Courtesy BTHL

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization

Architectural projects have featured cast iron as a structural material since the Iron Bridge in Coalbrookdale, England, and James Bogardus’s Edward Laing Store in New York. Although its compressive strength makes it suitable for structural columns, cast iron has a long history as ornamental material, in plumbing pipes, and in heating systems.

The cast iron storefront as an architectural frame and base for the street architecture of urban America was most prevalent between 1840 and 1890, particularly in New York. The skill sets of designers, pattern makers, and foundry workers led to the creation of hundreds of different cast iron column designs, which are vividly illustrated in a wide range of catalogs. In the 19th and 20th centuries, cast iron was favored in decorative fencing, balconies, and trellises. Throughout the centuries, however, manufacturers used the alloy to produce boilers and radiators in HVAC systems and to plumbing lines. Different documents in the BTHL reveal only the beginning of the vast range of products possible with cast iron.

Description of a New-Invented Stove Grate, J. Durno, London, 1753

This catalog takes the honor of being the oldest in the BTHL. Heralding the end of the fireplace as a building's heating source, it tells the story of a new kind of cast iron stove grate. This catalog also claims that the new stove would reduce the use of coal to heat your house by 75%, an impressive efficiency claim by any standard of measurement.

Illustrations of Iron Architecture, Architectural Iron Works, New York, 1865

Perhaps more a monograph, this catalog details the stories of the architectural ironwork building facades and storefronts completed by Daniel D. Badger’s company Architectural Iron Works. The catalog illustrates many noteworthy examples in New York and lists the names and locations of more than 500 completed buildings across North America.

Illustrated Catalogue: Pascal Iron Works, Morris, Tasker & Co., New Castle, Del., 1871

This large volume depicts the many uses of cast iron for both architectural and industrial projects. Boilers, plumbing pipe, columns, light poles, and tanks are all featured and illustrated.

Manual of the Bouton Foundry Co., Bouton Foundry Co., Chicago, 1887

This foundry catalog features dozens of interior and exterior cast iron column designs. The catalog also offers extensive engineering tables for both cast iron and steel columns and beams.

Enterprise Architectural Iron Works & Foundry, Enterprise Architectural Iron Works, St. Louis, 1887

St. Louis has several cast iron foundries. The Enterprise Architectural Iron Works was true to its name, producing architectural cast iron components such as columns, fronts, stairs, ornamental railings, and fences.

Illustrated Catalog of Macfarlane’s Castings, 6th Ed., Vol. 1, Walter Macfarlane & Co., Glasgow, Scotland, 1890s

The two volumes comprising Macfarlane Illustrated catalog serve as a virtual compendium of cast iron ornament of the 19th century, with more than 100 pages of architectural railing designs and examples of everything from clock towers to gazebos.

Radiation and Decoration, American Radiator Co., Chicago, 1905

The cast iron radiator was a common building system for more than a century. This colorful catalog from the early 20th century showcases decorative examples of something that was often treated as utilitarian or hidden from view.

Ornamental Iron and Bronze, The Winslow Brothers Co., Chicago, 1910

The Winslow Brothers Co., in Chicago, was an important ironwork manufacturer that did custom work for structures across the country. This catalog is more like a monograph of completed projects that show some of the finest examples of the company's decorative metal work.

Enameled Cast Iron and Vitreous China Sanitary ware, National Sanitary Co., Salem, Ohio, 1929

The cast iron plumbing fixture combined the structural rigidity of metal with the water resistance of porcelain. This combination proved quite durable as cast iron sinks and bathtubs can last literally for centuries.

Colonel Logan Ornamental Iron, Logan Co., Louisville, Ky., 1944

When combined with slender steel frames, cast iron grills became a common decorative feature in residential architecture in the mid-20th century. This use was particularly popular in the southern U.S. states, which were influenced by the earlier cast iron balconies of New Orleans.

Handbook of Cast Iron Pipe, Cast Iron Pipe Research Assoc., Chicago, 1952

Cast iron plumbing pipe is another cast iron application that levarges the material's ability to endure long-term exposure to water, which is not true of most other forms of iron and steel.