17th century cauldron at the Frontier Culture Museum (Personal Photo) Fall 2016.


When the pilgrims made their journey to America aboard the Mayflower in 1620 one of the few items that they considered essential for their survival in the wilds of the New World was their cooking cauldron.

The origins of the cauldron date back to the end of the Bronze Age where they were given their “round bellied and bottomed shape.”[1] It was during the Middle Ages that the three legs were added so it could now balance itself when cooking next to the fire in the hearth. In addition the cauldron could be hung over the fire due to there being two small lips on either side of the pot. Cauldrons were almost always made of a particular metal called “bell metal”[2] that was comprised of large quantities of zinc lead, copper, and tin. The process of creating a cauldron involved a specialized furnace called a “blast furnace”[3] to be used. Iron ore, the primary component of a cauldron, would be placed within the furnace to that the metal could begin smelting. Once the iron had liquefied it was then poured into premade molded casts to cool. When the iron was done cooling, the cauldron could be removed from the cast as a fully formed and ready to be used. There were very few documented instances of an iron cauldron being used during the 16th or 17th centuries mostly due to the price it took to create an iron cauldron. In comparison the cost of a cast metal cauldron was extremely cheap but came with the drawback of the poor quality of the metal that was used to create the final product. However, as the seventeenth century progressed the number of metal foundries throughout England began to increase in number although the cauldrons that were produced during this time were crafted using an overly heavy quality of metal. As a result of the poor reputation of the cast iron industry, many of the richer English families of the Seventeenth century choose to own cooking pots that were made out of alternative metals like cooper or bronze that were considered to be created using a higher quality craftsmanship then that being used for iron. It was only after the discovery of a new smelting process in 1707 by Englishmen Abraham Darby, which replaced the traditional method of charcoal with that of coke, that there was an economic boom within the metal works that led to the creation of massive amounts of cauldrons, kettles, and pans. Another of Darby’s new casting methods involved the use of modeling sand as a means for filling a cast, instead of the traditional cast filler of loam. The sand was then covered with three parts of the cast, the two sides and the bottom, which ensured the cast did not have to be destroyed in order to remove the finished cauldron, as had been done using the traditional loam casting method. Darby’s methods greatly reduced the amount of time was spent on creating iron cast vessels regardless of their size to around twenty or so minutes. The price of the cauldron remained inexpensive due to Darby wanted them to remain available for purchase by poorer families who were often the ones that used them the most in their day to day lives. As the new process of smelting with coke began to be adapted by more and more metal foundries throughout England, the use of bell metal gradually began to be replaced by that of cast iron to create cauldrons. The cast iron industry was growing in thanks to the work done by John Winthrop Jr. who established the first American iron foundry in the 1640s in Massachusetts and by Virginia Governor Spotswood, who worked with an “air or reverberatory furnace”[4] that melted iron into molds of different kinds of kitchen utensils, such as pots. This particular method of casting enabled the iron to be melted separately from the fuel of the furnace. In England, Darby would adopt Spotswood’s innovation and used it to create lighter and thinner cauldrons and other utensils. Whether a cauldron were made in England or America, it was always possible to determine the date of when the vessel was made by the shape of the handles or “ears”[5] on either side of the pot. The shape of these ears ranged circular to triangular with a number of alternative versions on these two shapes. The cauldrons that were made in the early Seventeenth century were circular but would later change to being more triangular in appearance. Another dating indicator could be found looking at the legs of the cauldron. The legs that appeared on the cauldrons crafted by Darby were merely three small one inch lumps of metal but this design would be changed later on in the Seventeenth century so that the legs would be made longer so the cauldron could better be utilized for cooking and washing. However the length of a cauldron’s legs were worn back down to their original length due to their being constantly exposed to the heat from their position by the fire.


