History of Cast Iron

Melting and casting metal has been around for 8,000 years. The earliest evidence of metal casting dates back to 5,000BC, when people from the Carpathian Mountain area of Eurasia made utilitarian objects from bronze. The people in Mesopotamia had been forging gold and copper for 4,000 years before a castable copper product was stumbled upon in 4000BC. From there, cultures around the world used metal casting for weapons and tools that made farming, animal husbandry, conquest and civilization possible. Metal casting provided for strong and durable tools. Although in the nineteenth century cast iron was an industrial material used both for consumer goods and as a structural support in architecture, the late nineteenth century iron has been replaced by steel for most industrial and architectural applications. Cast iron’s relatively low melting point and its brittleness (forged iron and steel both have significantly greater tensile strength) make it more suitable for ornamental than for structural purposes, though cast iron cookware, railings, and outdoor furniture are still available on the market today. However, as is the case with many other “industrial” techniques (including lithography, engraving, etching, and silk-screening), once cast iron was superseded by steel and lost its identity as a “commercial” product/process, sculptors began using it as a medium for artistic expression. 

Iron casting as a fine art process has a much different history from the casting of bronze and other precious metals. For many artists who cast iron, its industrial heritage is one of the most attractive things about working and casting with iron. 


The most progressive history of iron beginning in Europe is one of extensive trial and error, till finally its efficient  production and use were realized. Its attraction historically has been its strength, resistance to wear, ductility, low cost, and accessibility. However in the early years of metal casting iron was thought to be a low grade and undesirable metal. Its real attraction came when in the 1780’s John Smeaton improved the blast furnace making iron easily accessible, replacing timber in construction. Soon many utilitarian objects were being produced with cast iron, things like fire backs, tomb slabs, weights, cannons, and anvils. The clutch product that put iron on the map was water pipes. Iron’s resistance to water and stability made it the ideal material for pluming.  In 1664 the King of France, Louis XIV ordered cast iron pipes to be laid at Versailles and five miles of that original pipe is still in use today after three hundred years of use. The iron industry was tearing threw the forests of England and the shortage prompted Abraham Darby of Coalbrookdale, to experiment and eventually discover coke, that could make iron at two-thirds the cost of charcoal.

United States

Prior to the 1800s there was not much metal casting in the US, in Central and South America there is evidence of cold and silver casting with a lost wax technique. The creation of bloomeries across the Atlantic seaboard, reduced iron ore into blooms that could supply wrought iron to blacksmiths. Metal casting was not done in the US until the migration of Europeans who brought the blast furnace and foundry practices over. The blast furnace was brought to America in the mid 17thcentury, with the first ever being completely destroyed by Indians, could produced the material much more efficiently than a bloomery. The next attempt was in Massachusetts in 1642, Saugus Iron Works although active and critical in the foundation of Iron works in America it evidentially failed due to lawsuits.  At the time of the revolutionary war the colonies were producing 1/7 of the worlds pig iron and before the Civil War America was the foremost industrial nation. The Hopewell village furnace was one of the very first blast furnaces in North America that is still left today.

            Colonel James Withers Sloss founded and began construction of Sloss Furnaces in 1880 during the years following the civil war, when the south desperately needed its own foundries. The area where Sloss is built, Jones Valley, is known for its rich mineral resources.  The furnaces were at the time built to the highest standards and the most up to date techniques. By April 1882, the furnaces were up and running pouring and selling around 24,000 tons of pig iron that earned them a bronze metal for “best pig iron” at the Louisville Exposition. “By World War 1 Sloss had seven blast furnaces and was among the largest producers of pig iron in the world.

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