Iron Cookstove, The

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IRON COOKSTOVE, THE. The cast-iron cookstove, a constructed range that totally encases the fire, is a relatively recent development in the history of cookery, and an outgrowth of earlier cooking devices made of stone, brick, clay, and tile. The English term "stove" has a history of its own, and has been used for centuries to designate a variety of early cooking devices in which the fire was not enclosed. For example, one precursor to the cookstove involved a raised hearth which, like the later ranges, was waist high, but supported open fires. These, along with structures for partially enclosed fires and portable braziers called stoves, are helpful in tracing the origins of what was to become the nineteenth-century cast-iron cookstove.

Early History

For thousands of years before the advent of cookstoves, people cooked over open flames. Depending on materials and technologies at hand, various cultures have worked out a cooking surface heated by a fire below. These are exemplified by the Russian domed clay stove and the Japanese kamado. Some had holes in the cooking surface to bring cooking pots into direct contact with the flames. Their open fires were easily tended but smoky and somewhat inefficient. More advanced early cultures, among them the Chinese Han Dynasty, used the ceramic tsao, a very early range in which the fire was enclosed. The late medieval period and the Renaissance brought many changes because of the greater use of iron. With the growth of cities and consolidation of power, there was a trend toward elaborate cuisines and larger kitchens. Commercial establishments and wealthy or aristocratic households, having more means and more need, were the first to explore various types of "stoves."

The stew stove, one of these cookstove progenitors, was a bank or row of open-top or grill-like "burners," each over its own fire. Its role in the kitchen was as an adjunct to the large roasting fireplaces. For example, the stew stoves of sixteenth-century Italian chef Scappi were made of brick and clay; those of his contemporaries were often made of tile or stone. In such stoves, the fire was not totally enclosed, but they offered individually regulated temperatures and a waist-high surface. In later centuries, this form was sometimes adapted to quantity cookery, using permanently installed large cast-iron or copper kettles, each over their own fireboxes, and used for the preparation of substantial stews and soups. The German architect and engineer Georg Andreas Böckler designed a brick range that followed this principle (Frankfurt, 1666); subsequently others devised cast-iron frames and fireboxes. Like Scappi's stoves, they were usually limited to professional kitchens.

Renaissance ironworkers built on smelting and casting innovations of the medieval period, and developed cast-iron stoves. Böckler's Furnologia, or: The Art of Domestic Stoves described such a stove, one that produced coals to be used in a fireplace and another with a horizontal surface for household cooking. Subsequently, the English industrial revolution improved blast furnaces, increased production, and popularized iron stoves in both professional and industrial cookery, and in privileged households. For example, Denis Diderot recorded their use by French candy makers in his Encyclopédie, 1758.

Northern Europeans (especially Germans and Scan-dinavians) had stoves early, possibly as a response to their cold winters. In England they were sometimes installed alongside the grate system, used as free-standing ranges, and sometimes employed steam, ultimately developing into the English institution, the AGA stove.

The American Cookstove

Cookstoves were not new to the colonies: Mary Randolph suggested a brick version (probably a stew stove) in 1824.

By the end of the 1700s early American scientists such as Benjamin Franklin and Count Rumford had worked out further ideas leading to the development of home cookstoves. In the early 1800s New Yorker Jordan Mott manufactured the first American stoves, supplementary adjuncts to the traditional hearth. At first quite small in size, they were placed free-standing in front of the fireplace, their stovepipes carrying the smoke to the fireplace chimney. As they became larger and more complex, they usurped the hearth entirely and were installed directly within the fireplace.

The antebellum period brought many cookstove innovations, among them expanded surface area, multiple lids, dual ovens, warming ovens or shelves, additional storage space, and water boiler shelves. By 1850, most urban middle-class hearths had given way to stoves. The changeover was uneven, slower to reach the lower economic levels and more remote areas.

The cookstove itself demanded new designs for pots and pans. Age-old legs and rounded bottoms, so workable on the hearth, were no longer effective, and were replaced by flat bottoms that could absorb heat by direct contact with the heated surface. A few boiling kettles retained the rounded bottom and short legs (to prevent tipping), and were set into an open lid hole, the hottest setting possible; others were further redesigned with bottom insets that fit down inside the open lid "eye." Trade catalogs of the mid-to late nineteenth century continued to reflect a period of hearth-stove overlap, and supplied cooking utensils for both. With increasing specialization, stovetop equipment expanded to include such adaptations as saucepans, boilers, kettles, skillets, pancake and waffle irons, coffee roasters, toasters, and short-handled utensils.

How They Worked

The workings and maintenance of cookstoves were demanding. Between the firebox and the chimney, a series of manual dampers and levers controlled the air and smoke flow, the rate of burning, and consequently the cooking temperatures. The fire was lit with all dampers open, after which adjustments redirected the heat and smoke to a passageway surrounding the oven to heat it. As the ovens were without self-regulating thermostats, overheating was prevented by opening oven doors temporarily, cutting down on the fire's air flow. To maintain temperature, the cook checked the relatively small fire-box, testing for heat by hand, and stoked it frequently. Such instructions on cookstove management were included in nineteenth-century cookbooks.

