It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
|Type||Tin-lined saucepan with double-seamed base and wrought iron handle fastened with three copper rivets|
|French description||Saucier étamé avec base à double couture et queue fer forgé munie de trois rivets en cuivre|
|Dimensions||18cm diameter by 11.5cm tall (7.5 by 4.5 inches)|
|Thickness||1.7mm at rim|
|Weight||1554g (3.4 lbs)|
|Stampings||Inverted ducal coronet; M C.H.T 14|
|Maker and age estimate||Unknown maker, likely French but also possibly English; pre-1860?|
I was drawn to this pot because I find it both beautiful as well as also unusual. The wrought-iron handle and simple baseplate suggest to me that it’s an early 19th century piece; the dovetailed sidewall and double-seamed base tell me that it has undergone an extensive repair; and the engraved royal crown tells me that it’s a high-quality piece with a history I might be able to research. That the engraving is upside-down — accompanied by a very English tin band around the rim! — adds a tantalizing soupçon of contradiction. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it so I could study it.
Reader, I have spent more time researching this piece than any other I have profiled so far, and I got nothing. Or rather, I have quite a lot of interesting leads and ideas, but alas, no conclusions. I’ll show you what I see and what I was able to discover about it, but ultimately, I’m no closer to understanding the history and provenance of this piece than I was when I bought it.
First, and most importantly of all, it is a beautiful little saucepan. Whatever its history or markings, it is well-balanced and properly made. It measures about 1.5 to 1.7mm at different points around the rim and at 1554g (3.4 lbs) it is likely the same thickness throughout. I consider 1.5mm to be thin for a modern cooking pot but I suspect this piece is of the early to mid-19th century, a time when early industrial stoves produced a fraction of the heat of a modern cooktop. For its time, this 1.5mm pot was well-suited to its task.
The pot was in good shape when I bought it: the body of the pot has good structural integrity, there are no signs of serious dents or damage, and the iron handle was not corroded. (One of the benefits of wrought iron is that it is more resistant to rust than forged or cast iron.) The inside of the pot was pretty grody but that didn’t bother me — retinning uses strong chemicals that will strip away most or all of the old lining, so I knew that whatever is in there would yield. The photos below are from its listing.
I chose to send it to Val Maguire at Southwest Hand Tinning for a gentle restoration. She did a marvelous job — for me, the “before” photos above provoke even greater appreciation of the transformation she was able to produce. She preserved the character of the exterior (which was my priority for this piece) while cleaning away the thick oxidation on the interior and giving it a completely fresh lining. That takes talent and care. I was delighted with the pot when I received it from Val.
The first element I wanted to investigate was the thick edge around the base.
I examined it closely and I believe it’s a “double seam”: the sheet metal of the base piece and the sidewall are curled together and flattened to create an interlock. (This is the same technique used to seal tin cans, as shown in the cutaway on the right.)
[Update: Readers Roger B. and Leo de B. disagree and call it a crimp seam (not to be confused with a cramp seam!). Please see the end of this post for more commentary from Leo and a sketch of how the crimp seam was made.]
My conclusion is that this indicates a complete replacement of the base. The pot was initially assembled with dovetails (or more correctly, cramp seams), as shown by the jagged yellow seam running up the sidewall underneath the handle. The pot’s original base would also have been brazed in the same way: the sidewall pieces would be folded inwards and interleaved with a flat circular base.
My guess is that this pot saw long service in a busy kitchen and at some point suffered damage to its base sufficient to need complete replacement. The work is beautifully done but in my opinion this type of seam is a liability in the base of a cooking pot. Copper expands when heated and so a folded join like this seems prone to invite water and cooking oils into the crevices. [Update: Readers, please see the end of this post for additional commentary on this subject from Leo de B.] Val’s work with the pot during the retinning process revealed that while the seam remains tight, nevertheless some buildup had accumulated within:
It was covered in so much gunk — I couldn’t tell what unpleasant surprises might be lurking [under the old tin]. Bottom line is that I found none. It’s as good today as it was when the repair was made. There were a few oils that bubbled out of the seam during the restoration, but nothing like what happened with your button-seamed pan. Personally, I wouldn’t cook in it because of what’s in the seam that couldn’t be cleaned out, but it’s absolutely stovetop-ready. Boil some water a couple times, though, and it would be fine in a pinch!
I don’t have any immediate plans to cook with this piece but I will certainly bear in mind the suggestion to boil it thoroughly before first use!
