The collection of Lawrence “Joel“ Schiff represents over four decades of collecting predominantly American and European cast iron cookware.
Joel Schiff collected cast iron cookware over a period of more than four decades. In this time, his knowledge and expertise grew to the point where he became a recognized expert and later, a connoisseur. He was well known not only among fellow Brimfield dealers and collectors but also among members of the Wagner and Griswold society where he was a charter member. He was also active in the Kooks Society (Kollectors of Old Kitchen Stuff) where he helped edit their main publications.
The basis for the collection of roughly 10,000 cast iron pieces, according to his cousin Jeff Schiff was “anything that you use to eat or that you can cook in.” This in fact, encompasses quite a lot of items dating from 1700’s to the present time. If you look at the collection as a whole, there isn’t a single collecting category. Instead, there are several main categories including: skillets, waffle makers, pots, kettles, bins, molds, stove parts and much more. And occasionally, there is a single item like a nutmeg grater or parrot figure which stands alone. Joel was not a check the box collector. This is, he did not collect one item in each size, or one item from each era, or one item of each color. Instead, he appears to have chosen to collect based on the joy and the serendipity of finding an item he liked.
As his expertise grew, so did his collection. Rather than filling his collection with common items, he appears to have become more selective with time. Most of the pieces in the collection are not something that is readily available. (Although some pieces are indeed commonplace.) In this collection, you might find for example 5 or 6 items which are unique and only found in a museum. Then you might find a couple of items which can be easily purchased today. For the most part the collection is not only deep in terms of the functional use of the items; It also spans several centuries. There are items in the collection from the early 18th Century and items made only 20 years ago. It’s Impossible to fully understand what drove the collection of each item. But it is possible to understand the collection in its entirety.
What sparked Joel’s collecting interest? The collection literally began with a fire. Not a foundry fire, but a fire on his house barge in the 1960s which left him with little except some ashes and a melted cast iron pan. The pan became something that intrigued his interest in cast iron. It was a survivor, a testament to what would become his lifelong passion. Shortly thereafter, Schiff discovered the Brimfield Antique shows and a collector was born. He later stated that in the early days what drew him to cast iron was an appreciation of its permanency and its craftsmanship.
The collection offers the viewer a broad spectrum of cast iron items which could be viewed through the lenses of the Industrial Revolution, American history, American Craftsmanship or design. You could be a cook, a foundry worker, a housewife or a child and still find something to like. These cast iron objects all had a use and many could still be used today.
In an article written in, about a decade ago, Joel talked about opening, “The Museum of the Hearth and Kitchen.” The idea was to trace the history of pre-modern cooking through a series of exhibits, re-enactments and an on site restaurant which would use old cooking techniques and wares. Although the museum never came to fruition, Joel’s wishes were to donate the collection in its entirety to the Smithsonian. Items could become part of the collection of the American people. For many years, Americans have used the Smithsonian as a depository of American history, More specifically, the breadth and depth of the Smithsonian collection reaches across time. It tells the story of the American people. Not only the rich and famous, but the poor and down trodden. It sheds light into the struggles of the ordinary people and highlights the triumphs of a nation. The Joel Schiff collection represents the material culture of American cooking over the last three hundred years. It highlights the craftsmanship and the utility of the industrial age. In it, one can see the work of hundreds of foundries which employed thousands of people and whose items were used by millions.
Although the large collection does not fit squarely into a specific category, there are roughly five categories. The first area consists of skillets and griddles. Skillets and griddles by definition are frying pans used in a number sizes and for a variety of purposes. They were used throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th Century to cook on a stove top (or over an open fire). The skillets and griddles in this collection include everything from very small and rare toy examples measuring less than 5” to extremely large pieces used at camp sites or in hotels and measuring more than two feet wide. The rarest manufacturers are represented. There are also examples which are unusual in shape and design.
The second area is waffle makers, waffle irons and wafer makers. These items were used to make waffles, pancakes and wafer type cookies. There are item in this category which were hand forged with the initials of the maker who may have made a waffle maker for his wife. There were also items which were used to create wafer type cookies or shortbread. Among the pieces in the collection are also a number of highly valuable pieces including waffle and wafer irons bearing the image of George Washington and Napoleon and likely having been made during their lifetimes. There are also a number of Catholic Communion wafer makers of various types. A subsection of this collection includes numerous wafer makers for a Pan Pacific exhibition.
The third area in the collection consists of kettles. This category includes most of the kettles one would have found throughout America during the 18th and 19th Century. They include everything from large warming kettles and kettles with a hanging loop, for use above the fireplace to toy kettles used by children. They also include early titling kettles and kettles with a variegated bottom to disperse the heat faster. Some kettles were considered to have a modern design when they were made and others have the design still mainly in use today. The fourth area in the collection is pots. There were thousands of pots. Based on the size, shape, design, and date one could find an example of nearly every type of cast iron pot made. In some cases, the pots shape is rare and could not be found anywhere. This again speaks of the breadth of the collection.
There is also a subset of the collection made up of various Tetsubins. Tetsubins are Japanese kettles and they were made in a variety of shapes and designs. It appears the pieces in the collection appealed to Joel for various reasons. The examples represent some of the best types of work and some very simple examples which would have been used in modern homes.
– Jill Harrison Fine Art and Antiques – Reprinted from the Collection Catalog. Photos (top to bottom): Joel in the 1970’s, from the book BRIMFIELD. Photographer: Angelo Dounoucos. Joel Schiff and Tom Neitzel at the 2011 WAGS convention. Photographer unknown.