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14cm double-stamped Vanneuss-Pommier saucepan

VFC

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This little pot holds a lot of interest for me.

Type Tin-lined saucepan with cast iron handle fastened with three copper rivets
French description Casserole russe étamée et martelée avec queue de fer munie de trois rivets en cuivre
Dimensions 14cm diameter by 10cm tall (5.5 by 3.9 inches)
Thickness 2.0mm at rim, likely thicker in base
Weight 1452g (3.2 lbs)
Stampings G.M. VANNEUSS BRUXELLES and H. POMMIER BRUXELLES
Maker and age estimate Van Neuss, 1880-1901
Source pwm154 (eBay)

Big magnificent pieces of antique restaurant copper get all the glory — and I am guilty of a great deal of that glorification — but the truth is that smaller pieces took just as much (if not more) skill to produce. This little saucepan embodies the peak of European copper craftsmanship around the turn of the 20th century. The stamps are just a bonus. We’ll get to those in a moment.

This saucepan is a casserole russe — a taller version of the saucepan we are more familiar with today. In the photo below on the right, I’ve set this freshly restored shiny 14cm casserole russe next to my fully tarnished daily-use 14cm Mauviel-for-Gaillard casserole, and you can see the difference in the proportions.

 

To me, a casserole russe is a relic of the 19th century. The name derives from a grand dinner in 1810 hosted by the Russian ambassador to Paris. Rather than adhere to the traditional service à la française — presenting the guests with elaborate centerpieces of fancifully arranged platters of food to be admired and then whisked away to be plated and served — the Russian host instead served successive courses pre-plated and presented at the temperature best suited to the dish. This innovation was named service à la russe and the small- to medium-sized saucepans required to keep each course cooking along according to its own timing were termed casseroles russes.

At some point, the tall casserole russe gave way to the shorter casserole shape we know today (though many restaurant kitchens still say “russe” to refer to a generic saucepan). I think this transition happened within the first decades of the 20th century, possibly as a consequence of the shift from hand-shaped to machine-pressed pieces. But in any case, whenever I see a saucepan of casserole russe proportions, I immediately suspect it is a 19th- or very early 20th-century piece. (Reader Nick has pointed out casseroles russes in the Gaillard catalog for 1914; I have yet to identify a later authoritative source.)

It is also dovetailed. This is an important clue: from the last decades of the 19th century and into the early 20th was the period when the French and Belgian makers were transitioning from hand-shaping pots and pans to machine-shaping them. To my eye this was a gradual process and I suspect it progressed according to each company’s ability to make the significant investment in powered machinery (initially steam, then electrical and hydraulic). The first beneficiaries of this transition in the mid-19th century were the large-scale industries: railways, shipbuilding, construction, and the like. When did this new machinery become affordable for Gaillard, Dehillerin, Legry, Vanneuss, and so forth? I do not know — all I have to go on are examples.

This piece, with its dovetails, tells me that at the time it was made, the maker did not have access to (or chose not to use?) a press or spinning lathe.

(Readers who followed along with the discussion of this earlier 15cm Vanneuss saucepan may wish to note that in that post I posited that I have evidence that Vanneuss was not using machine shaping tools in the 1830s-1880s. This 14cm dovetailed saucepan constitutes that evidence.)

It also has beautiful bevels. Sarah Dahmen of House Copper is of the opinion that bevels are evidence of lathe-spinning, and while that may be true for some pieces, I do not believe it is the case with this one. I find it hard to believe that this piece would have been dovetailed in the flat and then lathe-spun into shape; that would interrupt the metal flow and apply significant stress to the dovetail join. Notice also that the edge of the dovetail is flattened into the bevel. Rather, it seems to me, the simplest explanation prevails: the bevels were applied with a hammer by hand after the piece was made. (Readers, what do you think?)

The handle is a lovely piece of cast iron and the baseplate is a wide lozenge shape that is slightly flatter than the classic French baseplate of the same period. The outside rivet heads are smooth buttons and the internal rivets are flattened virtually flush to the surface. I see no evidence of rivet-tightening — if that were the case, I would expect to see hammer blows on the inner surface — and I suspect these may be the original rivets. (Also, a wee saucepan like this one is an unlikely victim for the wrenching force it would take to loosen a handle.) There are no numbers that I can detect on the interior rivet heads.

 

The cast iron handle has been filed to smooth its contours. There are fine scratches all over its surface. The handle shaft bears a stamp on the underside: B 17. I suspect this is a serial number for the mold used to make it..

 

That, for me, covers the most significant elements of the construction of this pot: casserole russe shape, dovetails, bevels, flat interior rivets, and a hand-finished cast iron handle. From my study, these point to a period of transition: 19th century shape and fabrication and a 20th century handle. I would estimate this pan to be an 1890s piece, perhaps early 1900s.

But then there are the stamps. This piece has two of them: G.M. VANNEUSS BRUXELLES and H. POMMIER BRUXELLES.

