It took all the strength I had not to title this article “The Trouble with Trivets,” purely for the sake of busting out an old school Star Trek reference and, at the same time, making a terrible pun.
But there’s no correlation between the two things—the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" and vintage metal trivets—that I’m aware of. Just know that, for a moment, I was very, very clever.
Because the fact of the matter is, there is no trouble with trivets. These footed stands, traditionally made of metal, most often cast iron, allow hot kettles and pans to be placed on a tabletop without ruining the finish.
See? No trouble at all!
But trivets are more than just hardcore potholders. There’s beautiful history and craftsmanship involved. The traditional triangular design was intended to hold hot laundry irons fresh out of the wood-burning stove. And their intricate designs—scrolls, leaves and hearts for days—were the sign of the artistry of centuries of metalworkers.
Collecting can start innocently enough. You find a beautiful cast iron trivet at an estate sale, and suddenly you’re hooked. Or, perhaps, it starts with a gift.
“Back in the 1980s I inherited two small trivets from my paternal grandmother,” said Lynn Rosack, webmaster of the Pressing Iron and Trivet Collectors of America. It was from those two trivets that her interest and collection grew.
“At its peak my collection numbered around 1,500,” she said.
She’s pared down considerably since then, focusing on “mostly Early American in cast iron and Victorian British in brass.” But she remains an avid collector, an active member of the collecting community, and she blogs about trivets at her website, Trivetology, so who better to talk to for insight into the world or trivets?
The simplest way to classify your trivet types is to break them down by era, which Rosack conveniently labels as antique, vintage, and contemporary.
Antique trivets, made in the 19th and early 20th century are commonly made of cast iron or brass, straight out of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the cast iron trivets of this era have long handles (or a hole in which said handle could be inserted, because they were placed within a fireplace.
“From the 1880s to the 1930s, when cast iron trivets and sad iron stands were regularly used in the kitchen,” Rosack said, “It was common to offer nickel-plating (to resist rusting) as an option.”
Beyond the material they were made from, you can identify antique trivets by their casting marks.
Sprue marks indicate an iron was made before 1865. It’s a mark left behind where the liquid metal was poured into a mold, where excess material solidified. This can come in the form of a circle mark, or a thin line known as a “wedge mark.”
It’s basically your trivet’s belly-button.
In the years after the Civil War (for reasons unrelated to said war), trivets would have gate marks, which are similar to wedge marks, but along the edges of the piece—along the seam of the trivet mold.
Authentic antique trivets also rarely bear a maker’s mark. “Designs were cast over many years by many different foundries and rarely signed,” Rosack said. There are exceptions, though. “William B. Rimby of Baltimore, Maryland was a master moulder, casting some beautifully designed trivets; most were signed and dated between 1841 and 1843." The "Many Tulips" design pictured above is an example of this—his initials appear on the reverse of the handle. "His trivets are rare and very collectible,” Rosack said
Though she has managed to collect most of the trivets she wants, Rimby’s work remains a “holy grail” of sorts.
As we move into the twentieth century, where the Vintage era begins, cast iron trivets were still being produced, but trivets of different materials and styles were being introduced as well. Some brass and bronze trivets, like the one pictured above, went through a chemical treatment process devised by Pal-Bell of Tel-Aviv, Israel, Rosack said, which gave the metal a green hue. "This style of applied greenish verdigris became synonymous with mid-twentieth century Israeli metalware."
Black enamel was a popular style, as was painted aluminum, Rosack said, particularly for the “motto trivets, like the one pictured below” that were popular in mid-century roadside stands, riding the cusp between vintage and contemporary.
Vintage trivet-designers may have branched out a bit, but the styles of previous eras remained popular as well. During much of this era, like the one before it, pieces were unsigned. But they were sometimes numbered, or contained other identifying marks from the manufacturer. Trivet legs grew shorter. Gate marks became a thing of the past thanks to machine grinding.
But while you can use such cues to avoid a reproduction of a vintage trivet, be aware that authentic vintage trivets are essentially reproductions themselves.
“The majority of post-WW2 mass produced trivets are technically reproductions, since they reintroduced antique designs from the past,” Rosack said. “However, since most were well crafted and labeled by foundry (Wilton, John Wright, JZH, Iron Art, Virginia Metalcrafters) they're now collectible in their own right.”
The latter half of the 20th century is an era of more mass-produced trivets. No longer saddled with the task of withstanding the heat of a thousand fires, they remained durable, but with more focus on aesthetics—using wood or tile rather than the standard metals, for example. Pieces were signed, numbered, or otherwise emblazoned with identification. Less collectible as far as value is concerned, but nonetheless enjoyable to have around.
When you spot a trivet at a local estate sale, examine it not unlike how you would a cast iron pan. Look for cracks, pitting, and unintentional rust. Check for identifying marks—or lack thereof—that will allow you to better age your piece. But given the lack of identifiers on older pieces, Rosack suggests shoppers arm themselves with knowledge, which can be accessed from groups like the Pressing Iron and Trivet Collectors of America.
But most important is to buy what interests you. Your collection can go any number of routes. “As people learn more about the history and scope of trivets, most re-evaluate their collection,” Rosack said. Then they usually choose to specialize in one of three different ways: By purpose (decorative vs functional); by material: cast iron vs brass; or by era: antique vs vintage/contemporary. “Those who collect post-WW2 trivets,” she said, “might chose to collect trivets produced by a specific company, such as Virginia Metalcrafters, JZH or Wilton.”
Rosack reminds us that it “takes experience to accurately determine age and value, which is judged by the proportions, quality and condition of the metal, and the scarcity and complexity of design.” So in the mean time, just enjoy yourself.