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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Life in Stoves

I've been thinking about this for a while -- when you get to a certain point in your life, you realize that there is much more fading memory stretched behind you than new experience left ahead, and it's natural to become reflective. This autobiographical tendency is one that drives many people to blogging, but I have been resisting it with little effort up until now.  However, there is an at least semi-interesting question that's relevant here: why should I have been so prepared to spend so much of my time since about 2004 on the history of the cast-iron stove? [1]  Why stoves, why me?

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that I could measure out my life in stoves.  They have all kinds of connotations -- home, family, warmth, comfort -- so they're a form of domestic technology with which it's actually quite easy to make an emotional connection.  Or maybe it's just that they've always been there, so when I think back through my life, I often encounter stoves along the way, and they prompt none but happy memories.

Not unlike Bryn Goleu -- John Hinde, "Exmoor Cottage," 1947

The first would have been the kitchen range in my parents' house in Penrhynside in the very early 1950s, "Bryn Goleu Cottage," a rented two-up, two-down in which I spent the first couple of years of my life.  It had cold running water indoors but no bathroom, so we washed in the tin bath in front of the fire.  I have no memories of this at all, but it's quite nice to think that formative experiences of light, warmth, playing in water, the pleasure of feeling clean, comfort, and love will have been in the glow of the flames of a classic cottage kitchener, a device invented in the late 18th century in Britain and scarcely improved upon over the next two hundred years.

Me in the tin bath at our cottage door, July 1952.

I certainly saw plenty more of these old ranges in my childhood, and even for years afterwards -- one in the kitchen-workshop of Hugh Hughes, the village cobbler, with its unforgettable but indescribable smell, decades of sole leather and pipe smoke ... another in the basement kitchen of "Melville," my unmarried great-uncles' house in Pembrokeshire, an enormous cast-iron monstrosity with such an appetite for anthracite, which it burned so inefficiently, that by the 1950s these old mariners could barely bother or afford to light it. When they had to, they would sometimes chop up the antique (said to be Chippendale) furniture they'd inherited from their parents, if they were short of kindling ... There was one in Derry Ormond Home Farm, an idyllic place outside Lampeter in Dyfed where I set up house with my girlfriend in the spring and long hot summer of 1976, and we even attempted to bake on it (the results were more like lead than dough) ... and there was another in the cottage of the old lady across the road from where we lived in Llanfair Clydogau from autumn 1976 until the end of 1979.  She still cooked on it, and once I had to endure a meal of bacon and onions, simmered rather than fried over its inadequate heat, as a gesture of gratitude for some kind deed I have forgotten now, but regretted instantly, whereas the warmed congealing fat lives with me still. [2]

Another Cottage Kitchener -- ovens on the right, water boiler (probably) left.

In 1953 we moved down the hill to another of my father's family's rented properties, "Cybi House," which my parents finally bought twenty years later.  It remained our family home until my mother had to move into  residential care at the end of her ninetieth year, and we only sold it (almost gave it away, given the state of the market) in the summer of 2011.  Cybi House had a small kitchen separate from the dining and family room, a sitting room, a bathroom (newly installed when we moved in), and three bedrooms -- a real step up.  For heat, we still relied on open fires, but the one in the family room had a patented grate set in a smart tiled surround, very 1950s Modern, that enabled it to be kept burning slowly all night and revived in the morning (in theory, at least).  It was usually the only significant source of heat in the house -- bedroom fires were only lit in their small cast-iron grates when we were ill and confined to bed, if indeed then; the sitting-room fire only appeared at Christmas, and the rest of the year we shivered in front of a one-bar electric fire or huddled over an oil (kerosene) heater, another 19th-century device, instead.  For hot water, there was a coke- and anthracite- (or, if need be, wood-) burning "Ideal" boiler in the kitchen, small but very fierce and efficient.  The house was single-glazed, with ill-fitting doors and sash windows, so it wasn't particularly comfortable.  We just assumed that in winter you dressed warmly and hung blankets around the backs of chairs, to form a barrier between you and the chill winds down the stairs, under the doors, through the curtains, everywhere.

