Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pig iron

Iroquois Smelter, Chicago

Came across this one in Finnegans Wake the other night, but it's not one of his famous "portmanteau" (ie, made up words that combine and compress several ideas into one word) words. I've heard it many times and in many places, but never really thought much about it. It's a kind of iron. Duh. When you're reading along in a text and you come across the term pig iron, if you're lazy like me, you just substitute "some weird kind of iron" and keep going. But if you stop and look at it, as Joyce makes you do, repeatedly, you start to wonder a bit more about what you're looking at.

Does it really have anything to do with pigs? I'm going to guess not, but like I say, I really don't know.


Well, it has something to do with pigs. Pig iron is the result of an intermediary process in the smelting of iron. I don't know that I want to dig into the whole iron smelting process just now, but basically when you first smelt iron ore, you are left with pig iron, which, before further refining, has a lot of carbon in it. This makes it brittle and largely unusable.

The reason for the pig part, though, is not a denigration of pigs. The way "pig" came into the term apparently is that the  shape of the mold was originally a branched structure, with the ingots at right angles to a central runner lying in sand. When the iron had cooled it was easy to break off the ingots from the thinner central bar. The association was made to a sow nursing a litter of piglets.

Pig iron came to take on a slang meaning of cheap iron, as in cheap guns, for example. But this is just slang, not the real deal.

Been awhile since we had our musical example here, and who better than Leadbelly to show us the way? Don't know what "Rock Island Line" has to do the price of pig iron?

Wait for it.


  1. very smart...especially with the leadbelly roundoff there...
    ahhh pig iron...we had a prime minister before dubya dubya two named Bob Menzies...a conservative old fart who believed Oz was still an english colony...
    im getting to a point here so hang in there...the waterside workers gave him the nickname was 'pig iron bob' as he attempted to sell pig iron to the japanese before the war...they of course went on strike not wanting to supply the evil imperial powers with stuff that could be used to kill people...

  2. Some of my misspent youth was (mis?)spent at a blacksmith's forge. So I was familiar with the term, but had no idea of the etymology. Thanks for that!

  3. Yikes, next maybe you can tell us how "slag" came to mean both a byproduct of smelting, a colloquialism for "insult," and a derogatory term for a sexually active woman. Perhaps the answers might be less than edifying.

  4. Dan, that's a nice added bit of lore. I have to admit that in the Leadbelly song, I wasn't really sure why the narrator was smuggling pig iron. But I liked that it was smuggled in the guise of being part of the livestock.

    Iron in pig's clothing, I'd say.

  5. Nate--

    You make me remember that you have a new post up and it slipped off the blog roll and out of consciousness. I'll head there next.

    Learning a trade at a blacksmith's forge is not usually what people mean by a misspent youth, by the way. Have you read Shop Craft as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford? I have to admit I haven't yet, but the whole idea is that traditions of learning how to actually do things have been denigrated unfairly in America. Or at least I think that's the gist of it.

    We have a family joke about this kind of thing. My dad worked some summers for Oceanspray Cranberries when he was going to college. I guess it wasn't the most pleasant job, working on the factory line, because he did move on and get a business degree, which in his family counted for a lot. But his my sister, his youngest daughter, who was maybe six at that time, heard his tales of that job asked, "Daddy? Why didn't you stick with it?"

  6. Peter, yes, iron ore turns out to be a pretty promising "vein". I don't know if I'll pursue it further at the momemt, but I may in the future.

  7. It was commonly used in heavy furniture, notably for school desks.

    This is useful:

    Really excellent photos with this post, Seana.

  8. Thanks for the link, Maria. It makes the process much clearer than many of the things I was sorting through.

    I also think pig iron is the basis of toy soldiers and the like, but I found the distinction between pig iron and cast iron a bit confusing.

    The photos are from Wiki commons, which I am happy to say.

  9. I find the whole area of metal extremely complicated.

    Casting toy soldiers was a popular hobby and a lot of fuss broke out over the safety of the process.

    This explains a lot:


    In fact, one reason to be pleased with the advent of television is that it stopped children engaging in such hazardous toy making, or so it seems to me.

    Mostly I remember how expensive a basic starter kit was, and hours were spent painting the tiny figurines.

  10. I believe this must have been the toy soldier factory we visited in Ireland four or five years ago. It was for the sake of my nephew, but actually it was a very nice afternoon all round.