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Monday, December 20, 2010

"Farewell, Old Stove," 1850-1851

This is a nice piece about how people can get quite attached to their things, especially when those things bring them basic everyday comforts.  It's from the pen of the Reverend Henry Bacon -- a Universalist minister, and also for more than twenty years the editor of the Ladies' Repository; evidently a man who took warmth seriously, and was a discerning stove consumer.  In the winter of 1851 he wrote to his friend the Rev'd A.D. Mayo inviting him to come and admire a new acquisition: "We have a new stove in our sitting-room, with an open grate, that gives a cheerfulness to the place we have never seen before.  Come, and feel it." (p. 192)  He even drew stoves into service to provide him with analogies when he was about his ministerial duties.  His widow remembered, on his parochial visits,

"the aptness with which he  drew to his aid the common objects around him, --  a remarkable trait in his social intercourse.

One day, on being ushered suddenly into a parlor, he found four persons in eager conversation. An  old gentleman, of his society, with his Bible open before him, had evidently been holding an argument  in behalf of his peculiar views:

The compliments of 'the call' being over, the old gentleman  referred to the subject of conversation at the time I  entered the room, and said, with the Bible still wide open on  his knees, 'Isn't it strange I can't make these folks read  this book as I do?' laying his right hand with emphasis on  the ample page of the holy volume.

'I do not think it so strange, sir,' I replied. 'We 've just  got at our house a new stove, and I can't make anybody  agree with me about kindling the fire in it; but we get a good  fire somehow, and keep very comfortable. If we differ about  so simple a matter, I don't see why it should be strange that  we should differ about the meaning of the Bible, while we all get comfort from it somehow, and keep the heart from a  chill. Do you agree about this stove?'

I spread my hands out towards the glowing  grate, and found that it was involuntarily a symbolical  act, signifying that, we should open our hearts to the warmth  of the Divine Word, however we might differ about the way  of kindling its materials into a glow by our methods of interpretation." (pp. 286-7).

Anyway, here's the main story -- from Eliza Ann Bacon, Memoir of Rev. Henry Bacon (Boston: A. Tompkins, 1857), pp. 208-14,

"Farewell to the Old Stove" is all about nostalgia -- about the renovation of the Ladies' Repository's office at 38 Cornhill, Boston.  After a couple of pages, he finally gets down to business -- at least, he does in good mid-C19th style, i.e. he drizzles on for several pages, saying not a lot, but doing it quite elegantly.  What interests me about all this is:

(a) the way that the Stove -- a thing -- is apostrophized;
(b) Bacon's conceit, as an Abolitionist writing for a Northern audience, in describing the Old Stove (black, a loyal servant) as "our venerable colored friend" or "that venerable African" or "our black friend" who does not deserve his fate; in the winter of 1850-1851, this is not just Bacon's "genial good humor" (p. 208) talking, there's a gentle political observation being made. More prosaically,
(c) note the way in which stove heat has now been thoroughly domesticated -- it's the replacement hot-air furnace that's now the disruptive new technology.

* * *

[p. 211] ... that sight of passing wonder, beyond the counter and the post, the Old Stove, is removed. Will nobody stop this march of -- no, this rush and tumble of improvement? Cannot one Old Stove be spared? Must we part with our warmest friend? How could the sun look down through that square of lights in the ceiling, and give aid to the nefarious business of making that 'colored' friend of ours 'a fugitive from service?' We never saw such meek submission as we witnessed in the 'arrest' of that Old Stove. Venerable friend! would that we could have taken thy part in that hour of destruction! To think what kindly warmth thou hadst diffused around so many circles; what bowels of mercies had been thine; what a fiery heart could be tamed to manifest only the warmth that cheers but harms not, like the wine of the gods, that exhilarates but does not intoxicate! What a fate to be reserved for such goodness, was that we saw before thee! 'New birds for new cages,' seemed to be the voice issuing from thy depths, running through thy pipes out upon the morning air. This is a wicked world, Old Stove! No better evidence can be asked for than the treatment reserved for you. What have you done that you should be discarded? To be removed for a time, like a miner to search for new riches in the dusty realms of old things, might be very well; but to be borne away, never to be replaced in power and authority, that is too bad! New building, new stove! But thou shalt have revenge! When didst thou ever refuse to answer a draft, to make all discounts needed to fill with the one thing needful the exhausted treasuries of the chilled and frozen? And when thy mouth was opened, was it to give any other but the warmest welcome? Let them have their furnaces, Old Stove, and they will soon wish thee back again. The heat of a hidden furnace is like hearing a friend without seeing him; and if it is pleasant to see the lip move, and the eye kindle, and the cheek wear the suffusing of sensibility, then is the stove better than the furnace. And then, too, what theologian loves to think about furnaces? They are the most difficult things in the world to spiritualize. We cannot help thinking of the plains of Dura and old [p. 212] Nebuchadnezzar and the golden image (the golden image might be pleasant to some, if it was not by the side of the fiery furnace), and what comfort is there in the poetry of a furnace that always burns best on warm days, and will not let you see what it is that is blessing you when you cry, 'Poor Tom's a cold' ? "