A bigger and clumsier Ideal than ours

My grandparents owned their own houses, and had a bit more money, and so were prepared to make more of an investment in cooking and heating appliances.  My Nain (my father's mother) who lived up at the top of the hill in Penrhynside, and my mother's parents down in Pembrokeshire, had this in common: they both owned Rayburns (my grandparents also had an Ideal boiler for heating the hot water, which is probably where we got the idea; they probably paid for it, too).  My grandfather's brother and his wife went one better: in their comfortable detached seaside bungalow they had an Aga.

A rather battered old Rayburn

These must have been the first "proper" kitchen stoves I ever knew.  Such comfort!  Wonderful baking came out of the ovens of all of these bright, clean, functional, enameled and insulated cast-iron boxes.  Toast never tasted better than when done over the coals of the Rayburn's fire.  The beeswax with which its polished hot plate was kept clean and bright, and the orange and lemon peel drying in the slow oven to be used for kindling, gave the kitchen its distinctive smell.  Limitless hot water poured out of their back boilers.  And when you came in from the cold in winter, you could feel the solid warmth immediately, and sit as close to the fire as you wanted to, with no danger of burning.  You could even sit on the top of the stove (if the hot-plate cover was down), or just lean against the gleaming chrome towel-rail in front, and steam.  I now know that the Rayburn was the product of a British company founded by a couple of Scots, James Smith and Stephen Wellstood, who returned from America, where they had first learnt about stoves, in the 1850s; and that the Aga, even in the 1950s a symbol of sensible middle-classness, was invented by Gustaf Dalen, the only blind Nobel Prize winner ever to find a second career as a stove inventor.

A well-used Aga

My mother cleaned middle-class ladies' houses in the winter, and worked in a small local hotel in the summer, to help make our family's always straitened finances stretch far enough.  When I visited her at work, I met more stoves -- in Mrs. Wilde's in Bryn-y-Bia Road, another Aga, of course; in the kitchen of Miss Williams's Bodafon Hall Hotel, an enormous estate-green enameled Esse stove, the Rayburn's big sister; or maybe it was even a Wellstood, another of the brands produced by Smith & Wellstood's Columbian Stove Works in Bonnybridge, the factory's name an obvious reference to the originally American technology of comfort that its founders had brought to a backward Britain a century earlier.

Miss Williams's kitchen and my great-aunt Hilda's in Pembrokeshire had this in common, as well as their big stoves: the smell.  I realize now that the difference between them and my mother's or even my grandmothers' was that they used strange things -- herbs and spices! -- that we never encountered in domestic cuisine, only in animal food.  So the associations in  my mind between stoves, comparative wealth, warmth, good food, comfort -- not a single negative reference -- were solidly laid, even before I was into double figures.

This is a new model Esse, wrong colour but about the right size

I kept meeting these friendly lumps of hot cast iron when I was outside the house, or other people's homes, too.  At Bodafon School and in Hakin School, Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire, where I spent so much of my childhood, heating was provided by great shiny black stoves in the corner of every classroom, with mica (or maybe, by the 1950s, heat-proof glass) windows in their firedoors to give people a warming sight of the glowing coals inside, just as Oliver Evans, Eliphalet Nott, and many others had done with their American stoves in the 1800s and 1820s.  We had some hard winters, short trousers and bare legs all year round, and our woollen coats were none too warm or waterproof, so the monster at the front of the room was a welcome sight. Those were the days of free school milk, too, and when it had frozen solid in the bottle outside overnight the teachers simply put the metal crates on top of the stove at the start of the day, so that when it came to mid-morning our milk was at least thawed out, and sometimes almost sickeningly warm, its cloying stench strong enough to cut through the smell of chalk, damp clothes, and not very washed young bodies crowding the classroom. [3]

