In 1864, in response to protests from the Mobile Daily Register for better illumination Downtown, the City of Mobile erected more than 200 cast-iron lampposts. Despite years of abuse — being bumped by carriages and even shot up by ruffians — a handful of those lampposts survived the decades and stands sentinel to this day. In many ways, the story of Mobile’s cast-iron light fixtures reflects the broader history of the city’s ironwork: born out of function and decoration, underappreciated, then eventually preserved.
Despite the decades of wear and tear, wrought and cast iron continue to mark the passageways of Mobilians’ lives. Our children ride the back of a cast-iron deer in Washington Square; our cemeteries are flanked by imposing wrought-iron gates. But why should we care?
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Iron is an abundant natural element that, when combined with other metals or elements, creates what is known as an alloy. Iron’s most common alloys are wrought iron, steel and cast iron, each determined by the amount of carbon present.
The name says it all
Cast iron is iron that has been melted, poured into a mold and cooled. Wrought iron is iron that has been heated and beaten into shape with the use of tools. The word “wrought” is the past participle of the Middle English “werken” (to work).
People have made use of iron since ancient times, using meteorites as an early source, but it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution and its enhanced technology that mankind began to realize the full potential of the useful element.
How they differ
Cast iron (three percent carbon), compared to wrought iron, is brittle and non-malleable, making it difficult to hammer into shape. However, its low melting point, high fluidity and tolerance for molding materials make it ideal for casting. Wrought iron (0.03 percent carbon) is highly malleable, which means it can be heated and worked into various shapes. In fact, wrought iron actually gets stronger the more that it’s worked.
Our history in iron
- As historian John Sledge notes in his book “An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork, ” conditions in Mobile were prime for ornamental iron: “With so many talented ironworkers, a vigorous port, a warm climate, and growing public interest, Mobile’s embrace of ornamental ironwork was inevitable.”
- Although people often refer to the Port City’s ornamental ironwork as wrought, the majority of it is actually cast, which is cheaper and easier to produce. Historians note that the popularity of cast-iron architecture in a Gulf city like Mobile is partly due to our semitropical climate, which more rapidly deteriorates wooden structures.
- Many of Mobile’s public spaces are adorned with iconic cast-iron fixtures, including the benches and fountain at Bienville Square and the aforementioned Washington Square deer. The statue of a slave boy that once accompanied the deer now stands outside Mobile’s National African-American Archives and Museum on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue.
- The Mobile Pulley and Machine Works factory, where iron was poured, once sat behind the right field wall of the old Hartwell Field, home of the Mobile Bears, on Ann Street. Baseballs busted out the windows of the factory so frequently that a new local saying was coined for a job well done: “He knocked it into the pulley works.”
- Despite the damage of urban development on Downtown ironwork, preservationists have scored several notable victories, including the restoration of the spectacular La Clede building and its balconies, the refurbishing of the iron deer in 2004 and updated policies from the Mobile Historic Development Commission concerning balconies.
For more information on Mobile’s ironwork, be sure to check out
John Sledge’s book “An Ornament to the City: Old Mobile Ironwork.”
Text by Breck Pappas