As you can see in the photo below, the floor of the pan has a slight inward curvature. It looks to me that the pot continued in steady service after the base replacement, and the new base was stretched with use and repeatedly hammered back into the pot in order to maintain a flat stance.
As you can see in the photo above, there is a crust of metal along the edge of the base opposite the handle. If you look very closely at the photo you can see that a small tear in the copper has been sealed.
This is the most vulnerable spot on the pot because it is the point most likely to strike the surface of the cooktop as the pot is used. Coppersmiths had multiple clever techniques to patch worn pots but the complex folding of the double-seam would have presented a challenge. In this case, the smith seems to have opted for a sort of battlefield repair: the copper was flattened and the tear sealed up with metal solder. Attractive? No. Effective? Yes.
The photos of the tear bring up the next quandary about this pot: the extra holes. As you can see, two holes were drilled though the copper and then plugged with what look like copper rivets. I have looked at these every which way I can, and I have no convincing explanation for what they are. Please take a good look.
Your guess is as good as mine as to why those two holes were cut and then patched. A prior helper handle? — It hardly seems necessary for a pot that weighs just under three and a half pounds. A consequence of the attachment of the base, or the repair of the crack? — Perhaps, but it seems a poor sort of repair that would necessitate also cutting holes in an unrelated area and then patching them. A long-gone hanging bracket? — Sure, but I have never seen a saucepan hung this way, particularly as there is a perfectly good hanging loop already at the end of the handle. Each of these solutions seems possible, but to my mind none is sufficiently logical.
Speaking of the handle, it’s gorgeous. It is threaded with small dark grains, indicating that it is wrought and not cast iron. This is another indication that this is likely an early- to mid-19th century piece. The baseplate is not the broad lozenge of the mid- to late-19th century French style (that is, Paris and Villedieu after the 1880s or so) but instead a smaller oval shape that I believe is earlier. While I think this is a French handle, I can’t be positive that it is — I believe it was made before the “French style” emerged with its lozenge baseplate and teardrop hanging loop.
The band of tin around the outside of the pot’s rim is interesting and incongruous in my opinion. I associate this tin band with the English style of tinning pots as seen on Benham and Jones Bros pieces. I don’t yet know for sure why this tin band was applied — perhaps to obviate the need to manage tin slop during the interior tinning? — but I know how, thanks to John Fuller’s 1893 book “Art of Coppersmithing“:
The tinning… was carried down on the outside from 1 inch to 1½ inches, according to the size of the pan, and was done as follows: The distance it was required to tin down the side being determined, it was then marked off, and some wet whiting or black and size (plumber’s soil) was carefully smeared on with a brush around and up to the mark, to prevent the tin from adhering further than the mark, and to keep it true to it. It was then immersed in a pan of liquid tin, Fig. 179; a clamp was then applied, and while the operation of tinning was being proceeded with inside, the outside tinning was wiped off smooth and completed at the same time.
It seems reasonable to me to assume that the tin band was renewed in a similar way: the copper was coated with a protectant up to the edge of the band and tin was applied inside and out during the retinning process.
The key question is whether the tin band on my pot is original or if it was added later. If it’s original, it raises the possibility that the pot is English and not French. But looking closely at the area around the handle baseplate, I see that the tin band goes around but not under the handle.
I don’t think this tin band is original. I think it was added later, carefully daubed around the handle. This is not dispositive that the pan is French and not English except that I think an English coppersmith would have laid the band down the easy way: dip the piece (or at least wipe on the band) before the inconvenient handle was added. I wish I had more of a conclusion to offer here, but as with so much else about this pan, it just comes down to a hunch.
Sigh. Now at last let us turn to the oddest part of this unusual pot: the upside-down stamp.
I wasn’t into heraldry or genealogy when I got interested in vintage copper, but I find something so human in it — each piece seems to me to have been shaped not only by the people who made it, but by every hand that held it along the way. Pieces with royal stamps or famous hotel names conjure up particularly evocative images of great bustling kitchens; I’ve picked up a few other pieces with royal stamps on them, and even when my research is inconclusive I still enjoy immersing myself in the stories of their time.
This is one of the inconclusive times. I’m stumped.
The only thing I’m pretty sure of is that this is a French duke’s crown.
