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Emil Carlsen painting

Cato’s descriptions of an olive farm and a vineyard farm are among the earlier accounts of brass kettles, specifically a brazen [made of brass] kettle holding 30 quadrantes*, a kettle lid, a brazen kettle holding 5 quadrantes, a kettle lid, and one brass kettle for cooking.  (1)

Brass kettles were among the first utensils brought to America and Myles Standish had three of them.  The kettles were hammered out of sheet brass or copper, first by hand and then by trip hammer.  (2)

Estate inventories from the 17th century are filled with brass kettles being bequeathed to heirs in the U.S. and in Europe.  For one household, an early Connecticut inventory listed a great brass kettle, lesser brass pan, brass scummer [skimmer], brass chafing dish, brass skillet, small brass kettle, and brass candlesticks.  (3)

Brass kettles were often described as great [very large], lesser, and least.  (4)

Carlsen, Brass and Copper, 1926

Other brass utensils found in those early records included brass mortar and pestles, a brass box with pot hooks [1694], cullenders [colanders], strainers, ladles, dripping pans, shivers and [stop]cocks (a hand operated valve or faucet), boilers, warming pans, saucepots, frying pans, hand washing basins, etc. 

One inventory included a brass kettle weighing 31 lbs., a great brass kettle, lesser kettle, little kettle, and a little brass kettle, with 2 brass posnets, 4 ladles, 3 skimmers, and four candlesticks, all brass. (5)

Esther Singleton studied Colonial era estate inventories at the turn of the 20th century and wrote that those documents showed a great deal of pewter, brass, and copper in the South.  She gave the inventory for Colonel Stephen Gill of York County, VA [1650’s] as an example.

1 copper kettle, 1 old brass kettle, 1 brass pott, 3 brass candlesticks, 1 brass skillitt, 1 small brass mortar and pestle, 1 brass skimmer, 1 brass spoone, 3 old iron potts, 1 small iron pott, 3 pesites, 1 frying pan, 2 spitts, 2 pair of potthangers, 3 pair potthookes, 1 iron ladle, 1 flesh hook, 3 tin cullenders, forty-six pounds of pewter, 4 old porringers, 19 pewter spoons, 4 old pewter tankards, 1 flaggon, 2 salt sellers, 6 tin candlesticks, 2 dozen old trenchers, and 2 sifters.

Brass kettles were used for most sorts of foods, but specific accounts of what was prepared in brass kettles include meat, pickles, vegetables, soup, jams and jellies, and large brass kettles were used for evaporating salt, melting tallow for candles, and laundry and dyeing. (6)

About two miles from West Liberty Town I passed by Probe’s Furnace, a foundry established by a Frenchman from Alsace, who manufactures all kinds of vessels in copper and brass, the largest containing about 200 pints, which are sent to Kentucky and Tennessee, where they use them in the preparation of salt by evaporation.  The smaller ones are for domestic uses.  (7)

The use of copper or brass cookware which does not have a tin lining is considered by many unsafe today and even when it was in common use was questioned by some in the preparation of acidic foods.  It was a common practice to make cucumber pickles in brass or copper pots because the vinegar reacted with the metal and made the pickles greener than when made in iron pots.  Some said doing so was unhealthy while others insisted there was no danger so long as the pot was properly cleaned before and after use. 

My mother always used a brass kettle.  I never heard of its hurting anybody.  If you have good cider vinegar, the green pickles will be wholesome enough.  Everybody in Hookertown cures ‘em in this way, and we are not an ailin’ sort of people.  (8)

Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and cookbook author Catherine Beecher, said her family had always used a brass kettle and never seen any injurious effects from it.  She told her readers that brass kettles had to be kept scrupulously clean, cleansed with salt and hot vinegar, and rubbed till every part of it shone like gold. 

After it is used [cooked in] and taken from the fire; remove the contents at once.  When a kettle is thoroughly cleaned, no harm comes from its use so long as it is kept over the fire; the mischief arises from letting anything stand in it and cool.  (9)

Methods of cleaning brass kettles differed over time.  Accounts are commonplace of using salt and vinegar during the colonial era and into the 19th century although by then others thought vinegar caused the newly cleaned brass to tarnish even faster between cleanings. 

