When Linda and Louie Saltus of Westfield, Mass., went looking for the perfect outdoor furniture for their brick patio, they visited everything from specialty shops to big discount stores.
They found what they wanted at a flea market.
"I wanted something fanciful, that would last," explains Linda. "Look at this table; they just don't make them like this anymore."
She was pointing to a 60-year-old wrought-iron table with a glass top and six metal chairs. The set was built by John B. Salterini, who emigrated from Italy and from 1928 to 1953 made quality outdoor furniture.
"Salterini made pieces for the millionaires," says Joni Lima, who, along with partner Joseph Spaider, runs Iron Renaissance in Damariscotta, Maine.
"The 1920s to the 1940s was when the absolutely best furniture was made," says Mr. Lima. "It is far better than what you can find today."
There are still some extremely talented individual craftsmen making great pieces, says Barbara Israel, author of "Antique Garden Ornament." But she agrees that today's mass-market metal furniture isn't the same quality as that of an earlier era.
"What makes them so appealing is that the designs are gentler and more lyrical," says Ms. Israel, who also owns Barbara Israel Garden Antiques in Katonah, N.Y.
American wrought-iron furniture of the first half of the 20th century was a product of craftsmen - many of them immigrants - in the New York area and portions of the Midwest.
Wrought iron is lighter than cast iron and more pliable, making it easier to wrap into a variety of fanciful designs. Many chairs and tables of that era feature metal acorns, intricate fern leaves, and grape vines, and have legs and arms that wrap into scrolls and cylindrical designs. There are even chairs or chaise longues that rise up in the back to create little roofs to shade one's head. The designs resemble all of the popular styles of the day, from Art Deco to GothicRevival.
This type of wrought-iron furniture is often called an antique, although traditionalists might quibble because that label is usually reserved for something at least 100 years old. One has to look a little bit harder for this older outdoor furniture, and one also has to be wary. There are many cheap reproductions to be found, many of which come from Mexico or Asia. For quality and authenticity, proponents tout such names as Woodard, Florentine Craftsmen, Molla, and Leinfelder.
Israel says she sometimes regrets mentioning the Leinfelder firm in her book because it has become increasingly more difficult to find its work.
Based in LaCroix, Wis., the company began as a blacksmith shop that made large objects for customers. "But on slow days they would make this beautiful, whimsically designed furniture that they would sell through a New York retailer," says Israel.
Another Midwest manufacturer of wrought-iron furniture was Woodard Inc. of Owosso, Mich., which is still in business. Lyman E. Woodard began the business in 1866, making wood products from window sashes to pine caskets. His son, Lee, branched into metal furniture in 1933. It was a risky move, especially during the Depression, but Woodard priced his products lower than many other metal craftsmen, aiming for a broader market.
In New York, Salterini specialized in the high end. Besides the traditional tables and chairs, the firm made several exotic pieces, including a double chaise longue with large metal wheels and elaborate wrought-iron spokes. In the back, metal braces swept up in an arching pattern to hold a large shade canopy. According to an old catalog, Salterini also sold benches, with pillows, including a sturdy rounded version that could seat six.
Vincent Primavera was another Italian craftsman. He began his New York City shop in 1910, making hinges and metal lanterns, and in the late 1920s produced both cast-iron and wrought-iron furniture. "He made his own designs and much of it was intricately framed," explains Skip Brown, who is a grandson of Primavera, and runs Florence Craftsmen Inc., on Long Island.
Because wrought-iron furniture is usually left outside in the elements year after year, one might think all the pieces from the past would have rusted away.
"That's just another myth," says Lima. "It is true that much of the metal used after the 1960s has a tendency to rust, but the metal [before] then was much better."
That does not mean it will not rust, and Lima often cleans, strips, primes, and then puts a special coating on old pieces before he sells them. The best maintenance is to keep the furniture clean and occasionally to polish it, just like an automobile, he adds.
Prices will vary widely on older, higher quality wrought-iron pieces, depending on condition and where they were purchased. One might pay, for example, $600 for a table and four chairs made by Woodard, or as much as $6,000 for a table and six chairs by Salterini.
Refurbished pieces can sometimes be found at garden shows and some antique shows. Other pieces can be found on the Internet or at flea markets. One of the larger summer antique shows this year offered several tables and sets of chairs, including a Salterini table with glass top and four chairs, for $350.