Joe Zawadowski of Durham North Carolina is a very interesting fellow. I had wanted to go to see, learn, and write about Joe’s cast iron “pup” collection for quite some time, but the September 2018 visit that Linda and I made to Joe and Nancy’s home ended up being about much more than just Joe’s cast iron pups.
Joe is interested in and curious about all kinds of things. It was quite amazing to talk with him and his wife Nancy, and to see the varied assortment of things Joe has done and acquired over the years. Joe carves wood, walks and searches in bogs for snakes and spotted turtles (and has since he was a child), has a 29-year-old boa constrictor named “Julia Squeezer” that he keeps in a hutch in his “man cave” in the garage, judges utility hunting dogs for the North America Versatile Hunting Dog Association, trains his two Italian Spinoni dogs Hagrid and Boulder, grows bonsai trees, is educated about and has participated in archaeological digs of Native American sites in the Lower Illinois River Valley as well as for the Illinois State Museum, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois, knows how to build skeletons, and has participated in fur trade reenactments for which he made his own attire – including dyeing and sewing porcupine quills onto a buckskin jacket.
Oh…Joe also collects cast iron pups. And cast iron combo cookers, ladles, skulls, lanterns, bottles, Leon Whitton wood bird carvings, Snuggle Pups, salt-glazed stoneware, wooden spools, ivory chess carvings, and dancing raisins. Not only does he collect these things, he researches them and learns as much as he can about them. I’m sure there’s quite a bit more that I didn’t even see on our visit; the list goes on and on. When I read this list to Joe in preparation for finalizing this article, I asked him if I missed anything else that he collects. Joe said, “let’s just say ‘no,'” and laughed.
I’ve never before met anyone quite like Joe. During our visit, Joe casually said to me, “I’ve always been into reptiles.” He has turtles in a small aquarium in his house and more in a kind of “turtle sanctuary” – a screened-in shed in his large back yard. When we went out to the turtle sanctuary, the turtles quickly came swimming up to Joe – presuming Joe was there to feed them.
Joe and Nancy share a love of animals. They met at the Brookfield zoo outside of Chicago in 1974, where they both worked. Nancy worked in the children’s zoo caring for the animals (she says, “I raised baby elephants”), and Joe took in sick and injured birds of prey. He held both Federal Fish & Wildlife breeding and rehabilitation permits for the birds.
Joe and Nancy moved to Iowa in 1978. Joe wanted to have adventures with “falconry” – trained hunting with birds of prey and hawks – and worked in construction as a means to support his interest and family. Son James was born in 1981. When the construction business bottomed out, Joe took work at Iowa State University at the veterinary school, caring for animals in the veterinary barns. Eventually Joe began working in the animal anatomy teaching labs at Iowa State. The school sent Joe to Germany for three months to learn “plastination,” a process used to preserve anatomical specimens. 1 Joe was hired away from Iowa by Duke University. In 1985 Joe, Nancy, and James moved to North Carolina and settled in Durham. At Duke, Joe managed the anatomy labs. Joe retired from Duke in 2011, but his retirement did not slow him down one bit. If anything, it gave him more time to pursue other interests and adventures.
Joe’s interest in cast iron pups has its origin in “Big Red.” Big Red is a painted cast iron pup that was made as an advertising giveaway by Mathews Steel Company. Both of Nancy’s grandfathers worked for Mathews Steel, and Big Red had its home on Nancy’s mother’s bedroom bureau as Nancy was growing up. About 5 years ago, Nancy’s mother gave the pup to Nancy. They fondly call that pup “Big Red, Our Founding Father.” Big Red is the centerpiece of Joe’s pup collection.
Joe was immediately taken with Big Red, and started collecting pups. One pup led to another, and another, and soon enough Joe had a collection. Joe now has 213 of the little cast iron pups. The pups were typically made by companies as novelty item giveaways to help to advertise a business. Students also made them at schools to learn iron casting, and they were given away by churches and schools for good attendance.
