Iron fencing - is it old? Where is it from?

btm23February 6, 2012

Hi everyone! I purchased this great piece of iron fence recently from a well-known local antiques shop. Sadly, I purchased this piece about 3 weeks after the owner passed away, and his brother was struggling to run the shop. His brother, unfortunately, couldn't tell me anything about it. He said that his brother's most recent buying trips had been in the southern part of Italy, the northeastern U.S. and Stockholm. But he also said that his brother could have purchased it elsewhere entirely, so who knows.

It is HEAVY. It took 3 big guys to load it onto my truck. It doesnt look heavy; my husband scoffed at me when I said he might need help to unload it and then we had to recruit neighbors to help!

I love it. I don't care if I find out that it's total reprod, made in 1998, worth 5% of what I paid for it, etc. but I'm just curious if anyone has any idea about when, where, and how it was produced.

Thanks in advance!

Here are pictures:

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Okay, fesse up....where did you get those fabulous guest bedroom sheets. Love 'em.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2012 at 10:08PM
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Sorry....I can't say anything about the piece of fence....but it's great!
The sheets are from it says on the picture.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2012 at 11:27PM
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Thanks lindac....I just didn't scroll down far enough! Yikes for $248 don't think I could just 'machine wash' them, but then again I've never had $248 Maybe I'll try with India Ink to make some of my own.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 12:13AM
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If you examine your fence closely you will see that it is made up of many individual cast iron sections that are strung together on the top and bottom iron or steel bars.

Each point on the top is over a square hole that the iron bar passes through and their are two vertical stiles on each section. There is a matching square bracket on the bottom for the bottom steel bar.

They were made in that fashion so that each segment was an even 6" or 8" wide and they could make up custom lengths of fencing by using a longer or shorter bar on top & bottom.

Those type of fences were commonly used in the inner city along sidewalks to provide a protective barrier around stairwells to basement apartment or to surround the stairwells to subway stations and occassionally they were used to make hand rails on the walkways of big bridges.

It is very difficult to give an exact age of what you have, but I know that technique was commonly used from the late 1700's up to the early 1940's.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 12:47PM
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Well that's narrowing it down!! LOL!
There is an old house in this small mid-west town that has a wonderful iron fence on 3 sides of the large lot. It's long admired by all who love old stuff. Well last summer a severe storm took down a huge branch of an old oak, landing it squarly on the fence. Crushed one section like an egg shell. They removed the section....and it looks like a tooth is missing....sad....

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 12:52PM
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You guys are all very helpful and I thank you all!!!
@ justlinda: I ADORE those bedroom sheets!! the only reason that I was willing to pay so much for them is because I am using a very basic chocolate brown quilt and I leave it folded down so that the sheets show prodominately. lol that's my justification, anyway hahaha
@ lazypup: thank you VERY much for such detailed information! Do you know what this method of fencing is called, by any chance? I'd just like to know what to call it when I talk about it. I usually don't buy stuff that I know nothing about, but fell in love with it.

thanks again to everybody. I am going to hang it on the wall in my home, but I'm having to hire a contractor to do it because it is SOOOO heavy! My husband thinks I'm psycho... he may be right. But I just can't think of keeping this outdoors. I want to see it every day. :)

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 1:07PM
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It used to be all over the nearby town. In fact, when we had a terrible flood in 1914, my g'grandfather, a riverboat man set out in a little rowboat to rescue people trapped in their homes. One residence had fencing like that the boat's bottoms wouldn't clear. He started on to the next house to the occupants' protest. He snarled back you put the ***** stuff up to keep people out. Well, you succeeded.

The town has ripped this stuff down to abandon. It once lined the cemeteries. Broke my heart. There is a local smithy who makes reproductions of it, but I would sure love to know where all the scrap went to. Probably answered my own question.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 1:54PM
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I just did a little research on your fence.

The individual sections are called "Ballisters" or "Balistrades".

I am attaching a composite photo that shows a page from an architectural catalog showing some variations of the ballisters.

The ones with the pointed tops such as yours would be used on perimiter fencing for security or on railings around stairwells to prevent ppl from sitting on top and running the risk of falling in the stairwell.

Note that some are made with a flat top and no point so they can be used with handrails.

Also not that on some of them in the catalog the top is made at a 45deg angle. That is to permit using those as handrails on a staircase.

On the upper right there is a photo showing how they were typically packed on pallets to be shipped from the manufacturer to the job site where they were to be installed.

And on the lower right you can see the front facade of a brownstown in NYC with both a perimeter fence and stair railings and balcony railings.

Those balisters are made of cast iron which is an extremely labor intensive production process. To make each ballister they have a shallow wooden box and a wooden mockup of the part they want to cast. They begin by placing a layer of sand in the box, then lay the mockup on the sand and continue packing sand until the side is half way up the thickness of the piece, That makes the base of the mold, then they use another box and build it up the same way, and when done the two boxes are fitted together forming a complete mold, into which the pour molting iron. When the iron cools and hardens a bit they break the two boxes apart, clean the sand off and they have the finished casting. Keep in mind, they have to make a separate mold for each piece. In the early to mid 1800s a laborer worked a ten hour day for $1 and the pay scale increased to about $2 a day by 1900 with no benefits so they could afford the labor, but in todays society with production laborers on union contracts at $18 to $30hr + benefits they simply cannot afford to make separate molds and individual casts except for very large items such as bathtubs that can be marketed profitably.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2012 at 9:59PM
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Many examples of this type of fencing/ballistrades can be found in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

The very heavy weight of your pieces means these are solid, not hollow. This is a clue to age. Fencing of this design went out of style after WW2. It was very heavy and too expensive. Today, when you see new decorative (and protective) fencing around a church yard or cemetery, there is not much filigree, mostly straight pieces, and the so called rods are really square tubing. A closer inspection may show that it is aluminum tubing painted with crackly black paint to make it look like iron - cheap stuff compared to solid iron or steel pieces.

In the 1930s, manufacturers of all kinds of products began to replace castings with formed sheet metal and molded plastic. By 1940, castings were on the way out. Some parts such as engine blocks and manifolds remained castings. The final blow was struck in the 1970 when EPA regulations (and dwindling business) drove many casters out of business. For example, there were 3 foundries near downtown Milwaukee in the 1960s. Within a few years these were closed and the nearest iron caster of large parts is 60 miles away from the city.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2012 at 5:18AM
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Lazypup: wow, I had no idea how labor-intensive the cast iron process was. I had assumed that it being cast iron meant that it was more easily or cheaply made, as opposed to hand wrought iron. I wish i could find some markings somewhere on it that would indicate who manufactured it, but its so heavy that ig will be hard. I will try anyway this weekend. I really can't thank you enough for educating me about this; it means a lot to me!

Jemdandy: I have a friend who used to live I new or,eans, and she sweas that this fence section is almost identical to a fence that she used to walk past every day, but it's no longer there. Slits funny that you mention new Orleans. I agree with you about the weight being significant in relation to the age; something this heavy would just be practical today in most fence applications that I can think of. It is redicilously heavy. I have been reading a lot lately about American cast iron manufactures, trying to find a catalog that may have images of my fence in it, (or these ballisters at least) so that I would know when it was made and by whom. But in my searches, I have found that so many of those companies have gone out of business or now manufacture something completely different, so you must be correct about the changing times putting them under. Thank you so so much for your input and help, I am thrilled to learn all that I can about this piece.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2012 at 2:51PM
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