Cooking temperatures were also controlled by the position of the pot on the stovetop. The area nearest the firebox was by far the hottest; the farthest corners were the coolest. As the oven was hottest near the wall between the firebox and the oven, one used the farthest side of the oven and turned the pans regularly (rather than positioning the shelves). Cookstoves were notoriously eccentric. A good cook learned their vagaries and adapted.

There was now more choice in fuel. Hardwoods were preferred over soft, as always, as they created more heat and lasted longer. Coal was preferable to wood in that it produced more heat for a longer period of time and was easier to procure and handle in urban kitchens, but it triggered debates over possible danger from its fumes.

General Assessment

Cast-iron cookstoves brought about a major revolution in many aspects of cookery, notably the technology of the kitchen, the character of cuisine, and the role of home cooks.

The new "ranges" influenced cooking technology throughout the Western world. In cultures that had little iron, the designs of cast-iron stoves were applied to newer versions of their earlier traditional stoves. For example, the Russian domed stove evolved into a clay-covered brick bank stove, at first used by the upper classes, and eventually adopted into peasant homes. The Alsatian brick cookstove and the Bavarian stone and tile stove followed a similar pattern.

The attraction of new stoves overcame their shortcomings. Cooks benefited from waist-high, flexible cooking, less bending and lifting, less smoke, and no ash in the food. Their ovens achieved and maintained desired temperatures in far less time, enabling daily baking, and permitted more flexible menus. They heated the house

more efficiently in winter, and were easily taken apart and reassembled in summer kitchens. However, in comparison with hearth cooking, they did not roast or bake well, were notoriously drafty and finicky, and required arduous cleaning. Some decried the loss of the hearth, declaring that the center of family life was threatened and with it the family itself.

The cookstove had far-reaching effects on cookery and the domestic life of nineteenth-century men and women. Well suited to city life and the growing cash economy, it eliminated the task of producing one's own fuel. Women, now changing their role from farm producer to city consumer, enjoyed the convenience, and used their growing discretionary time for philanthropic community welfare. Growing interest in fashionable dining likewise stimulated a far wider range of daily cooking and baking. Simultaneously, a drop in the cost of sugar, flour, and spices led to elaborate home baking, candy making, preserving and canning, and the consumption of snack foods. The gradual development of chemical leaveners, well adapted to the quickly fired cookstove, replaced much yeast baking and encouraged new and revised recipesespecially for quick breads and iced layer cakes.

See also Hearth Cookery.


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Domestic Ideal in America. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

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Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

da Messisbugo, Cristoforo. Banchetti. 1549. Facsimile edition.

Venice: Neri Pozza, 1976?

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Marlborough, U.K.: Crowood, 1984.

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Hardyment, Christina. Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses. London: National Trust Enterprises, 1992.

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Grossman Press, 1977.

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Leviner, Betty Crowe. "The Stew Stove at the Governor's

Palace, Williamsburg." Unpublished report. Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, April 1994.

Mohs, K. Die Entwicklung des Backofens vom Back-Stein zum selbsstaetigen Backofen. Eine kulturgeschichtliche Studie [The development of the bakeoven from the bakestone to the self-starting oven]. Stuttgart: Werner & Phleiderer, 1926.

Oliver, Sandra L. "Introduction" and "The Buckinghams: Saltwater Farming." In Saltwater Foodways: New Englanders and Their Food at Sea and Ashore, in the Nineteenth Century. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc., 1995.

Alice Ross

A Brick Stove

Directions for Making Preserves . . . When a chafing-dish cannot be procured, the best substitute is a brick stove with a grating to burn charcoal."

Mary Randolph, Virginia Housewife, 1824


A fire for cooking purposes is best made in an iron box, or, as it is usually called, a stove, or range. . . . We control the amount of heat obtained from the fire by dampers in the stove and pipe. . . . Put into the fire-box, first, shavings or loose rolls of newspaper, letting them come close to the front; then fine pine kindlings, arranged crosswise, that the air may circulate freely between the pieces.

Mrs. D. A. Lincoln, Boston School Kitchen Text-Book, 1887


Stoves for coal should be carefully put up, as if the pipe gapes, the coal gas may occasion death.

Catharine Beecher, Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1841

Anthracite coal is one of the most difficult fuels for the beginner to manage; but once having learned its requirements, it will be found one of the most satisfactory and constant of friends.

Maria Parloa, Home Economics, 1898

You may take the poetry of an open wood fire of the present day, but to me in those early days it was only dismal prose, and I am grateful to have lived in the time of anthracite coal.

Diary of Mary Bennett, 1868


I used a small cooking-stove for economy . . . but it did not keep fire so well as the open fireplace. Cooking was then, for the most part, no longer a poetic, but merely a chemic process. . . . The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion. You can always see a face in the fire.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1846