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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Back Again ... The Naming of Stoves

Golly gosh, how quickly time passes when you're enjoying yourself (in my case, just getting sucked into the rhythm of the teaching term).  That, at least, is an excuse for leaving this blog alone for weeks on end.  I can see why so many blogs die -- it seems like a good idea to start one, doesn't cost anything apart from time and thought, and it's the middle of winter and the university vacation, so there's plenty of the former and not a lot better to indulge in than the latter.  But then you start wondering -- Why bother? What's it for?  Who's it for, apart from yourself?  So you give up.  Then again, how different is this from writing academic history?  I've often used a particular simile for the experience of publishing essays and articles (books, at least, get reviewed) -- you work at them for months on end, perhaps longer; eventually they appear; but then you throw your babies over the cliff and never even hear a bounce.  It's depressingly common (in my experience, at least) to publish something that's good in a decent journal and to get no real evidence that anybody, apart perhaps from the editors and the peer reviewers, ever read it.  But that doesn't stop me writing it, so maybe I should spend the odd late-evening hour with A Stove Less Ordinary again.

Anyway, no matter -- I shall cast a bit more bread upon the waters, and maybe some of it will come back after not too many days.

* * *

I put something rather boringly informative about this subject on my old website years ago, near the start of my current obsession -- "The Naming of Stoves," now at -- but there's plenty more to say.  Here's one of my favourite pieces:

"Their High Noses," Chicago Daily Tribune 17 Dec. 1877, p. 8 [reprinted from The Detroit Free Press]

"He wore shep-skin (sic) mittens, had his pants in his boots, and he covered his horses with old pieces of rag carpet, and entered a hardware store and asked to look at a sheet-iron stove. {hjh comments: this means it was cheap, and he's poor -- the customer cannot afford cast iron} He was shown several patterns, one after the other, but none seemed to exactly suit his ideas.

'I have shown you every style of parlor stove on sale by any house in Detroit,' said the dealer as they stood before the last one.

'Yes, I s'pose so, but none o' them quite fills the bill,' was the dubious answer.

'Why not!  Aren't they big enough, tall enough, handsome enough, or what is the trouble?'

'Waal, I'll tell you,' slowly replied the would-be customer. 'The ole woman she takes a story paper, and her head is chuck full of such names as Evangeline, Eunilena, Maud, Arabella, and Riverbell.  The gals they read Shakespeare, and they are all the time talking about Hamlet, Claudius, Petruchio, Romeo, and so on.  I'm kinder postin' up on astronomy myself, and I'm all the time thinkin' about Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.  Now, you haven't got a stove in the lot with a more romantic name than 'Ajax,' and just imagine folks like us sittin' round a stove with a plug name like that!'

He thought he'd look further, and, as he unhitched his team, he called out:

'Whoa, now, Lady Estella -- stand around there, Othello!'" 

* * *

Now, what's the significance of this?  It works, for me, on several levels -- for example, as an ironic and patronizing commentary on something real and, to me, attractive: the desire for education and self-improvement in Victorian America, and the lack of distance there then was between "high" and "popular" culture (see, for example, Lawrence W. Levine, "William Shakespeare and the American People: A Study in Cultural Transformation," American Historical Review 89 (1984): 34-66, if you are lucky enough to have access to this wonderful resource through a library).  

But it's also, more prosaically, about the way in which the name of a stove was an important part of what distinguished it from all of the other thousands of models in the market, most of them very similar to one another in appearance, layout, and functionality.  Alongside of the design and all of the practical selling points that dealers drew to buyers' attention, the name was a part of the total package of useful and attractive features that consumers purchased.  Manufacturers' desperate search for novelty and what they thought of as appropriateness in a stove name led them to some bizarre inventions, about which I will write again shortly.  The resulting proliferation of names was part "of the romance of the stove industry.  Salesmen and retailers had dwelt lovingly on such products as Pearl, Darling, Rapture and Clementina.  Their suggestions, 'Clementina has too square a base,' or 'Bolt the legs on Darling,'  were made with a certain affection and reverence. 'Rapture must have a new cast iron elbow.'" [Melodia and Walter S. Rowe, The Story of Estate: Another Chapter of the Romance of Business in the Land of Opportunity  (Hamilton, Ohio: Hill-Brown Print. Co., 1937), p. 31.]

There's a nice explanation of the importance of attractive names to consumer acceptance of new products in Kimberley Webber's essay "Embracing the New: A Tale of Two Rooms" in Patrick N. Troy, ed., A History of European Housing in Australia (Melbourne: Cambridge U.P., 2000), pp. 86-106.  Webber is writing about the takeup of American (or American-style) stoves in place of the British settlers' original open fires in late nineteenth-century urban Australia, as (wood) fuel became more expensive and in short supply -- the same catalysts that had stimulated Americans from Pennsylvania northward to adopt cooking stoves over the previous half-century.  But there was more to this change of habit than just the stimulus of cost:

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the new importance attached to homemaking and meals in Australian family life encouraged households to move away from the open fire to the cast iron stove because the latter enabled food to be cooked on top of the stove while pastries and other dishes were baking within. But it was not sufficient for the cooking stove to simply do the job: it must also look the part, and thus this pre-eminently industrial object needed to be domesticated. 'Romancing' the stove was achieved, first, by the application of romantic names to different models, and second, by replacement of the aesthetic of the factory with that of the parlour. (sic)
Of all the industrial products targeting at the domestic market in the nineteenth century, the cooking stove outstripped all others in the sheer range of models available and the ingenuity of their names. Rathbone, Sard and Co. (a major American manufacturer who exported their stoves to Australia) {of Albany, NY and Aurora, IL -- hjh} listed seventy-one different models in their 1890 catalogue, each available in at least four different sizes. Their foundry was therefore producing parts for 284 stoves. The names given to stoves were quite extraordinary and as far removed from any suggestion of industry as possible. For example, an 1887 catalogue from McLean Bros of Melbourne listed the Ascot, Derby, Gipsy Queen, St Leger, Steuben, Uncle Sam, Empress and Enchantress; and an 1895 catalogue from Anthony Hordern's included the New Matron, Dover, Criterion, Orient, and Electric Light.  Names never refer to any quality of the stove or distinguish between different capacities. Rather, this most banal of products required associations with the exotic, the patriotic or the classical in order to be desirable. [pp. 90, 92 -- there is a nice ad. on p. 91, for a Limited Preview and search for "romancing".]  
2 March 2011

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