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?