These stamps represent the same chaudronnerie: Hippolyte Pommier inherited the firm from his grandfather Gérard Van Neuss in 1901. But the question these two stamps raise for me here is one of timing. I think that for the first decade or so after his beloved grandfather Gérard passed away, Hippolyte kept the Vanneuss name on the firm’s copper. You can spot work of this period by its three-line “MAISON VANNEUSS H. POMMIER BRUXELLES” stamp. I speculate based on the pieces I’ve examined that the joint stamp was in use into the 1920s, after which it was replaced with an H. POMMIER BRUXELLES stamp.

Here’s the sequence, left to right, as I know it. (There is one more H. POMMIER stamp that is a slightly more modern version of the third and I don’t think it figures into this discussion.)

 

In other words, according to my research and observations, the two maker’s marks on this 14cm saucepan are apparently about twenty years apart in age.

Readers, what are we are to make of the phenomenon of anachronistic maker’s marks that don’t seem correct for the piece? This is anathema to “stamp literalists” who want these marks to be reliable signposts pointing to the age and provenance of pieces. (I speak as one such literalist.) I learned early on that stamps are not a foolproof way to identify a piece, not least because many were produced without a maker’s mark. Furthermore, using stamps to establish provenance becomes quite problematic after WWII, when Gaillard, Dehillerin, and Jacquotot all ceased to make consumer copper and instead sourced from Mauviel and Villedieu, thus rendering their own stamps no longer maker’s marks but instead store stamps. I am also becoming more adept at recognizing examples that must have been stamped (or re-stamped) years or even decades after they were made. I initially rejected this possibility, but I can’t argue with evidence such as this very pot with two maker’s marks.

And yet I still believe that many stamps — even the majority of stamps — are reliable. How is a copper aficionado to navigate this?

The trap laid for the stamp literalist is to view maker’s marks through the lens of the 20th century: in our era, a company’s work is protected by trademarks, patents, and copyright, and so another company would not dare claim another’s work as its own. But I think this is a relatively recent concept for the copper cookware industry. I suspect the chaudronneries relied not only on the first sale but also on the ongoing retinning and repair business, and so they used their stamps to remind their customers where to return the pot. If the buyer took the pot to another shop instead, well, what was to prevent that other shop from polishing away the original stamp and adding its own? (I see a similar thing with my home’s water heater: each plumber who visits to service it places his own company’s sticker right on top of his competitor’s sticker.)

But I do not think this was a pervasive practice. I do not see Mauviel, for example, overstamping Havard in the 1980s. Instead I think overstamping would be most likely to occur on pieces that were initially unstamped; to refresh an earlier version of the firm’s stamp; on pieces that underwent significant repair, such that they were effectively remade; and, overall, in the 19th century era when a plethora of small independent workshops busily hammered, stamped, repaired, and retinned each other’s pieces. Looking at business listings from the 19th into the 20th century, what I see is consolidation into a few large chaudronneries (Jacquotot, Dehillerin, Gaillard, the Villedieu makers, and a few more) and a dwindling number of small étameurs — in some cases the retired elders who had sold to the big makers — who confined themselves to retinning and repairs. Would a small mom-and-pop shop stamp its name onto a Mauviel piece as a reward for merely retinning it? Would Falk, servicing an antique Gaillard, wipe away the mark and apply its own? It’s unthinkable to our modern sensibility.

This is of course the point that TJFRANCE has always made: that the nature of this business was different in the 19th century, and so we need to consider a range of contexts in which a piece could have been stamped. I wasn’t receptive to this perspective at the time but I have come around to see his point. Ultimately, I think the strategy for those of us who want to understand the history of our pieces is to learn enough to consider both craftsmanship and markings together. In some cases they align neatly, but in others there is a discrepancy and we have to take a more holistic look.

That was a long-winded digression. Thank you for staying with me. Back to the matter at hand.

This pot, with two stamps that historical records suggest were in use as many as twenty years apart, presents just such a discrepancy. And to fill in the gap, I’m going to fall back on the observable characteristics of the piece and present my theory for how the stamps got to be there.

Here are some general statements I believe to be true about the characteristics I observe in this piece:

  • Casserole russe shape: Prevalent in the 19th century, in decline into the 1920s, vanished after WWII
  • Dovetails: 19th century technique in decline by 1880s, largely supplanted by the 1900s by presses and powered lathes
  • Cast iron handle: Beginning about 1880s, more prevalent towards 1900, predominant after 1900
  • Bevels: 19th century finishing, declining by 1920s, not observed after WWII
  • Flat internal rivets: Prevalent in 19th century; appearance of low-profile variants in 1880s-1890s; supplanted by mushroom-head rivets in early 20th century

In my opinion, these observables align best with the known period of activity for the GM Vanneuss stamp (1880-1901). So what’s with the second H. Pommier stamp? I think Gérard made this pan and placed his stamp on it. At some point after 1920, the owner returned the piece to the chaudronnerie — now H. Pommier — to retin it. The Pommier smiths the piece saw fit to update the stamp to the current Pommier-only version, but out of respect for the Vanneuss name and the heritage it represents, they did not erase the former stamp. Instead they applied the new stamp alongside, perfectly aligned, emphasizing the continuity from one generation — and one century — to the next.

