg and attached to a different train headed off to Carlsbad. This route is shown on both the 1894-1914 and 1925-1939 maps.
The second possibility is the Ostende-Cologne Pullman Express inaugurated in 1929. Whereas CIWL’s service had primarily been long-distance first-class sleeper cars with individual compartments, the new Pullman trains had rows of seats designed for daytime routes between major cities. They offered comfortable and luxurious first- and second-class service that was more economical than the first-class sleeper cars. The Ostende-Cologne Pullman Express — with a connection from Ostende to London by ferry — became the main route from London to the industrial region of Germany and operated from 1929 until 1939 and the outbreak of the World War II.
So to which route does “OC” refer? After some consideration, I lean towards the Ostende-Cologne Pullman Express. I’m not sure the railcars designated for the Ostende-Carlsbad Express included a dining car; everything I’ve read indicates that this service consisted of sleeper cars shunted off at Nuremberg for the short trip to Carlsbad. The Ostende-Cologne Pullman Express, however, definitely had dedicated kitchens. A CIWL Pullman train was made up of units of paired cars coupled together, one with integrated kitchen, ensuring that passengers had convenient access to food and drink on board. It makes sense to me that the Ostende-Cologne Pullman Express would need a large batterie of copper pans dedicated to this busy route.
There is also the matter of the two stamps. Why require a second stamp if this pan continued to serve on the same Ostende-Vienna line? And furthermore, the stamps themselves are styled differently. To my eye, the “WL O” stamp has a more ornate and old-fashioned style to it, while the “WL OC” stamp is in a more modern sans-serif font. To me, the likeliest scenario is that the pan was commissioned and stamped around 1894 for the new Ostende-Vienna Express, saw a decade of service, and was put away in 1914 when CIWL paused operations for war. Then, in or around 1925 when CIWL resumed operations, the pan was pulled out once again, assigned to the new Ostende-Cologne Pullman Express, and re-stamped for its new job.
With all that history done, let’s look at the pan itself. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of work in my opinion.
The pan’s craftsmanship combines machine-powered and hand techniques, marking it as a piece of the transitional era at the end of the 19th century. Most notably, this is not a dovetailed piece but rather shaped from a single piece of copper. It could be hand-raised, of course, but it seems most likely to me that it was pressed from a single sheet of copper using a steam-powered metal press. This technology was invented in the 1840s but took several decades to percolate into smaller industries like cookware; my current estimate is that French coppersmiths began pressing pans in the mid to late 1890s. That would fit with the timing of the Ostende-Vienna Express inaugurated in 1894.
The rivets are definitely hand-made and hand-finished. They are large and flat, and show marks of hand-hammering. Steam-powered riveting machines appeared in France towards the end of the 19th century but they were large and unwieldy contraptions designed for the broad panels of ships and bridges and iron beams for construction. I’ve looked at patents over this period and it seems to have taken some time for the technology to be miniaturized to work as a bench tool. At the moment I believe there was a period of time from about 1890 to 1910 when French copper pots were machine-pressed — hence seamless — but still riveted by hand, as this pan was.
These elements are why I think this pan was put into service during the first decade of the Ostende-Vienna Express from 1894 to 1914. And I think it was put to work again in the 1920s not only due to the second “WL OC” stamp as discussed above but also due to the condition of the pan. It has been quite heavily used, to the point where it was damaged on its front edge opposite the handle and repaired with brass.
This is a distressingly common injury to large sauté pans like this. I think chefs just jumped the heck out of these big pans, tipping them forward and sawing them back and forth over the stovetop to agitate the food inside. (A lighter sauté pan could of course be lifted into the air to jump the proper way.) Over time all that friction is bound to wear away some copper and this pan could have thinned to the point where it required reinforcement.
But to be quite honest, the damage is a little more severe than that. That entire front edge has been dented; what should be a clear 90-degree turn from the floor of the pan to the sidewall is instead a gradual slide, as you can see in the photo below. I think this pan has been dropped with enough force to crush that vulnerable front edge. It’s also a bit out of round (as you will be able to see in the before and after tinning photos a little later in this post), which can happen when pans are dropped or struck.
With this amount of damage, I suspect this pan’s value is more sentimental than collectible. I think it is still usable — it looks water-tight to me, despite the brass repair — but in truth I would describe its condition as fair. (I will note that barttof, the seller, was very up front about this and priced the pan accordingly.) That said, to me its flaws do not diminish its appeal.
I don’t know who made this pan. CIWL famously designed every detail of their railcars and amenities, including their copper batterie de cuisine, but they did not manufacture them. In 1895 they would have found multiple possible suppliers in Paris and in Villedieu-les-Poêles; other WL pans I’ve profiled are stamped by Dehillerin or by Lefèvre Frères, both of whom maintained factories in Villedieu at that time. The rounded bulbous baseplate, tapered handle, and teardrop hanging loop are in the classic French style, but I’m afraid I just don’t know enough yet to tie this pan to a specific maker. If you have any information about CIWL’s procurement at this point in time, I’d love to know more.
I sent this piece to Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning and he did a great job restoring it. The before and after photos below show his work with tinning. You can see clearly in these overhead shots that the pan is out of round; given the damage and weakness to the copper, it’s not possible to apply the force it would take to reshape the pan without risking further deformation. This wonky geometry doesn’t really affect how the pan performs, but it does mean that a 42cm fitted lid would not sit on the pan properly and I’d need to use a flat universal lid instead. (Or a baking sheet, for that matter — they work fine!)
You can see how Erik’s restoration did not disturb the surface character of the pan. This is why it’s worth working with a dedicated copper specialist rather than a metal shop — they know how to polish the pan without obliterating its character. (Ask me how I know.)
I really cherish the surface texture of an antique copper pan like this.
I love these Wagons-Lits pans. One of the things I enjoy most about collecting antique and vintage copper is imagining the past life of these pieces, and these pans are particularly evocative for me.
Now for a little fun.
Do you think I’m right about this stamp?
If you like, let me know in the comments why you voted the way you did!