Tuesday, March 4, 2008

More Work for Mother 4 -- Enter the Stove

The stove was resisted by many, because there was such emotional attachment to the idea of the family gathering around the open hearth. Here is a family gathered round the fire on the frontier, where technological advances were slower to arrive.

This is the fourth installment of a report on More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Hearth to the Microwave by Ruth Cowan Schwartz. My comments are in brackets.

In the beginning of the 19th century, women cooked over an open hearth. By the 1870s, they cooked on cast-iron stoves. Stoves began to enter the ordinary household by the 1830s and at first were used for both cooking and heating. As time went on, these functions were split and as early as the 1860s, upper-class homes began to be heated with centralized heating from a furnace. But particularly those with a heritage in the British Isles resisted the turn toward the enclosed stove. Schwartz quotes early stove industry historian Albert Bolles: "The old-fashioned fireplace will never cease to be loved for the beautiful atmosphere it imparts to a room, and the snug and cheerful effect of an open-wood fire. When stoves were first introduced, a feeling of unutterable repugnance was felt by all classes toward adopting them and they were used chiefly in school houses, courtrooms, bar-rooms, shops, and other public and rough places. For the home, nothing but the fireplace would do. The open fire was the true centre of home-life, and it seemed perfectly impossible to everybody to bring up a family around a stove."

The first consumer durable eased the fuel problem but complicated cooking and cleaning chores.

Nevertheless, the stove made its way into homes because they were cheaper to fuel , and the price of firewood was rising steadily. Burning coal in the open hearth created dirt and soot all over the walls, which was difficult to deal with. So for reasons of fuel, families turned to the stove. Stoves were also far more efficient than the hearth in heating an entire room.
[I saw one of these once when I was a little girl and my mother took me to visit the mother of my grandfather's second wife. This elderly lady lived on a farm and wore a long dress and a frontier bonnet. Even at the age of five, I realized I had been transported back in time. In the center of the farmhouse front room was a monstrous black cast-iron stove on which she cooked us a meal. Most impressive.]

Schwartz writes that "the most important activity that was radically altered by the presence of the stove was fuel gathering." It halved the amount of fuel used and therefore halved the work of cutting, hauling, and splitting the wood--most of which was done by men or boys. "The labor involved in cooking, which was the female share of the work, seems barely to have been affected at all." Stove fires were just as hard to monitor and keep at the right temperature as hearth fires. However, now it was possible to "boil potatoes, simmer a soup, and bake an apple pie for dinner all at the same time; this combination would have been impossible on a hearth."

Giving this capability, the cast-iron stove spelled the end of the one-pot meal and thereby probably increased the time the woman of the house spent cooking. The American diet became more varied, but cooking chores became more complex. And at the end of each day, the stove had to be cleaned, a new job for Mom.

Next: The 19th Century -- Pluses and Minuses

Other posts in this series:
More Work for Mother 3 -- The Flour Revolution

More Work for Mother 2 -- Keeping House in Colonial America

More Work for Mother?


Anonymous said...

Dear Linda,

I really enjoy reading your blog. I am a colonial reenactor who does a lot of hearth cooking. I hope you don't mind, but I have to disagree with what Schwartz said:"However, now it was possible to boil potatoes, simmer a soup, and bake an apple pie for dinner all at the same time; this combination would have been impossible on a hearth."

Many hearths are long and deep, making it possible to cook multiple dishes at once. I have witnessed and been taught by many talented hearth cooks do this and more. It is certianly not easy, but it is possible.


Linda said...

Dear Jodi,
Thank you so much for your comment. I am so glad that you enjoy the blog. With your specialized knowledge, please do not hesitate to chime in with any corrections or additions. Do the hearths permit different temperatures of the fire? I would think so since they are so big.
Being a colonial reenactor must be interesting work. I have been to Williamsburg and also to Plymouth and thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot from the reenactors there. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Dear Linda,

I am not an expert, just an amateur who loves history. But I will try to answer your question from what I have learned so far. Regarding the temperature of hearths, you cannot control the temperature of the fire per se, but factors such as the quality of the wood and the weather can affect the fire's intensity. Still it is largely a matter of the tools you use. For instance, one or more iron pot(s) can be hung from a crane and is lowered or raised with S-hooks (so, the closer it is to the fire, the higher the temperature and vice-versa). Also, a Dutch over can be used to bake bread or pies by placing it on a bed of coals. So boiling, baking, and heating can be done at the same time depending on its placement.

From what I've been told, kitchen hearths were not used to heat a room; because of their depth, most of their energy is lost to the cooking. Whereas a more shallow fireplace would be used to actually heat the room. Although, I can tell you that the kitchen has felt plenty hot to me, especially while cooking in warm weather. :)

Being a reenactor is lots of fun. I work at the Pennsylvania Colonial Plantation.


Vienna for Beginners said...

I have read this segment about the wood burning stove with great interest. I have been around these kind of stoves, they are still being used in some rural households. I have been told by cooks who know how to handle them that they produces superior roasts and baked goods thanks to the dry and uniform heat that the heated fireclay gives off (that's also the reasons that pizza from wood burning pizza ovens tastes different from electric ones). As far as cooking on the stove top is concerned, the amount of heat under a stove can be regulated instantly in two ways: Knowing where to shift a pot on top, closer or further away from the direct heat, and by removing one ore more iron rings from the stove top, thus exposing the pot to the direct heat of the flames. A skilled and experienced cook knows how to handle the subleties.

The open hearth kitchens in Austria were called "Black Kitchens" because over the years smoke and soot turned the walls dark.

In Italy, many a recipe has its origin in the necessity to adjust your cooking to the shortcomings of an open hearth and the lack of an oven in the house. Oven baked casseroles where started at home in the hearth, and carried at midmorning to the village bread oven where the remaining heat from the mornings bread baking would then slowly bake them.

Enbrethiliel said...


All this is fascinating, Linda! =D

Not that this really matters, but . . . I also happen to be a huge fan of the "one-pot meal," having cooked that way for a year when I was in uni! =P