The other memorable stove from my childhood was something I didn't actually recognize as a stove until I was well into my fifties.  It was in the boiler house on my father's smallholding, "The Ranch," a couple of acres at the top of the hill where he kept pigs, chickens, pigeons, and the occasional sheep, cow, or pony.  (In the picture below, the boiler house is the first door in the nearest building -- pigstyes, chicken coop, and pigeon hut are in the middle distance.)  In the 1950s our stock ate very well -- not just "mash" (bran and other grist-mill byproducts, boiled into a tasty and nutritious porridge, and flavoured with wonderful Karswoods poultry spice, made up of ground-up dried insects and chilli; I sometimes thought that the hens had a slightly more interesting diet than we did at home), but also swill, a delicacy now illegal.  We collected all of our own, our family's, and our neighbours' food waste from their back yards, put it in bins and wheeled them in barrows to the Ranch, where we boiled and stirred it into an amazing stew.  The pigs loved it, and thrived -- until the 'elf 'n safety brigade began to complain that swill was a wonderful way of conveying a cocktail of pathogens into the animal and in due course human gut, and the making of it was restricted and finally, after the great Foot and Mouth epidemic of 2001, banned entirely.

"The Ranch" in the 1960s

I didn't know it at the time, but key to their diet and our smallholder economy was the great cast-iron cauldron in which we did our cooking, firing it with any scrap wood around.  A few years ago I found out where the "farmer's cauldron" came from -- Jordan Mott's New York invention of 1840, one of the biggest-selling and most influential products of the burgeoning American stove industry.  When I saw the patent record for Mott's great discovery, I had a kind of epiphany: I had been an American stove user since I had been in short pants (and wellingtons)!  My research topic was not a matter of choice, it was Destiny

Not Mott's original design, and much prettier than our pigs' swill  boiler

Most of these strong "stove memories" are from early childhood -- basically the 1950s -- partly, I suppose, because this furniture of everyday life became familiar, but also because in the 1960s it began to change.

We had never been an entirely solid-fueled household.  We always cooked by gas -- had to, because the Ideal boiler occupied the alcove in the back kitchen that would once have held the range -- at first, on a typical cast-iron gas stove of the interwar period, with its mottled grey enamel frame, black japanned burners, white panels, and "Regulo"-controlled oven.  At some point, probably in the late 1950s, it was replaced by a modern cream sheet-steel "New World"-brand model, which served for the next quarter-century.  (I was brought up to believe that the more important word in the compound noun "consumer durable" was the adjective durable.) Sundays in our house always had the same shape -- in the morning, church, then dinner, and then my mother would refocus her worship on the true household god, the gas cooker, given a thorough clean inside and out so that, when she gave it us in the early 1980s, it was almost as good as new.

We also used gas for heating the water for the kitchen when the Ideal boiler wasn't going, which was most of the time, and the hot water in the storage tank had cooled down too much.  There was a device called a "geyser" (always pronounced "geezer," which made us smile) for this purpose, fixed to the wall next to the sink, which was quite effective.  It had a pilot light you could see through a spy-hole, and the burner ignited with a very satisfying whoosh! or even a thump! when the water was turned on.

My mother in her office at Cybi House, 1965 --
the alcove for the range, and then the boiler, is behind her.

The geyser, though personally innocent, figured as an accessory in one of my less pleasant childhood memories.  It was bath night, and as I was youngest (about five at the time?) I got the water last, by which time it had cooled down.  To top it up, water would be carried up from the geyser tap in the kitchen.  My older brother, Allan, was big enough (about nine?) to do the job but, often absent-minded (he became a quite successful medic), he poured it straight on me rather than into the open water at the far end of the bath, which I didn't reach.  I was badly scalded around the knees, something much more painful and scarring then than it probably would be now, because that best of immediate remedies for a burn or scald, plentiful cold water, did not seem to have been discovered.  I even have memories, which may be false, that the scald was "treated" by our family doctor with the application of hot kaolin poultices; or that particular form of medical torment may have been used for something else, and just got confused with my other memories of too much painful heat.

