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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

190 Years Ago -- William Ray Salutes the New Year Around His Stove

William Ray (1771-1827) of Onondaga County, NY (i.e. he lived, farmed, served as a magistrate, was a shopkeeper on a number of occasions, went bankrupt, edited local papers, etc., etc., in the small towns like Geneva and Auburn along what's now Highway 20 but used to be the Cherry Valley Turnpike, the main road west from Albany, on the northern edge of the Finger Lakes) was, according to the Albany Register, “a self-taught genius.”  Even if that's a bit of a steep compliment, he certainly rates as an interesting man -- author, poet, Jeffersonian Democrat, freethinker, somebody who lived a hard and varied life even including a spell of naval service where he had the misfortune to be captured by Barbary pirates (about which he wrote a wonderful account -- see and for a couple of editions; much of the text is also included with his Poems).

Anyway, he rates an entry here because, 190 years ago, he also wrote the first poem that I have found that makes it clear that stoves had begun to enter the lives of ordinary Americans, even those living in communities just a generation beyond the frontier in what Whitney Cross would remind us all to call The Burned-Over District.  [SubtitleThe Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1950; a great book.]  

In 1816,  he had celebrated the role of the open fireplace at the heart of the American home in entirely conventional terms.  What he wanted was “Domestic peace, a mansion tight, / Health, competence, and Fire”; and by fire he meant, unambiguously, the blazing open hearth:

When from the chilling toils of day,
The lumb'ring sled, or pleasure sleigh,
We to our homes retire;
To warm our limbs, prepare our food,
How welcome is a stick of wood,
How charming is a Fire!
Men have ador'd thee, well they might,
Great source of heat! great source of light!

But five years later, stoves must have become more familiar to Ray and the readers for his occasional verse, and he had no difficulty fitting the new technology alongside the old iconic fireside in his celebrations of rural contentment and New Year's Eve hospitality, perhaps not least because of the easy sight-rhyme it offered with “love”:

Roast the spare-rib, spread the board,
Well can you the feast afford:
Call your neighb'ring plough boys in,
Wives and daughters, all akin;
Seated round the parlor stove,
Warmer than the heart of love...

Thus while round the hearth or stove
Doubly warm'd by fire and love,
While the luscious banquet flows,
Till the midnight watch-cock crows,
Think how wretched millions are,
While such blessings freemen share;

So there it is -- 190 years ago, the pleasures of sitting around the stove in the dead of winter had been added to William Ray's notion of the blessings of being an American.

If you (if there ever is a "you"...) should wish to read more about Ray, or read more of his poems, including the full texts of those excerpted above, go to his Poems, on Various Subjects: Religious, Moral, Sentimental and Humorous (Auburn, NY: U.F. Doubleday, 1821), for "Fire" (1816), p. 160 for "The Carrier of the Plough Boy [his newspaper] to His Patrons," and p. 169 for "A New-Year's Address for January 1, 1821."

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