Beyond that, pfffft. Bupkus. This is pretty clearly a 19th century pot, and likely early 19th century at that, and there were several French dukedoms starting with the letter M that were active during this time (Magenta, Maille, Marmier, Massa, Montbazon, Montebello, Mortemart… I could go on). But is M the name of the dukedom, the family name, or the first initial of the head of the house? And then there is the “CHT.” Château de Haut… something? Charles Henri… something? I’m at a loss.
The other question is why it’s set upside down to the pot’s natural orientation. Was the piece at one point oriented the other way? Val had the theory that it was a château piece that was given away with the stipulation that the pot be re-aligned to make clear that the royal engraving was no longer valid. (With a sequence number “14” on it, it’s likely this pot was a member of a very grand collection!) If so, the flip must have been done prior to the base repair and the addition of the tin band.
But there’s a stubborn sticking point for that theory: the handle. Flipping the pan would mean detaching and re-attaching the handle as well. At first glance this seems possible: the rivets on the handle are set in a straight line. But the interior rivets show that the holes are not distributed evenly. Rotating the handle 180 degrees would entail re-aligning the center hole but I do not see any signs of re-drilled or patching. I don’t think this handle has been moved since it was attached, and if that is the case, then the engraving’s orientation is also original.
So where does that leave my research into this pan’s history? The wrought handle points to the early part of the 19th century, but I can’t be sure the styling is French. The tin band is an English convention, but I don’t know exactly when it was applied. The engraving looks like a French duke’s crown, but I can’t find a suitable candidate with both “M” and “CHT.” Finally, the engraving seems to be intentionally upside-down for a purpose that I cannot discern.
What do you think? I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments!
VFC says: Reader Leo de B. has come up with a better explanation for the seam on this pan, and I think his ideas are worth adding to the post.
I have read and studied the subject of how the bottom has been joined on the top part. In the article you say that you think it is a double seam and also that you think that that type of seam is a liability.
You inserted a cut away view of a double seam and pointed out that it is used in cans. My question about that is, how? It is physically impossible to put together with only hand-tools. Thinking on how to do it with a round joint by hand seems impossible to me. Try to go through it step by step and you will see what I mean.
In the comment section Roger S. talks about the seam and correctly calls it a crimp seam and mentions how it would be put together. The drawing I have included maybe an easier explanation.
With the last fold, hammered in stages, resting on a stake, the copper is tightly hammered/fused together with copper being soft. The inside would be sealed with tinning with no gap for trapping oil and grease. This is not as you discuss in your article, where you mention that with heating and expansion it would be a liability. Don’t forget that everything heats together and expands together.
The next subject is about whether it is a repair job or an original, and in this case I agree that it probably is a repair. Having said that, it does not explain why there are so many examples of cramp seams on the side and folded crimp seam to attach the bottoms.
This set me thinking that surely they are not all from repair jobs, as you were discussing. I have come up with another reason for that and believe pots were made/manufactured like that.
In the era when cooking over hot coals and open fire, you would want the bottom to be very secure and out of one piece, and the folded crimp seam would make for a more rigid pan. The bottom could also be made from a different thickness. Don’t forget that when sealing vessels and pots and pans for cooking, the biggest problem area would be where the vertical and horizontal seams meet. A lot easier when one seam is a cramp seam! A transition period was in play probably until the brazing technique was better developed, and after that, used for both seams.
I think that partly explains that the folded crimp seam was not only used for repairs, but that pans were made from new with folded crimp seams. As a matter of interest I will attach some more pictures where a cramp and folded crimp seam are used together.
VFC says: As Leo says above, he doesn’t think that a crimp seam like this would trap oil and grease, as I said in my post. I asked him for more insight into why he believes this.
As you know I do some re-tinning myself and what follows is what I learned about the build up of grease and burned grease and oil.
The build-up behind a riveted handle and in the type of seam we are talking about is the same. Both on the outside, and the build-up happens in the same way during years of using the pan. Little spillages, and even while cleaning it manages to get behind the handles and seams.
Before re-tinning comes the cleaning, and from experience you never get it all out, even with caustic baths and air-jet.
The funny thing is, as soon as you are heating the pan to a higher temperature for re-tinning, some of the remaining stuff leaks out. That will happen with most handles and seams, sure it would have too in the pan in question.
But not on the inside of the pan, as it would be impossible to tin over the contamination, that has to be spotless!
As for the inside of the pan with a folded crimp seam, rest assured it is sealed and covered by the molten tin, and nothing to worry about. Even going way back in history, they knew not to have places that build up with contaminants and are hard to clean.
VFC says: Thank you, Leo! I’m so grateful for your insight and experience here!