In the early 1950s, we also used gas to heat the water for the family's clothes-washing.  If I can measure out my life in stoves, for my mother the equivalent was probably washing machines.  At the start of her married life, doing the washing was still the traditional ordeal of hard labour -- heating up the water on the kitchen range, then doing everything by hand in a galvanized, corrugated-steel "dolly tub," with the aid of a "posser" to shift the dirt into the sudsy water, and a wood-and-iron mangle to squeeze the water from the bedding and clothes, which were then hung on the line outside if possible, or on the airer over the fire if not.  Everything ended up on the airer, even if it had been dried outside -- airing was terribly important, because getting the damp out before things needed to be used again was such a chore.

When we moved from Bryn Goleu Cottage to Cybi House, she graduated to an Acme boiler, which gas-heated its own water.  It had a mechanical, hand-operated "agitator," so the posser was relegated to the outside shed and only used for washing delicate stuff afterwards, and a smart rubber-and-metal wringer.  That lasted for several years, and at some point was replaced by the great liberator, a Hotpoint Twin-Tub washing machine, manufactured in Llandudno Junction and readily available quite cheaply from people who worked there (this source of supply may or may not have been entirely legal.  Junction-made Hotpoints were very robust, serving reliably for years after falling off the backs of lorries outside many houses around the district).  In due course the Twin-Tub, which still required quite a bit of heavy lifting of wet clothes from the tub into the very efficient spin-drier, was displaced by an automatic, front-loading washer, and by the end of her life she had one that dried as well as washing and spinning.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that as we got a bit richer in the 1950s and early 60s, and energy prices must have fallen in real terms too, we became steadily less solid-fuel dependent, and fires moved to the margins of my life, and stoves with them.  The Ideal boiler and geyser were removed, and we got an electric immersion heater in the hot-water tank instead -- my scalding may have accelerated this bit of progress.  The open fire in the family room, where we ate, listened to the wireless, read, did our homework, and annoyed our father when he wanted to relax at the end of the day, was stopped up, and a gas fire inserted into it.  In the beginning, that would have worked on town gas, manufactured until the mid-1950s at the local gas works down in Llandudno whose by-product, coke, burnt in our and everybody else's Ideal boilers.  But then that quite efficient local fuel cycle was broken.  The gas works shut, and from then on our gas was manufactured somewhere else and arrived by pipeline (the resulting end of the cheap coke supply may also have had something to do with the eviction of our and everybody else's Ideal boilers).  At the end of the following  decade (to be precise, on Thursday May 8th, 1969), the gas coming through the pipes was no longer made from coal (or, briefly, imported oil), it was flowing from the Irish and then the North Seas -- "natural gas," the cheap, non-lethal "fuel of the future" (which will have run out between my 'teens and my years as a pensioner).

The stoves were still there, but fewer of them.  When I went to Grammar School in Llandudno, I moved away from a world of iron stoves in every classroom to one of central heating with big cast-iron radiators instead -- more effective, but less characterful, less impressive.  When my father stopped collecting and boiling swill, the cauldron disappeared from the Ranch, turned to scrap.  My grandparents and great-uncle and many other village people kept their Rayburns and, if they were prosperous, their Agas, but these were things of the past now, many of them converted to run on oil or even gas.

There was just one new, solid-fueled Rayburn that I met several times in the early 1960s, at my uncle Len's farm high on the moors in the Yorkshire Pennines, in the village of Holme just below Holme Moss.  My brothers and I went there several years running during the October half-term from school, when we didn't go to Pembrokeshire (one of those, very wet, autumn holidays will be forever memorable -- it was 1966, when the coal tips above the village of Aberfan slid down into the valley, destroying Pantglas School and many houses, and killing 144 people, most of them children).  The drive there took us over Saddleworth Moor, always pretty grim and even grimmer after it became the burial-place of the Moors Murderers' child victims (this was the big news just before our 1965 visit).

My uncle was a hard-working dairy farmer, making a living on a holding that was far too high up and small to be easy or very profitable.  It was a working holiday for us, going on his milk round every morning down in the valley textile town of Holmfirth, still smoking and clicking busily with woollen mills, when it was sometimes beautiful and other times cold enough to make the bottles freeze to your hands; helping with the herding, the feeding, the milking, the bottling, the mucking-out, and all the regular daily jobs (the one I liked least was herding the cattle in for milking, trying to run after the single recalcitrant cow in every herd through the mud they had trampled into a Somme-quality quagmire, losing my boots in the sucking filth and measuring my length in shit); and taking on heavy seasonal tasks, particularly digging out the several feet of muck and compressed straw that had accumulated in the barn where the cows spent the previous winter away from the weather, so that they could start using it again; and opening up the silage pit where their rich, vinegary feed was stored nearby.

