Architectural accessories of ornamental cast iron came as a boon to the builder of the mid-nineteenth-century. Victorian home owners, in revolt against the classic severity of the Federal period, were eager for elaboration of their premises, and the recent introduction of ornamental cast iron provided an inexpensive means of achieving an elaborate effect. The city residence could now be fitted with an elegant floriated balcony, or with one of Gothic tracery. If the location permitted, the house might have a verandah - or several of them, superimposed in gallery fashion, as was common practice in New Orleans. A more restrained use of the material consisted of an intricately detailed railing surrounding a tiny grass plot in front of the house, with a huge ornamental cast-iron urn in the center. Fancy cellar window guards, footscraper, and handrail were standard trimming. Cast-iron fountains played gently in the gardens of the more impressive mansions, and ornate cast-iron chairs were dotted about under the shade trees on the lawn.
In ‘Fashion and Famine’, a novel written in the 1840's by the then very popular author, Mrs. Ann Sophia Stephens, there is a description of a cottage of that day in New York City. In prose quite as arabesque as the ironwork she is describing, Mrs. Stephens sets forth the Victorian ideal of a residence: "... one of those miniature palaces - too small for the very wealthy, and too beautiful in its appointments for any idea but that of perfect taste, which wealth does not often give. The front, of a pale stone color, was so ornamented and netted over with the lace work of iron balconies and window gratings, that it had all the elegance of a city mansion, with much of the rustic beauty one sees in a rural dwelling. A little court, full of flowers, lay in front, with a miniature fountain throwing up a slender column of water from the centre of a tiny grass plot, that, in the pure dampness always raining over it, lay like a mass of crushed emeralds hidden among the flowers. The netted ironwork that hung around the doors, the windows, and fringed the eaves, as it were, with a valance of massive lace, was luxuriously interwoven with creeping plants."
In the United States as well as in England, ornamental cast iron began to be used in quantity beginning in the 1840's, not only as architectural ornament but also in cemeteries. The Victorian cemetery burgeoned with examples of the current taste for it. All the symbols of loss and mourning were immortalized in iron on the plot enclosures; the broken rosebud, the reversed torch, the weeping willow, the lyre, the heart, the mourning angels. A great deal of the ornamental cast iron in the United States, and also in Canada, came from Philadelphia - and in particular from the firm of Robert Wood, later to become Wood and Perot. Robert Wood, founder of The Philadelphia Ornamental Iron Works, was born in 1813 and apprenticed when quite young to a blacksmith. In 1839 he set up in business, with but one helper, producing wrought-iron window guards, awning posts, and railings. For the next ten years he listed himself as "Robert Wood, blacksmith, Ridge Road below Spring Garden Street."
His business expanded steadily and, after the appearance of his first catalogue showing ornamental cast-iron products, he set himself down as "Robert Wood, Iron Rail Foundery and Manufacturing." So rapidly had his reputation grown for fine design and workmanship that, by mid-century, his small shop had expanded into a plant employing three hundred hands. In 1857 he was joined by Elliston Perot, an accomplished designer of cast iron.
The firm of Wood and Perot existed until the death of Elliston Perot in 1865, when it became Robert Wood and Company; it seems to have gone out of business around
1881. That this firm was a notably progressive one is evidenced by the fact that, around 1849, or a little earlier, a free catalogue was issued, advertised as "Wood's Portfolio of Original Designs of Iron Railings, Verandahs, Settees, Chairs, Tables, and other Ornamental and Architectural Iron Work." Today, when free catalogues are an everyday matter, such an event would occasion no comment whatsoever, but at the time the catalogue appeared, the very idea was such a novelty that it created quite a stir. The appearance of this handsome folio, says a writer in 1858, "issued gratuitously by this house, containing engravings and designs to be executed in cast iron, such as never before had been equalled, and the impulse that was then given to decorative art has been felt in all parts of our country. Most of the cemeteries and squares throughout the whole country are adorned with work executed in Philadelphia; and every city, probably every town in the Union contains some specimen of our manufacturers' skill and taste."
