As a Pennsylvania historian, I have always been fascinated with the early American iron industry in southeastern Pennsylvania where our iron ore mines were excavated by Colonists to meet the growing demand for the local iron furnaces. However, these iron foundries had to meet the needs of our local PA Dutch farmers before they exported pig iron abroad to England . Foremost among these needs were the cast iron five plate stoves to heat our early American farm houses attached to the rear wall of a central located fireplace in which they cooked on an open hearth. Among the Americana foods prepared by the PA Dutch were waffles made on a long handle fireplace waffle iron, which were often in the shape of a heart with diamond or tulips cast within the iron plates. A laborious way of baking batter poured waffles made one by one over an open hearth heated with logs. Today, these 18th Century antique waffle irons are rarely found, unless they are in PA Dutch museums.
But after the iron foundries started casting iron stoves to replace open hearth fireplaces, waffle irons made for 19th Century cast iron kitchen stoves became very practical for housewives to use. These later circular designed waffle irons were very popular with farm housewives who made a great number of waffles to feed their large farm families who consumed these chicken and waffle dinners eagerly. It was a simple task of pouring waffle batter in an artistic waffle iron, heating it on the wood fired kitchen range and then flipping the plates around to heat the other side, “was child’s play.” So the entire family could get in on the action. But the cast iron plates of the waffle iron had to be greased with lard, less the wood fired stove might cause the waffle to be burned, a household task that was soon managed by all the family who loved eating waffles. With different condiments, including butter sprinkled with brown sugar, but Chicken and waffles were best made with a creamy chicken sauce that enhanced the flavoring.
In the post Civil War period, there was hardly a PA Dutch farm family that did not have two or three locally made cast iron waffle irons from one of our Berks or Lehigh County furnaces. In fact, waffle making was so popular among the PA Dutch farming community churches quite often used this dish as a favorite reason to enjoy fellowship with members. But less likely was the alternative choice, “turkey and waffles.” But any talented “pot-luck” cook could fashion a gourmet topping for her waffle dish.
In my photo of Mabel Wetzel of Lehigh County pouring a 19th Century waffle iron with batter into Mary Bieber’s family waffle iron who lived at Rockland Township. She is heating the waffle iron on an Orr and Panther Stove made at Reading, owned by Freddie Bieber. Note the crock with a spout made just to pour waffle batter on this post-Civil War cast iron stove.
With so many iron furnaces smelting iron in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country there was no shortages for individuals to by artistic designed waffle irons. Some of them were divided in four sections with hearts in relief not just diamond and playing card symbols. Making waffles to eat when extra guests arrive to visit was a typical Dutch hospitality treat for everyone to enjoy. A Pennsylvania Deitsch treat long before we had modern electric household waffle irons.
Richard H. Shaner is director of the Amercian Folklife Institute in Kutztown.