A Little History

OK, so I suppose we need to go back a bit farther to get a true appreciation that metal casting played in the development of what we know today as the cast iron Dutch oven. So as not to bore everyone too much the timeline below sums up the ancient history. The bullets below are from the History of Metal Casting located on the Metal Technologies, Inc. web site.

  • 3200 B.C. A copper frog, the oldest known casting in existence, is cast in Mesopotamia.
  • 2000 B.C. Iron is discovered.
  • 800-700 B.C. First Chinese production of cast iron.
  • 645 B.C. Earliest known sand molding (Chinese). 
  • 233 B.C. Cast iron plowshares are poured in China.
  • 500 A.D. Cast crucible steel is first produced in India, but the process is lost until 1750 when Benjamin Huntsman reinvents it in England.
  • In 1704 a man by the name of Abraham Darby traveled from England to Holland to inspect a Dutch casting process by which brass vessels were cast in dry sand molds.  Upon returning to England Darby experimented with the process and eventually patented a casting process using a better type of molding sand as well as a process of baking the mold to improve casting smoothness.
There you have it, a history lesson in a half page. Now, let’s pick up the story in the 1700’s in America. 

Note: My notes below come from the book, “Dutch Ovens Chronicled, Their Use in the United States” by John G. Ragsdale, published by the University of Arkansas Press. This book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble.

So, where did the name “Dutch oven” come from? Darby, the guy mentioned above, eventually began casting pots and shipping them to the new colonies and throughout the world. It has been suggested that the name “Dutch Oven” may have derived from the original Dutch process for casting metal pots brought back to England by Darby. Others have suggested that early Dutch traders or salesmen peddling cast iron pots may have given rise to the name “Dutch oven”. Still others believe that the name came from Dutch settlers in the Pennsylvania area who used similar cast iron pots or kettles.

For the purpose of describing the pot we use outdoors Dutch oven, or camp oven, refers to a cast iron pot or kettle with a flat bottom having three legs to hold the oven above the coals, flat sides and a flat, lid with a lip around the outer edge for holding coals in such a way as to not let them slide off the lid. These ovens have a steel bail handle attached to “ears” on each side of the oven near the top for carrying.

Other ovens may also be called a “Dutch Oven” such as cast aluminum Dutch ovens and cast iron pots or kettles with rounded lids, flat bottoms and no legs like those that would be typically be used in a conventional kitchen (see images below). By the way, the Dutch ovens with legs an be used indoors in an oven. Works just fine.  

In his 1776 book, “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith, proposed that the actual wealth of the nation was not its gold but in its manufacture of pots and pans.  Cast iron cookware was highly valued in the 18th century. George Washington’s mother thought so much of her cookware she made special note to bequeath her cast iron in her will. In their expedition to the Louisiana territory in 1804, Lewis and Clark indicated that their cast iron Dutch oven was one of their most important pieces of equipment and that, along with their firearms, would not be traded.

There are, and have been, many manufacturers of Dutch ovens in the U.S. The two most prominent today are Camp Chef and Lodge. A couple of manufactures that have become the target of collectors are Griswold and Warner. There are others whose names that have been lost and or nearly lost without some research. 

Ragsdale, in the above referenced book, indicates that cast metal pots have been in use since the seventh century.  The Dutch Oven of today has evolved over the years as various manufacturers made refinements and improvements over previous version of cast metal pots.

No matter what you call it or what shape it is cast to or how old a black pot, a well prepared meal from a Dutch Oven has a delicious flavor unmatched by most other cookware. 


A Little History — 2 Comments

    • Hi Carter. It is interesting how the DO has been used for so long with so few changes. If you’re interested in early American kitchens and cooking I might also suggest looking at http://www.jas-townsend.com . They’re primary business is selling 18th century clothing, accessories, and other related items to re-enactors. But, what’s really cool about the site are the number of quality videos they have posted about cooking during that period. It’s worth a look.

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