From time to time Wood and Perot re-issued their magnificent catalogue. An edition brought out in 1862 refers to it as "A Portfolio of Original Designs of Ornamental Iron Work of Every Description." In 1864, Wood and Perot are still claiming "that their variety of patterns exceeds that of any similar establishment in the country." To this they add - and a touching reminder it is of the Civil War - that "among the new designs added to their list will be found many suitable for military purposes." These catalogues of Wood and Perot's are now rarities, most of them having probably disintegrated. I have seen two copies of these handsome folios of lithographed drawings. They furnish incontrovertible evidence that a great many of the cast-iron balconies, galleries, and railings which add so much to the visual charm of New Orleans and other southern cities were made in Philadelphia. By 1858, in fact, the firm of Wood and Perot had established a branch in New Orleans called Wood, Miltenberger & Company, where they maintained a large showroom as well as shops for finishing work manufacture in Philadelphia.
The most casual stroll today through the Victorian sections of Philadelphia will reveal many of the identical railings and balconies which have been featured so romantically in stories and pictures of New Orleans and the old South. Here, however, the galleries and balconies which have managed to survive the decades and the house-wrecker must be looked for at the rear of city houses, where they served for porches upstairs as well as on the first floor. In the older suburban sections of Philadelphia they were used, as elsewhere, as verandahs.
There were many who were extremely critical of the use of ornamental cast iron as an adjunct to architecture. The Victorian supporters of functionalism considered that ornamental cast iron served no purpose but to "make a big show." Followers of Ruskin decried it because it was mechanically produced. But cast iron also had its defenders. One such, an American architect, stated his position in 1859: "I would use iron as a decorative language, and as such, take pleasure in its practical uselessness."
The average Victorian, untroubled with aesthetic scruples, frankly doted on ornamental cast iron in all its variations and manifestations. It was an uncritical love. Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of ‘Godey's Lady's Book’, decided that her readers should learn something about it. In 1853, she led off the July issue with an article entitled ‘A Day at the Ornamental Iron Works of Robert Wood’ as one of a series called ‘Everyday Actualities’. In presenting such a series in a woman's magazine, Mrs. Hale was doing something new. She was introducing to her gentle public, which was nationwide, the wonders of the industrial age. Through this particular article, her readers could learn the steps in manufacturing which went into the making of their grape-patterned verandahs, or about the processes by which the cast-iron Newfoundland dog on their lawn came into being. The article took up all the technicalities of pattern-making, molding, and casting.
A great deal of the design of cast iron was Renaissance in character, but the designers did not ignore the new taste for the Gothic, or the growing trend toward the rustic and the naturalistic. The much-publicized "corn-fence" in New Orleans is an example of the extremes to which the naturalistic was carried: interlaced corn stalks, foliage, and leaves form the design of the railing, while the posts have pumpkins for bases and bundles of corn stalks for shafts, with a cluster of ears of corn as finials.
The pirating of competitors' designs was general practice, and it is amusing to note that despite its claims of "original designs" the firm of Robert Wood was not always above it. This practice was commented on by two commissioners sent over from England in 1853 to report on the American ornamental iron products shown at the New York Crystal Palace. They noted that while castings "are made in large quantities in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other large cities, these are usually copies or adaptations of similar work made in this country [England]."
Robert Wood was unusually progressive for his time in having his own pattern-making department. In his day, pattern making was usually a free-lance profession. Some of the patterns took weeks to carve in wood, and since they were costly affairs they were planned so that they could be put to many uses. A pattern designed as a railing, for instance, might serve equally well as a window guard, or various units might be combined (none too harmoniously sometimes) to form large gates, verandahs, or summer houses. Robert Wood's patterns were valued at several hundred thousand dollars, and were housed in a fireproof building. He had a lithographed drawing made of every article he manufactured, and these prints formed the basis of his handsome catalogues.
It is difficult to assign pieces to specific manufacturers, since free-lance pattern makers often sold the same design to various firms. Furthermore, designers had no scruples whatever about copying each others' patterns. Another difficulty in assigning a piece to a particular manufacturer results from a practice common to the trade. Whenever a firm went out of business, its patterns were always bought up by other manufacturers. Therefore, even though an article may be stamped with a firm's name (though few of the early pieces were), this is no guarantee that the design was first created by or for that firm. Wood and Perot designs are duplicated, for instance, in many of those issued by the Variety Iron Works of York, Pennsylvania. This firm was founded in 1840, and in 1860 became E. G. Smyser's Sons, which in its turn became Smyser-Rover Company. We can only conclude that at some time in its existence the firm in York, Pennsylvania, must have acquired quite a few of the patterns of the Philadelphia firm.
There were many firms manufacturing ornamental cast iron in Philadelphia; seventeen were listed in 1858 - a number which fell off to eleven in 1864. But there was none with such a reputation for "tasteful elegance" as that of Robert Wood.