Readers, what do you think?

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6 Comments

  1. VFC, you have once again come up with a pan that exhibits something out of the ordinary! The saucepan shows all of the signs of early construction (including the compass point on the bottom) and yet has a later stamp alongside the early one. I think your speculation that the later stamp was applied when the pan was returned for re-tinning is perfectly reasonable.

  2. There were essentially three points of view that irritated me for a while when assessing the time span for making pans:
    • The perspective of the 21st century, which not only knows different modes of production, but also different norms in manufacture and trade.
    • Knowledge of the abolition of the craftsmen’s guilds in the 19th century while at the same time not knowing what forms of organization craft and trade followed in France.
    • Finally the view of a foreigner who does not know the special customs of the French, especially around 1900.
    The last two gaps mentioned could best be filled by a French person (where are they ?!) or someone who at least speaks the French language and would research the relevant literature.

    Stamps are undoubtedly an important indicator for determining age, but we have all learned that additional criteria, as listed here again by VFC, must be added to make the assessment more reliable. In addition to the technical criteria, we should not ignore the general social circumstances and upheavals. This is especially true in times of war.

    The pan presented here is a good example of this complexity of age determination. At the same time, I am pleased that a small pan is finally being appropriately recognized (appreciated). I don’t see how I could prepare my dishes without several of these little helpers.

    Bevels: Page 96 fig. 175 in John Fuller’s book “Art of Coppersmithing” shows “Finishing a square lag”. Today we call it a bevel. “… the lag was finished up with a hammer …” However, the very old pots and pans often had a round transition from the bottom to the side wall. For this purpose there were round heads on which the copper was hammered into shape. So far in this book I have not found any indication that this finishing was for reinforcement, rather it appears to be for optical purposes. This book by Fuller cannot be mentioned and recommended often enough.

  3. Hey VFC !

    Another great catch, there ! Extra-ordinary indeed !
    I also find your speculation on the circumstances of the application of the later stamp very reasonable. As the possibility/probability of a belated application of the Van Neuss stamp has been similarly raised in the case of your Leopold pan, should we then assume that there is a pattern there and that it was customary (bad habit) for the Van Neuss / Pommier house to apply its latest stamp on pans that were brought for re-tinning ?
    As far as I know, there are no elements leading to similar suspicions against the other major makers. Would it then be reasonable to assume that Van Neuss Pommier was the only bad retinner on the block (bad from a stamp literalists point of view) or at least the most active re-stamper?

    P.S. : I’m think the casserole russe shape survived WWII under the name casserole à jus or casserole à sauce. See ref. 144 gravy saucepan in the Mauviel 1988 catalog on this site.
    I have one : 18cm diameter by 14cm tall, tin lined, hammered, tinned rivets, 2338g, no stamps. I was told by the seller that it had been in use up to the 90’s in the kitchen in France where he worked as a cook for preparing bearnaise and other sauces. He thought it had been acquired at some point between the 50’s and the 70’s, in any case after WWII. As the lining is not perfect, I only use it to blanch small portions of vegetables. I find it very convenient as it takes less space on the stove. It’s a modest pan but I like the way it looks especially when it sits next a large sauté.

  4. Martin,

    I’ve found something on the manufacture of table knives in the area of Thiers in France post WWII. I don’t know whether it’s in any way transposable to what was done in the domain of copper cookware industry in Villedieu or Paris at the same time but there’re might be similarities and I think it might tickle your interest as well as VFC’s and her readers’ .
    It’s an old post (2012) from a French forum for knives fans. The OP began his career in the knife making business in the 60’s and he describes how the industry was organized until it died in the 80’s due to the Chinese competition : multiple small production units including at home workers with the progressive introduction of automation, multiple suppliers (for the handles, for the blades…), multiples clients in France and internationally (there is a picture of a big case containing hundreds of stamps with the name of clients. He explains how the stamping machine had to be retuned for each stamp)…
    Of course, it’s in French. If you have problems with Google translate, let me know and I’ll try to help to the best of my abilities.

  5. Possible alternative: When H. Pommier took over the G.M. Vanneuss workshop in 1901, there were surely some residual stocks that have now passed into the property of the new owner. I think it is not uncommon for small businesses to re-label existing goods or add new stamps. It may be petty, but nowhere do I see more certificates on the walls than in small businesses (regardless of whether they are craftsmen or physio coaches). It’s just the “little people” way of doing advertising. Large corporations like LVMH can be more “generous” when they take over well-known luxury brands. They would be stupid if they labeled the champagne from Moët & Chandon with LVMH.
    Another stamp, which contains both names – above and a little smaller “Maison Vanneuss”, below and larger “H. Pommier” – can be seen as an honor of the parent company or both predecessors and at the same time the new owner draws attention to himself.

    Nick, I’m currently seeing your last comment. An interesting note. I could well imagine parallels.

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