The Complete History of Wrought Iron
To look at the history of wrought iron is to look at the history of man's innovations. Throughout time, wrought iron has been used to build ancient structures, warships and railways. Wrought iron has fought wars, built kingdoms, and provided the structures to everlasting historical landmarks. Today, the timeless look of wrought iron can be found anywhere in homes from light fixtures, to wine racks, to candle holders.
The term "wrought iron" comes from the past tense form of the verb to work. Throughout time, many historic forms of the English language have fallen of use and after a long period of time the word "wrought" became replaced by "worked." So, in a literal sense, the term "wrought iron" means "worked iron."
Before the developments of modern steel-making, wrought iron was the most commonly used form of malleable iron. This means that unlike cast iron, wrought iron is not as brittle. Wrought iron has a lower carbon content, which makes it harder and stronger yet easier to weld. At its peak, wrought iron was used in the manufacturing of nearly everything, all over the world.
Due to its malleability and toughness, wrought iron has been coveted for thousands of years. In ancient times, blacksmiths were considered to be as equally important as the local doctor, because as the doctor kept the people healthy, the blacksmith kept the town moving. To many people, the blacksmith's ability to transform a seemingly coarse, hard material into something of breathtaking beauty was magical.
Wrought iron essentially comes in two different types: charcoal and puddle iron. Charcoal iron was primarily used from the Iron Age to the end of the eighteenth century and produced through a charcoal fire. Puddled iron, used since the dawn of the industrial era, is made from cast iron in an indirect coal fired furnace.
One of the first production methods of iron was with the use of bloomeries. A bloomery is a sort of furnace with a pit and chimney, and featured stone or clay walls for heat resistance. Clay pipes entered near the bottom of the pit to allow airflow either from natural source or through the use of a type of air pump known as a bellow. Once a bloomery was filled with charcoal and iron ore it was lit and air was forced through the pipes fueling the fire and heating the mixture to just below the melting point for iron. This forced the impurities to melt and run off while the carbon monoxide from the charcoal reduced the ore to iron in a sponge-like mass. This material was then forged with hammers, which removed impurities in the process.
Innovations such as introducing water power and a blast furnace advanced the process throughout centuries, but it was the invention of the puddling furnace in 1784 that brought wrought iron use to its peak. The puddling technique created the production of wrought iron without charcoal. This enabled a great expansion of iron use throughout Great Britain and that in part sprung the Industrial Revolution.
Examples of early ironwork date back to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia as far back as around 3500 B.C. Around the 8th century B.C., early civilizations such as the Hittites and the Mycenaean Greeks began equipping their armies with iron swords. The vast availability of the raw material equipped entire armies with iron weapons. Knowledge about the use of iron spread from the Middle East to Greece and the Aegean region by 1000 B.C. and had reached western and central Europe by 600 B.C. By the 5th century B.C., iron swords had replaced bronze all over Europe.
Before the Middle Ages, wrought iron was used primarily for weapons and tools, however, the medieval period brought with it a multitude of uses for wrought iron. It began to be used to cover doors and windows of buildings to protect against the attacks of raiders. But more prominently, wrought ironwork began to appear for decorative purposes. Some of this beautiful work can still be seen today in famous European landmarks like the Canterbury and Winchester Cathedrals of England and Notre Dame de Paris.
From the 16th century on, ironwork became sophisticated and high decorative, throughout the elaborate cathedrals of Spain to balconies, patios and gateways of France. The boom of ironwork in the 18th century led to beautiful railings and gates throughout London and eventually made its way to the United States, most prominently in the French inspired designs of New Orleans.
Demand for the raw material wrought iron, hit its peak in the 1860's as ironclad warships popularity rose along with the production of railways spread across the United States. As iron became more common, it became widely used for cooking utensils, stoves, grates, locks, hardware and other household items.
The popularity and use of the raw material wrought iron diminished with the growing availability of mild steel. Mild steel, which also has low carbon content, contains many of the properties of wrought iron. Because mild steel is cheaper and easier to mass produce, the raw material wrought iron gradually disappeared, until the last ironworks ceased production in the 1970's. Wrought iron is no longer produced on a commercial scale, but is still made for replication, restoration and conservation of historical ironwork. Many products today described as wrought iron are actually made of mild steel. Products such as railings, gates, furniture, lighting and other ornamental work are produced of mild steel.
Today, the craft of manipulating raw steel by hand with hammer and anvil continues to be an art in the growing demand for quality handmade wrought iron home accessories and furniture. Even though wrought iron decor is hammered and shaped from newer stronger forms of raw material like mild steel, the beauty and detail of this labor intensive craft can still be appreciated.
This timeless tradition lives on in a multitude of products available from a variety of wrought iron specialty stores and local blacksmith shops. Because the iron element and style is so universal, Wrought Iron Furniture and Iron Decor can be found in nearly every home, cabin or commercial establishment. Heirloom quality wrought iron decor and iron furniture can be found in stores like Timeless Wrought Iron, where interior decor and furniture is of heirloom quality and meant to last for generations. Wrought Iron has satisfied people's tastes and needs for thousands of years and will continue to be of great value for years to come.