A pan’s craftsmanship is a clue to the era in which it was made.

I say this because the span of time I’m considering for this site — the early 19th century to the present day — has been an era of dramatic transformation for metalworking. Early antique copper pans prior to the 1850s were completely hand-made; by 1900 or so, powered machinery existed that could perform almost all the tasks required. By 1950, “hand-craftsmanship” meant that craftsmen moved pieces from one machine to another and held the piece in position while machinery worked the metal. While operating these machines certainly requires experience and technique, only a few odd-shaped pieces required hand-held tools such as welding torches or hammers. The vast majority of copper cookware after WWII spent only a few minutes under the hands of a human before being packed and shipped for sale.

The challenge is that this is not a precise method of dating a piece of copper. New manufacturing technologies take time to catch on, and spread across an industry according to a complex algorithm of economics, consumer demand, geography, and human behavior that I don’t think anyone could fully quantify. On top of that, there was powerful innate resistance by 19th century metalworkers to the advent of machine-powered manufacturing with the express purpose of replacing their labor. The result is that while I can trace the invention and application of a new technology with a fair amount of precision, I cannot state — absent some kind of direct testimonial — that a given maker was using that technology at a certain point in time. As an example, the invention of the acetylene torch in 1901 marked the beginning of the end for dovetailing, and yet Gaillard apparently continued to dovetail certain pieces into the 1920s.

As TJFRANCE has pointed out, it’s more accurate to note the era of a piece’s craftsmanship rather than its date of manufacture. In other words, “this piece was made primarily with 19th century techniques” may be a more correct assertion than “this piece’s mostly 19th century construction means that it is most likely made prior to 1900.” This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but if we are serious about dating copper, it’s worth also being up front about the limitations in our methods.

With that in mind, this is how I see the distribution of several key construction techniques across four major periods of time. Some techniques are squarely in the 19th century, while others span multiple eras. There are long periods of overlap and seldom hard starts or stops.

Techniques Pre-industrial
Prior to 1850
Early industrial
1850 to 1900
Early modern
1900 to 1950
1950 to present day
Sheet metal production Hand-flattened sheet metal
Machine-rolled sheet metal
Joinery Dovetailed joins
Welded joins
Metal cutting Hand-cut sheets
Die-cut sheets
Metal shaping and finishing Hand-raised pans
Powered presses and lathes
Beveled edges
Rivets Hand-made, hand-inserted rivets
Machine-made, hand-inserted rivets
Machine-made, machine-inserted rivets
Iron handles Forged iron handles
Wrought iron handles
Cast iron handles

As you can see above, I have observed the period from about 1850 to 1900 to be the era of greatest variance in the techniques available. Some chaudronneries still held to the craftsmanship of the 19th century, while others were already adopting the machine-powered techniques of the 20th. This is the most exciting period of copper construction for me, and many of my most precious pieces come from this era.

To learn more about these techniques, please see the posts below.