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18cm saucepan with inverted “M”

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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?
Source Etsy

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.)

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. 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!

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12 Comments

  1. Is it possible that the two mystery rivets actually show where the original handle was located and that, for some reason, the pan was flipped when extensive repair was done?

  2. During the three phases of the French Revolution and in the decades that followed, many things were turned upside down, and at times turned back again, and the revolution cost many a head. Even if this strange pan was made later, it may have suffered a similar fate. No noble house would tolerate a pan in their kitchen that presented the insignia of this house upside down. This pan was probably badly damaged once, someone was able to purchase it and repair it makeshiftly according to the remaining possibilities. Therefore, I also think it is likely that the handle was originally attached to the point where two rivets now close the holes. Since the copper is relatively thin and the pan is therefore light, two rivets were sufficient for the original handle.The unprofessional execution of the external tin-plating in the upper area, which was “painted” around the handle plate, speaks also for the replacement of the handle.

    Of course, I can’t solve the riddle of the stamp either, although it is funny that it has almost all of my initials. I know the effort involved in researching noble families. After the frustration I had experienced while researching the Welfs (Hanover Royal House), I actually didn’t want to deal with the nobility anymore. But then I found myself taking a look at the French version of Wikipedia and there I found an incredibly detailed article on the history of the French nobility. I quickly realized that the rest of my life would not be enough to study this complex history.

    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noblesse_francaise
    I will spare you further articles on this subject.

  3. I think this started out with soup pot proportions and a bale handle, the rivets being where a small loop handle for tipping was attached to it so likely a pouring lip opposite. Cutting it down got rid of the the swing handle holes and lip. It may be much later than first appears because the original form had cramp seams consistent with a post 1860 manufacture. A lockseam requires skill but not many tools and would have been something an itinerant repairman could do. Why was it remade upside down? I don’t know but if the original bottom was left in place it would give the walls some stability while the edge was hammered out to provide a flange to hold the new base. When horses provided all transport and pulled the plough every village had a blacksmith who could easily make a wrought iron handle.
    My gut feeling is that it is English, that way of tinning certainly is. Extensively repaired or remodeled copper like this clearly demonstrates how precious copper pans were and in real terms more expensive then than now.

    1. Roger, those are interesting ideas. I wish I could work the duke’s crown, M, and CHT into some kind of date estimate to identify the era of the original piece. May I ask for more insight into the post-1860 cramp seam assessment? I would love to know more about how that craftsmanship changed over time, and to use that to help estimate age.

  4. Maybe the jester is just laughing at our constant endeavors to make sense of everything.

    From the Middle Ages on, court jesterism was an integral part of the court. The task of a court jester was not primarily to amuse the court, but to provoke and irritate. His position outside of the norms applicable at the court allowed him “freedom from fools” and made court fools an “institution of permissible criticism” (Wikipedia).

    In the US, so-called “red teams” have a similar task. As an independent group, a “red team” is supposed to help an organization improve its effectiveness by acting as an opponent.

    “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”
    Peter F. Drucker

  5. In my opinion the bottom must have been damaged, and then it was flipped and a new bottom was placed on the original top edge, explaining the inverted stamps and plugging of the original handle rivets.

  6. I don’t have any hard dates, cramp seams were an improvement making a smoother pan than lock seams but as we know there is always a period of transition. To see both techniques on one pan leads us to the conclusion that the base is a replacement because of damage. It may simply represent a time when brazing was being learned but not yet applied to installing the base.
    On eBay is offered another pan which has the same combination of techniques and riveted holes near the base. At first I thought that they held a patch but they don’t, they just plug holes.
    I have a lollipop lid that has a cramp seam running across it, so old copper vessels were being routinely cut up and the sheet metal reused to make new pieces.
    Houses and barns often have timber reclaimed from wooden ships and children’s clothes were usually made from the least worn parts of adult clothing, any small pieces made into quilts for the bed. The world of the 19th. century was not a throw away one.
    Your pan could be made at one time but from recycled materials, and the crown was deliberately inverted so it would not look like a stolen pan. It is even possible that the handle was reclaimed from an earlier pan.

  7. A glass of vino collapso, of your choice, from whatever I have cellared at the time, to be consumed on the premises, wagers that the Coronet and letter ‘M” belong to to Charles de Morny, Duke of Morny — or one of his descendants.

    If you look closely at the engraving of the coronet you will see 3 < shaped objects pointing to the left on the rim of the crown. I believe these are birds, swallows, martinets, swans, or egrets in flight. That's the clue. A search of French Dukes beginning with "m" in Wikipedia lists Morney. Among the illustrations associated with the entry for Morney, there is a coat of arms. The dukes coat of arms display 3 birds , flying, facing left. Voila. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_de_Morny,_Duke_of_Morny

    Not sure about the initials. Either a location or a user’s identification.

  8. I believe, like others, that the pan is a ‘make do’ created by inverting a worn out pan.
    Observations and questions.
    That crimped seam.  

    To create a folded crimped the bottom edge of of the pan 5/16″ or so, of the bottom edge needs to be folded or hammered out- making the bottom of the pot look like a top hat. 

    This hammering would make the copper brittle, and so it would need to be annealed (softened) before it was folded again. A circle of copper again, maybe 1/4″ wider than the folded edge then needs to be applied and held in place (maybe with a spot solder) where it is first folded over the top hat edge, and then again folded up against the side of the pan.  All this folding can be done with pliers and/or with hammers on anvils long enough to fit into the interior of the pan.  A retinning of the pan would seal the crimped seam. 
     
    If the seam were created with a hand crank seaming or setting down tool, the job becomes much easier.  Note though that a seamer for an exterior flat side fold, would have a throat shaped like a c-clamp or a hairpin to allow the pot to slide in to the point where the crimping wheels can reach the the seam being crimped.  Any exisitng handles would be in the way of rotating the pan to achieve the crimp.  Therefore any handles or loops or hooks would have to be removed.

    Finally.The rivets on the current handle bother me.  They don’t match the quality of the rest of the pan.  They are hammered much too flat, and the edges are splitting.  That is not quality work. They should be more raised, if not domed.

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