In addition to collecting the pups, Joe enjoys researching the companies behind them. He documents what he learns, and he follows pup sales on eBay. He also likes to hunt for keepsakes related to the companies. The BUCKI CARBON pups, for example, are relatively easy to find. Once he acquired some of the BUCKI CARBON pups, Joe went on the hunt for the tins in which the “Bucki Carbon” typewriter ribbons were sold. The tins are displayed alongside his Bucki Carbons pups. It was unknown for a time what company used the common HINES pups as an advertising tool; Joe found a sign which provided the answer to that puzzle.
Joe is an active member of the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association (“GCICA”), and he posts about his pups and other cast iron finds both on the GCICA forum and GCICA Facebook page. He likes to hunt for pups that he doesn’t have in his collection. He only wants one of each; he doesn’t typically acquire duplicates unless one is in better condition than one he has, or he wants a duplicate to trade or sell.
Joe keeps a journal of eBay’s selling prices for the various pups. The highest price he has seen paid for a pup – which Joe didn’t even think was in great condition – was $904.74 (including shipping). That sale was for a pup marked “HERCULES.” The next HERCULES pup that Joe saw on eBay sold for over $500. The third one went for $260.85. Joe felt that the one that sold for $260.85 was in better condition than the one that sold for over $900!
After the HERCULES pup, the next highest-selling one that Joe has seen on eBay was one marked McPUP. Joe is not aware of the background of that pup. The McPUP sold for $852.14. Joe also watched online as a pup marked “ANDERSON INSURANCE CO” sold for $300.26.
In addition to these pups, other hard-to-find pups that are desired by collectors include ones marked “OVALTUBE” and “KAISER FRAZER.” Authentic Griswold pups are also highly sought-after, of course. Authentic Griswold pups without the “30” on the back of their head are even more scarce than those with the “30.”
On the GCICA forum, fellow member and pup collector Audrey Belden said: “For those of you that have no interest in pups but collect vintage cast iron cookware, let me put it this way… a Bucki Carbons Ribbons pup is like buying a #9 skillet and an Ovaltube pup is like buying a near mint #13 skillet with lid or a #8 Erie spider pan.” Not in price paid, but in scarcity. No surprise, then, that Joe was very happy when he found an OVALTUBE PUP.
I asked Joe what advice he had for the new collector, and here’s what he wrote:
- Pups turn up in unexpected places. Search everywhere: the internet, antique shops, auctions, estate sales, etc. Most of my pups have come from eBay, but some of the rarest were personal finds in other venues. The more places one searches, the better the odds of finding pups. Keep a sharp eye when personally searching. Pups are easily passed over if one does not have a good eye for spotting them.
- Don’t be afraid of fakes. The Griswold pup is the only faked, or copied pup. Learn how to spot the real ones, and you will be fine. Once in a while one comes across a ‘backyard caster’ attempt using a Bucki Carbons Ribbons or other common pup as a pattern. These home projects are generally obvious and inexpensive. I consider them collectible for what they are.
- If you can afford it, buy it when you find it. In over five years of collecting, there have been a number of pups that I have only found one example of. I’m happy now I was able to add them to my collection, even though I felt I paid an awful lot at the time.
- Get involved with other collectors. They will help you find the pups you are searching for and might even part with some of their duplicates. Both the Griswold and Cast Iron Cookware Association and the Wagner and Griswold Society have knowledgeable pup collectors in their membership. Both organizations have valuable information about pups on their web sites that is only available to the membership.
- Be patient and persistent and you will eventually find the pups you seek.2
As I finish this writing, I want to share one personal story about Joe’s interesting interests. My 99-year-old stepfather Roy was recently in the hospital. He is a retired executive who has lived all over the world and managed large companies. He has been in the company of heads of states and kings. I was sitting with him in the hospital, trying to keep him entertained. I pulled out my computer and started showing him photos from my visit with Joe and Nancy. Turns out I had almost 450 photos from the visit. Roy and I looked at every single one of them, and as we did I described to him as best I could what we were seeing in the photos. Roy was very engaged when looking at the photos, often asking me to enlarge certain sections so that he could see them better. When we were finished viewing every single photo, Roy turned to me with a smile on his face and said, “he must be a very interesting fellow!” That’s something, coming from Roy. Even as I left the hospital room that day, Roy was still talking about Joe’s turtles.