Today we have a pair of andirons, made of either cast or wrought iron (more on that in a bit), of known provenance but uncertain date.
These fellows are utilitarian, but not plain. Their public side, so to speak, consists of a Doric column topped by a grim little face; the feet are curved brackets, ornamented with a bit of scrollwork.
Though they look rather primitive, much of that likely stems from the fact that they have seen decades of hard use, and are worn, pitted, and a bit rusty. They are relatively modest in size, measuring only a foot tall. If they seem a little laid-back in these photos, that’s because they are; the shank (log support bar) on each is broken short.
The andirons came to us from sisters Martha and Katherine Poole, who first placed them on loan with the Society in 1950. The Misses Poole attributed them to their great-grandfather on their mother’s side, Elisha Riggs (1810-1883) of Triadelphia. (Being one of several gentlemen by that name, Mr. Riggs often went by “Elisha Riggs of T,” i.e., “son of Thomas.”) Elisha and his wife Avolina Warfield Riggs lived at “Rockland” – not to be confused with Benjamin Hallowell’s Olney home of the same name, nor the Allnutt farm “Rocklands” outside Poolesville – near what is now Triadelphia Reservoir but was originally a small mill town. Here’s the house in the mid 1930s, in a snapshot donated, and probably taken, by the Poole sisters:
(If you’d like to place the house in your mental geography, the Riggs residence can be seen here, just below the town of Triadelphia, in G.M. Hopkins’ 1879 Atlas of Montgomery County; click the image to enlarge. Note that in an earlier post, about the Riggs’ daughter Eva, I took a shortcut and said they were from Laytonsville; sorry about that.)
An early MCHS cataloger, perhaps mindful of Mr. Riggs’ timeline, gave the andirons a “circa 1850″ date. After looking online for examples of other fanciful (if sturdy) iron andirons, some of which are dated to the mid-late 18th century, I wonder if our pair shouldn’t be pushed back a generation to Elisha’s father Thomas Riggs of Brookeville? On the other hand, the Poole sisters were dedicated amateur historians; I suspect that if they thought the andirons could be assigned to an earlier relative, they would have done so.
The material is another clue that could confirm a circa 1850 date. Many 18th century examples are of wrought iron, which is sturdier than cast iron. I think, though I’m certainly not an expert in metal-working, that these andirons are cast iron, made in a mold. Cast iron was a popular material in 19th century America; it is relatively brittle, which could account for this pair’s exceedingly shortened back ends. Their lack of height also hints at a mid 19th century date, as fireplaces generally became smaller over time.
For many years we displayed these andirons in the large cooking hearth in the Beall-Dawson House, where they looked a little overwhelmed, if stoic. Right now we have them in the much more appropriately-sized fireplace in the slaves’ quarters upstairs. To give you a sense of what the back ends of this pair would have looked like, here’s a bonus picture: a very similar pair (minus the facial expressions), now in our cooking hearth, donated by Mrs. Vaudia Edmonston.