Artist Reinterpretation of Original Photo from John Tyler

The cauldron was used by all the different social levels of seventeenth century England, however it tended to be the less well-off classes that used the cauldron the most in their day to day lives. The main purpose of the cauldron within the lower class home was to boil various kinds of food that when combined together made up an entire meal. A common example of this practice would be to boil a “large joint of meat”[6] in the cauldron then while the meat is still boiling add some “vegetables wrapped in cloths and nets”[7] to the mixture so that when everything was finished boiling the family would have a meal fully prepared to be served and eaten. This tradition of preparing a single meal dated back to the Stuart era of the early sixteenth century when the majority of the English population still held  agriculturally based occupations like that of a yeoman. As a result most of the communities felt a strong sense of comradery with one another therefore it became a common practice to serve a meal straight out of the cauldron onto a waiting tray or plate that would then be shared among  those present, which reflected the communal atmosphere that pervaded during these meals. It was also during this time that a new dish called pottage emerged which would become the staple of the English working class. The creation of pottage was very simple, as it basically combined meat and vegetables along with “all other manner of foodstuffs”[8] into a stew. This tradition of food preparation would continue well after the English colonized America. The extent to which the lower levels of British society relied on their cauldrons for cooking can be seen during the immigration to the colonies when almost all of the future colonists made the voyage with at least one cauldron. However in spite of the cauldron’s undisputable practical value within the colonial family the economic value of it compared to the rest of the items in the household numbered less than “one percent of the household value”[9] meaning that even the poorest of families could afford to own at least one cauldron. It could be argued then, that with the price of cauldrons being so cheap the value of owning one was also cheapened as a result. What the argument fails to take into account was the apparent lack of fully functioning foundries within the American colonies after 1720 which led to shortage of the materials needed to create metal cookware like cauldrons. Therefore those colonies who were fortunate enough to be in possession of a cauldron attributed even more practical value to it than they had before arriving in America.

A key piece to the popularity of the cauldron was the size of the colonial fireplace which provided enough room and heat for “boiling water as well as cooking”[10] both of which were the primary functions of the cauldron. The large size of the fire also ensured that the iron spit could be utilized as an alternative method for cooking with the cauldron that allowed it to be moved from beside the fire to right in the middle of the flames. This allowed the amount of time that was spent cooking the meal to be radically reduced since the heat from the fire could be absorbed by the cauldron from all sides instead of the side that would be facing the heat from the fire. The two most common spits that were used during this time were the simple horizontal spit that lay across the front of the fire which exposed every side of the cauldron to the maximum amount of heat available from the fire. The spit itself was held in place either by two very large hooks that were known as “andirons”[11] or be a “cobiron”[12] which was a large iron bar with hooks attached to the back resulting in it being located near the back of the hearth.


[1] David J, Eveleigh. Old Cooking Utensils. Shire Album No. 177. Shire Publications Ltd, 1997. 15.

[2] Eveleigh, Old Cooking utensils, 15.

[3] John, Tyler. Early American Cast Iron Holloware: Pots, Kettles, Teakettles, and Skillets, 1645-1900.Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd. 2013. 20.

[4] Tyler. Early American Cast Iron Holloware, 21.

[5] Tyler. Early American Cast Iron Holloware, 25.

[6] . Linda Campbell, Franklin, and Paul. Persoff. From Hearth to Cookstove : An American Domestic History of Gadgets and Utensils Made or Used in America from 1700-1930 : A Guide for Collectors.America in the kitchen; America in the kitchen. Florence, Ala.: House of Collectibles. 1976. 37.

[7] Eveleigh, Old Cooking Utensils, 15.

[8] James, Deetz. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. Anchor books ed. New York: Anchor Books/Doubleday. 1996. 107.

[9] Delaware Department of Transportation, Hardware of Daily Life. 277.

[10] Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, and Mark. McWilliams. Food & Material Culture : Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2013.Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books. 2014. 23.

[11] Eveleigh, Old Cooking Utensils, 21.

[12] Eveleigh, Old Cooking Utensils, 21