We are serious in our regard for our venerable friend. Our readers will not doubt our seriousness. They must have felt it. And 'is there not a cause ?' 'Thy friend and thy father's friend forsake not,' and, especially, when there has been a great warmth of friendship, giving a full return for all bestowments, kindled to intensity of heat by every appropriate appliance, keeping even its ashes alive that no man should make a lye out of them. We should have secured a daguerreotype of our venerable colored friend, had there been any opportunity, but there was not. It seems too bad that it should be so. It would be some comfort to look upon even the shadow of his ebony phiz [physiognomy], and his tall form so evidently made for use, and not for mere ornament. He was tall and compact, bearing every evidence of having been well fed and with fine digestive organs. He was never troubled with the dyspepsia. His coat was generally clasped, -- he disdained buttons, -- but when it was thrown open, there was every evidence that he had a kindly bosom and a warm heart. He wore a pointed frill about his neck, very much after the Queen Elizabeth fashion; the points thereof were very sharp, seemingly to give warning of the character of the old hero, 'Touch me rashly, and you will get hurt.' Despite all the changes in the fashions, he stuck to the conical hat, and was always as prim as any could desire a great personage to be. He had a queer way with his arms; they were always stretched up over his head, reaching up to the sky-light, to waft away, as with a blessing, the incense of his smoking pipe. Whatever of wrong thought may have been indulged in at any time in presence of our old friend, no man can say that that venerable African ever pointed to anything earthly, for he always piped a heavenward suggestion, like the lark, 'soaring as he sings.' What a song he would pipe, some blustering winter morning, when his whole vocal apparatus had an extra clearing, and the whistle was in perfect order! Sometimes people would look in, as they rushed through Franklin avenue, to see if the law had [p. 213] not been invaded by a steam engine being placed in the store. And what a warm backer did many a one find our friend to be while writing a letter at the desk! -- many a greeting being sent forth abounding with a warmth that the writer or reader little thought of attributing to the right source. What a richness of color, strange as it may seem, did our black friend bring to the countenances of those who stood up and faced him! Wrinkled faces have been smoothed, and a rose hue has tinted the cheek late so pale and sallow, 'sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.' When the ladies came (for, old friend, many and beautiful did come to thy charmed circle), so readily did they receive the cordial welcome of their ardent servant, that they always expressed a fanciful want, and a trumpet was transformed into a fan to cool their cheek and brow. A strange life did our Old Stove live. How nobly did it stand up there, half way between discussions of business and the knotty things of theology! What changes of opinions and methods has it heard plead for and adopted! What greetings for new comers into the circle; the critical as ready to penetrate to the salient points of character, as its warmth was to enter the flesh and vivify the circulation! What a transformation of feeling in a western or eastern brother, who had been dreaming that 'distinctive Universalism' was exiled from Boston, but who found that the Old Stove had still its Murray fire! We well remember the coming of a dear brother from the South, and, as he stood there, he was a new stove, all a-burning, with the door wide open, the draught clear, the pipes singing. Our friend came with his heart alive to everything good, but with some ideas that the air of New England was to waft away. He was clear-spoken on any topic that came up; bold, uncompromising, steadfast to conviction; and, when the controversy waxed earnest and severe, how he would feel the extra heat of our endeared servant, and, snatching his hat from his head, thrust his fingers into his massive raven locks, and then drum a tat-too on the crown of his beaver! The Stove was too much for him, and he would rise and sway round in the area, with a Johnsonian stride and a little of a Johnsonian imperativeness. The moral, reformatory, evangelical warmth around the Old Stove vivified many a sympathetic thought then latent in his rich nature, and what a rivalship obtained between those two round, compact, large-breasted, [p. 214] and large-hearted friends of ours, to contribute to the genialities of the place! The rapid fire of wit never came from a better marksman than he; and, as for a story, who could excel the power of his telling? ' A man of infinite jest,' jocund as the summer morning, yet as ready with kindly sympathy and sterling thought as if a Barnabas and Paul were united with Apollos, the 'eloquent man.' His freest humor never reminded you of defilement, but of high-bred joviality, where wit is in and wine is out; and things sacred were never profaned to add to the mirth of the moment. The Old Stove never played false, but was ever up to its promise; and so was it ever with thee, great-hearted friend! eloquent champion of truth and humanity, gentle as a lover's lute where the theme required it, and stirring as the peal of the mountain bugle, when the alarm must ring through the intricate windings of a worldly conscience.'


The work of ruin is consummated ! The light above, the light and doors and walls around, are all gone; the thoroughfare is filled with rubbish, and we cannot, if we would, look in upon the deserted spot -- the brave Old Stove removed. Well, be it so. Many a man stands yet in the place of power who may well envy thee, Old Stove, when his mission time on earth is ended, and who then must recall the consuming fact that he has permitted the fire of soul to burn, not to warm the kindly charities into livelier activity, and to give energy to the chilled love of liberty and right, but to shrivel up the enlarging sympathies of a humanity that was striving to give the speediest answer to the command of God,'Break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free !'
'Take away the Old Stove!' is better to be heard while its glory is acknowledged and its beneficence is diffusive. Surely, this has a significance to those whose creed tells them of a fiery furnace that will show its heat when the mortal stove is taken down. Farewell, Old Stove!

'I care not in these fading days 
To raise a cry that lasts not long, 
And round thee with the breeze of song 
To stir a little dust of praise.' 

There has been dust enough stirred around thee in thy time, and now thou art down, poor Stove!

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