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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Another Stove Poem, a century later -- "A Plain Old Kitchen Chap"

This is from the Boston Globe for 19th April 1899, p. 6.  This title is available online via ProQuest, if you're lucky enough to have access to a university or public library that subscribes.  It's a bit long for me to transcribe in full, but this is the gist of it: it's a humorous poem about a retired farmer whose wife has done up the parlor with proceeds of chicken money:

...I've got no growl a-comin'; mother ain't let up on grub!
Still I'm wishin' she would let me have my smoke and take my nap
In the corner, side the woodbox; I'm a plain old kitchen chap."

"Land! If I could have a palace, wouldn't ask no better nook
Than this corner in the kitchen with my pipe and some good book.
I'm a sort of dull old codger, clear behind the times, I s'pose,
Stay at home and mind my bus'ness; wear some pretty rusty clothes,
'Druther set out here'n the kitchen: have for 40 years of more
Till the heel of that old rocker's gouged a hollow in the floor;
Set my boots behind the cook stove, dry my old blue woolen socks,
Get my knife and plug tobacker from that dented, old tin box,
Set and smoke and look at mother clearing up the things from tea;
-- Rather tame for city fellers, but that's good enough for me.

Holman F. Day, "Plain Old Kitchen Chap," from the Lewiston [Maine] Journal -- eventually gathered in his Up In Maine: Stories of Yankee Life Told In Verse (Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1904),

You can even hear it recited in an appropriate accent by Charles Ross Taggart in a 1914 recording from 

Now, what's the point of this?  OK, it's a nice piece of doggerel in what's evidently supposed to be Down-East vernacular, but it's also in its way an interesting commentary on the way that new technologies become old, and the focus of people's nostalgia changes.  As soon as stoves began to become common in the 1820s, Americans expressed an instant nostalgia for the open fireplace as the heart of the home, and cultural historians have taken the evidence of the resulting negative commentaries to prove that Americans' adoption of the new cooking and heating technology only proceeded in the face of significant resistance.  This is the heart of the argument of the late Patricia Brewer's From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal in America (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ. Press, 2000)

The materialist historian in me can't agree with that conclusion -- the evidence of the speed of adoption of stove technology is too overwhelming -- but that doesn't mean the nostalgia wasn't real in its own way, alongside the behavior.  By the end of the century, stoves were getting displaced -- by basement furnaces and steam heating -- so we see a different sort of nostalgia: now it's the stove itself that symbolizes the good old simpler days, becomes sentimentalized, as in this poem, and -- by the mid-20th century, when it's just a residual old technology in the homes of poorer and rural families -- it ends up as a valuable collectable.

One final literary point: there's a much more significant piece of Down-East, local-color writing from the end of the C19th that also makes its case about progress, nostalgia, and the different ways men and women responded.  The author is Sarah Orne Jewett, particularly in her stories "The Farm-House Kitchen" and "At Jake and Martin's," in her collection A Country Doctor (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884), pp. 5-17 and 18-30.  They are widely available online, and offer a nice read. 

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