CLEANING A BRASS KETTLE.  A brass, bell-metal, or copper kettle should always be cleaned immediately after using.  Even when not used, it will require occasional cleaning; otherwise it will collect rust or verdigrease, which is a strong poison.

To clean it properly, after washing it out with a cloth and warm water, put into the kettle a large tea-cupful of vinegar and a large tea-spoonful of salt and hang it over the fire.  Let it get quite warm; and then take it off, dip in a clean rag, and wash the whole inside of the kettle thoroughly with the salt and vinegar; after which, wash it well with warm water.  Next, take wood ashes and clean rags, and scour it well.  Afterwards, wash it with hot-soap-suds, and finish, by rinsing it with cold water, and wiping it with a dry cloth, both inside and out.  These kettles should be kept always clean, that they may be ready for use at any time they are wanted.  So also should every vessel of brass or copper.  (10)

Between Eliza Leslie’s account published in 1850, still carrying over from earlier times, and one from some 36 years later the reader will notice the difference of opinion.

It is a great mistake to use vinegar and salt in cleaning a brass kettle, as the corrosion of the acid turns it black as soon as set aside.  The best cleansing medium is a flannel cloth wet in hot suds; rub this with soap (soft if you have it), and plunge into wood ashes; with this scour briskly your brass which, like all metals, will take a high polish more readily if warm.  Ashes taken warm from the fire are also more effective.  After scouring, wash quickly in warm suds and wipe thoroughly dry before putting away.  With this care a brass kettle may be used daily, even in a damp climate, for boiling vegetables…and without anything more than a “rub-over” with ashes every day or two, present a shining yellow face the year in and year out. (11)

Some accounts indicate brass kettles were more common than copper because they were generally less expensive.  The weight is often given for brass kettles and Rogers wrote that various copper and brass kettles sold by the pound, some weighing up to 66 lbs.  Prices in England during the 18th century for a small brass pot averaged 10 to 14 shillings and smaller ones from 2 shillings 8 pence to 6 shillings 8 pence.  A great kettle purchased in London in 1585 cost 44 shillings 3 pence.  (12)

I have purchased original brass kettles and saucepans of various sizes in the U.S. and in the U.K. and have used them in preparing foods with never any more problem than with the tin-lined reproductions I own.  I do not use them with acidic foods and I do not allow food to sit in them after it has finished cooking.  I do keep them scrupulously clean, just as the early authors instructed, and I use them for historic cooking demonstrations, not on a daily basis.    The reader will, however, assume all responsibility for any problem associated with its use.   

*  A quadrant was a Roman measure equivalent to about 24 quarts.

Part II, Native Americans and their Use of Brass Kettles, to follow in my next post.

Bib:  

  1.  Oliver, Edmund Henry.  Roman Economic Conditions to the Close of the Republic.  1907.  Toronto.
  2. Plater’s Guide.  Vol. V.  Jan-Dec. 1909.
  3. Manwearing, Charles William.  Digest of Early Connecticut Probate Records from 1635 to 1700.  1904.  Hartford.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Isham, Norman.  Early Connecticut Houses.  1900.  Providence, RI. 
  6. Proceedings of the State Historical Society Wisconsin.  1904.  Madison.
  7. Quoted from Michaud’s Early Western Travels in Moore, N. Hudson, The Collector’s Manual, 1905.  NY.
  8. American Agriculturist.  Vol. 24.  Sep. 1865. 
  9. Beecher, Henry Ward, Mrs. All Around the House.  1881.  NY. 
  10. Leslie, Eliza.  Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book; a Manual of Domestic Economy.   1850.  Philadelphia.
  11. Good Housekeeping.  Jan. 9, 1886.  NY. 
  12. Rogers, James Edwin Thorold.  History of Agriculture and Prices in England 1583 to 1702.  1887.  Oxford.
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