The Rayburn was the heart of my uncle and aunt's kitchen, a warm, dry, welcoming place at lunch and dinner time, producing very hearty high-carb meals, and wonderful fruit cake every tea-time, and the source of the blessed hot water in which, at the end of the day, we could try to remove the farmyard smell of sweat and mud and manure.  Those remembered holidays have made it much easier for me to visualize the American country kitchens of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the stove or range was also the most important thing standing between the family and a miserable life of much worse discomfort.  A thousand feet up in the West Riding, all we had to cope with was damp cold, and in late October just a few degrees of frost.  But after a winter in Ithaca, NY a few years later, I knew what dry cold and -15 F felt like, and have since found it easy to understand the importance of creating a zone of comfort when the outside world is so harsh.

Otherwise I no longer had many new encounters with interesting bits of heating technology, in an age when most people relied increasingly on the boring modern fuels and systems that worked so much better, and with less trouble.  I do recall the Baxi Burnall, a wonderful modern open fire with a back boiler in the smart, comfortable house of my school and college friend Andrew McNeillie's parents -- his father John (Ian Niall, for literary purposes), formerly an engineer, explained to me how it got its air supply from the outside, so there were fewer draughts in the room and it was more controllable and the heat did not all go up the chimney.  This struck me as very clever in the early 1970s, but I now know that Benjamin Franklin and Count Rumford had worked it all out a couple of centuries earlier.

And then the trail goes cold, after I left home, and moved into an Oxford world of not much comfort, gas and electric fires, occasionally central heating, and just taking moderate warmth, plentiful hot water, and easy cooking for granted. Even when I went to the United States in 1974-75, I only bumped into one memorable stove -- on an Easter vacation in New Hampshire, where some college friends and I went to stay with an old Forestry professor from Cornell and his wife, retired to North Conway in the White Mountains.  It was sugaring time, and we helped with tapping the maples, carrying the sap buckets, and "sugaring off" in his sugar shack over a wood-fired evaporator, something I now know to have been a classic piece of C19th technology, almost as old as Mott's farmers' cauldron.  It was cold, hard, exhilarating work, and we started the day with a high-calorie breakfast cooked on the kitchen stove, also wood-fired, that we huddled around in an old house much of which, including the freezing bedrooms where we burrowed under mounds of bedclothes and tried to sleep, was pretty chilly.  In recent years, when I've been reading and thinking about the wood-fueled rural economy of the Eastern States in the early nineteenth century, that sugaring time in North Conway provides my other reference point, alongside my uncle and aunt's farmhouse kitchen: This is what it felt like.

Edgar Wyman's North Conway Sugar Shack -- other views here.

[to be continued]

Well, that's what I wrote three years ago.  And then I didn't continue it.  Not much more to say, really.  I bought my first house in Llanfair Clydogau in Dyfed in 1976, and found it had an oil-fired Rayburn in the kitchen.  When it worked well, without fumes, it was a blessing.  But all too often it did smell and smoke, because of faulty installation (I found out too late, after suffering it for years), and it was hard to feel much affection for it.  When I moved to Durham in 1980 my first house (a short-term rental) and then the one I bought and lived in for the next seventeen years both had solid-fuel, theoretically smokeless stoves (burning anthracite and/or manufactured coal briquettes) to run their hot-water and central-heating systems.  I could manage to get them to work OK, occasionally for several days at a time, and to cope with their gravity-feed fuelling systems, but nobody who lived with me was equally capable or bothered to try, so in 1987 I finally succumbed to modernity, ripped the boiler out and replaced it with natural gas.

