Help me get a handle on the handle on this helper-handled pot. Heh.
|Tin-lined saucepan in hammered finish with brass stick handle and helper handle attached with three copper rivets
|Saucier martelé et étamé avec queue et poignée en laiton munies de trois rivets en cuivre
|34cm diameter by 19cm tall (13.4 by 7.5 inches)
|2mm at rim
|8498g (18.7 lbs)
|SJC; BKS; 37
|Maker and age estimate
I was intrigued by this big pot the moment I saw it. In my experience it is unusual to see a saucepan with a main handle made not of iron but instead of brass, which strikes me as an uncharacteristically un-pragmatic choice. Brass is far more conductive than iron and so a brass handle will heat up much more quickly than an iron handle of the same size and shape, and the French chaudronniers — a pragmatic bunch marketing to equally pragmatic French cooks — considered this when they selected the handles for their products. Pans that were frequently picked up and shifted around during cooking (such as sauté pans and saucepans) got stick-shaped iron handles that kept the pan’s heat from creeping up to the cook’s hand, while pans that were left stationary during cooking (such as stockpots, rondeaux, and stewpots) were fine with short side handles made of brass.
So how did this saucepan end up with a stick-shaped brass handle? One possibility is that it was intended as a serving piece, not a cooking piece. French cuisine considers the presentation of food to be a crucial component of its appeal, and so a kitchen might maintain one set of copper pans for the cooktop and a second to convey prepared and arranged food to the table to delight the guest. While the cooktop set was made of thick copper with each pan equipped with an iron or brass handle according to its purpose, the “table service” set was made of thinner copper (less than 2mm) and always fitted with brass handles for maximum visual appeal. (This pot is 2mm at the rim and perhaps a little thicker in the base, so it’s within the range of table service in my opinion.)
But this is a big pot. It weighs more than 18 pounds unladen and an additional 12 quarts of liquid — just two-thirds of this pot’s 18-quart capacity — would add 25 more pounds. I have a hard time imagining even the burliest waiter hauling this off the stovetop and staggering out of the kitchen and into the dining room to show it off to the guests.
Another possibility is that the pot originally had an iron handle and the brass handle is a later replacement. But I don’t see signs of re-drilled holes and the rivets look flat and era-appropriate. Rivets added later in the 20th century would have been smaller, with rounded mushroom-like factory heads.
The interior and exterior rivets on the helper handle look almost identical, suggesting to me that both handles were put on the pot at the same time using the same methods.
The long brass handle, unusual though it may be, is beautiful to me. While the upper plane of the handle is smooth, the underside is textured with scratches. It reminds me of an elephant’s trunk.
I thought brass handles were by necessity cast, but this one has the irregular shape of a wrought piece. Could this handle have been shaped by hand?
In addition to its all-brass hardware, this pot is also interesting for its construction. I expected it to be dovetailed: it has the sharp 90-degree return of a pot with sidewalls bent inward to join the base. But there are no tell-tale yellow lines of brazing to be found. I spent a few minutes looking carefully at it to figure out how it was made and I finally detected a very faint seam running around the floor of the pan about half an inch from the sidewall. It’s not a crenellated dovetail seam but a continuous circle. It’s difficult to capture in a photo but I managed to find one section that is visible.
The outside base of the pan is seamless except for one tiny crack visible along the edge. As you can see in the photos below, there is no brass brazing.
Putting these clues together, I think this is pot was welded, perhaps a very early example of this technique in use for French copper cookware. It looks to me that the base is a flat disk and the sidewalls have a narrow flange folded inward and welded flat on top of it. I think this is why I expected to find dovetails — this pot was assembled like a dovetailed piece and that’s why it has the same distinctive sharp-edged 90-degree return.
This construction is unconventional for a welded piece and that’s why I think this is an early example. Deep pots like stockpots and daubières are welded to this day but the base is pressed into a cup shape while the sidewalls remain flat; if you look closely at a 20th-century stockpot or daubière you may be able to trace the weld seam running around the sidewall an inch or two above the base. I am not a metallurgist or materials scientist but this modern construction seems better to me because the weight of food in the pot applies force parallel to the join, seeking to slide it apart. In this saucepan, by comparison, the weight of food applies force perpendicular to the join, seeking to pop it off the bottom.
(If you must know, yes, I made this diagram all by myself using PowerPoint.)
The techniques of welding were discovered earlier in the 19th century but it did not become economically feasible for routine industrial use until the invention of the hand-held acetylene torch in France in 1901. Welding is much faster and easier than dovetailing and produces a much stronger join; the war effort accelerated the development of industrial welding for military and industrial use, and by the 1920s dovetailing had become largely obsolete in France. My guess is that this pot was made by a chaudronnerie still learning about welding, perhaps between 1901 and 1910 or so, before they realized that relocating the welding seam to the sides of the pot better managed strain on the join. But as always, I would love to hear from people with better experience and knowledge — what do you think?
There’s another advantage of moving the join away from the edge of the pan: it’s less likely to be damaged. On big pots and pans like this, the bottom edge opposite the main handle is the spot that strikes surfaces first when it is moved around, and consequently here is where you are most likely to find dents and cracks. This pot did not escape this fate: there is a dent on the base underneath the helper handle right on the welded seam, and the seam has cracked. This pot was restored for me by Erik Undiks at Rocky Mountain Retinning and he performed a beautiful subtle repair with brass braze.
A little ironic, isn’t it, that the modern welded seam ended up being fixed with old-fashioned brass a hundred years later!
As above I think I know when this pot was made — between the early 1900s to as late as 1910 or so — but I don’t know who made it. I have reason to believe it’s of French origin: I bought the pot from an Etsy seller in France and the handle styles are both in the French manner down to the teardrop shape of the stick handle’s hanging loop. But beyond that, I don’t have a clue.
The pot has no maker’s mark but does have two groupings of stamps that I think are owner’s marks: “37” and “BKS,” and in a separate area, “SJC.” I don’t know what these stand for but based on the typefaces I suspect the more ornate BKS is earlier than the SJC, which looks like a mid-century typeface. I am not sure what the 37 means — the pot is a little over 34cm in diameter, but nowhere close to 37cm!
So what do you think of this quirky pot? A custom order, perhaps, for a restaurant that for its own reasons wanted a brass-handled saucepan, no matter how hot it got? A one-off experiment from a chaudronnier still learning how to place welded seams? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you’ve seen more like this one and can help me identify it.