When most people think of wrought iron, they immediately imagine the wrought iron spiral staircases and ornate iron fences of the Victorian era, but in reality, wrought iron’s history far pre-dates these uses. Even the term “wrought iron” is a very old one, being derived from the old English past tense of the verb “to work” (wrought iron literally means “worked iron”). For thousands of years prior to the development of modern steel, wrought iron was the most frequently-used form of malleable iron owing to the fact that it is not as brittle as cast iron (its low carbon content makes it both stronger and easier to weld).
Wrought Iron Production Methods
From the Iron Age up until the end of the 18th century, charcoal iron was the default form of wrought iron, and was produced through the use of a charcoal fire in what was known as a “bloomery”. A bloomery was a kind of furnace equipped with a pit and chimney, and surrounded with stone or clay walls for heat resistance. Air entered the bloomery via clay pipes at the bottom of the pit, fuelling the fire and heating the metal so as to melt off impurities and soften the ore to a sponge-like state. The iron was then forged with hammers.
The advent of the coal-fired furnace during the industrial era (in 1874, to be precise) made it possible to upgrade to using puddled iron. The “puddling” method of creating wrought iron did not require charcoal, which facilitated a great expansion in the use of wrought iron throughout Great Britain, helping to spur the Industrial Revolution. The proliferation of wrought iron during this era led to iron being used extensively for decorative purposes, hence why the Victorian years are so associated with ornate wrought iron staircases, fences, gates, and other decorative elements.
Wrought Iron’s Uses Throughout History
Very early examples of wrought iron have been excavated from sites in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, dating as far back as approximately 3500 B.C. By about the 8th century B.C., early civilizations (notably the Hittites and the Mycenaean Greeks) were actively equipping their armies with iron swords. The knowledge of these techniques took some time to spread, however, reaching western and central Europe by about 600 B.C. From there, the use of iron for weapons supplanted the use of bronze all over Europe.
The use of iron remained largely military in nature up until the Middle Ages, whereupon it was used to cover the doors and windows of buildings for defensive reasons. The aesthetic appeal of doing so was obviously not lost on people, however, as wrought ironwork begins to appear for solely decorative reasons around this same time, becoming highly sophisticated by the 16th century.
By the 18th century, iron was appearing everywhere from the elaborate cathedrals of Spain to the wrought iron spiral staircases, balconies, patios, and gateways of France, and it can of course also be seen in the many iconic railings and gates throughout London. “French inspired” architectural design in the new world (such as in New Orleans and Montreal) also made extensive use of iron.
Iron would peak in the mid-late 1800s, being used for everything from architectural elements to railroads to ironclad warships to cooking utensils, stoves, grates, locks, hardware, and other household items, before it was finally largely replaced with mild steel. (Mild steel, while it is similarly low in carbon content, is cheaper to mass produce.)
Today, wrought iron is no longer produced on a large scale, but it is still used in a bespoke capacity, particularly for the replication, restoration, and conservation of historic ironwork. While it may not be used as frequently as it once was, the appeal of wrought iron has never diminished; it remains a symbol of both durability and classic elegance.