So at the same time as I was becoming, through my work on the history of the Philadelphia metal trades, interested in U.S. stoves and their manufacture, we didn't have one ourselves; at least, not a real one.  We acquired a Coalbrookdale "Little Wenlock" cast-iron stove to heat our living room, but it was a cheat: it ran on natural gas, so it had to have so much air passing uninterruptedly through it that it was little more thermally efficient (about 40 percent) than an ordinary radiating and convecting gas fire.  Nice to have, though, even so.

However, in 1997, when we moved house, the stars came into alignment.  The new house came with a big, 7 Kw output, Hunter stove in the living room. The Hunter isn't pretty, but it works.  Only the firebox and ash-pit doors are cast iron, and they're pretty plain.  The body of the stove is welded steel.  The sides and top have a thin metal jacket, which means that the stove is safer (you can't touch the sides and top of the stove, which can be burning hot) and also that it turns into a powerful convector, hot, dry air pouring out of the grilles in the top on which you can place dishes of food to warm up or stay hot.  Originally it helped work the hot water and central heating system too, but we simplified the latter a decade or so ago (it was over-complex, and no plumber wanted to repair it) and since then the Hunter has just been a space-heater, a luxury on winter evenings.  It does what stoves always have -- burns smokeless coal and well-seasoned wood very efficiently, and produces a solid, dry warmth that's otherwise hard to match.  We can see the flames through the heat-resistant glass doors, and, perhaps best of all, make it through an evening's burning with a handful of kindling, a few nuggets of coal, and a couple of logs.  

Keeping the stove fed and cleaned does what solid-fuel heating always has, too: makes me appreciate that domestic comfort doesn't and perhaps shouldn't come without effort; and warms me several times over, particularly cutting, carrying, and stacking my woodpile.  It's not an ideal stove: newer ones would burn more efficiently and keep their glass cleaner longer.  But it does the business and, barring accidents (e.g. a broken gate bar, which we'd struggle to get repaired or replaced) it should live to heat us into and perhaps even beyond its thirtieth year.

[1] What got me looking backward like this was the invitation from the journal Labor History to contribute to a 30-year retrospective review symposium on my first book, The Right to Manage: Industrial relations Policies of American Business in the 1940s (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982),  But they only gave me 4,000 words, so though it set me thinking about why I wrote that book, I needed more space -- which I acquired, for free of course, online. See and especially

[2] I think her name was Mrs. Lewis, and it could be that the good deed was one I should not have regretted.  One evening, walking or biking home from the college where I taught, I heard a low moaning from her house when I passed (our tiny hamlet on Llanfair Road was very quiet).  I can't remember the details now, but I figured out it was her, not an animal (as she didn't have a pet), and went in -- luckily she kept to the old country custom of not locking the door.  She had fallen on her stone-slab kitchen floor, and was in agony.  I went and phoned the doctors, and the senior partner came out quickly.  He was quite a character -- had originally trained as a vet, and everybody said that his decision to change to treating humans had been a sad day for animal health.  He was thought to be a drinker, and certainly had a very bluff bedside manner.  He breezed into her house, took one look at her (we hadn't tried to move her, just covered her with coats and blankets to keep her warm), and said "Mrs. Lewis bach, I can see you've broken your neck!" This made her really alarmed.  "No, no Doctor Lloyd, I can still move."  "I meant the neck of your femur," he said, Ho Ho Ho, very amused at his own ice-breaking humour, which had fortunately not shocked her to death.

[3] Bodafon School's headmaster in my time was an absolute nut for cricket, and it was therefore the only sport we were allowed to play, on the small triangular tarmac playground, at all seasons of the year.  Or almost the only sport.  For boys there was also "pissing over the wall" -- the urinal was a small unroofed brick enclosure off the playground, with a slate wall to pee against and a red earthenware trough to catch the golden liquid.  What we all tried to do was to piss as nearly vertical as we could manage, without getting it all blown back onto our clothes, into our faces, etc.  If there had been a contest in the juvenile Olympics for the high piss, then the Bodafon School boys' team would certainly have won it.  But unsuccessful attempts at the record probably helped explain the distinctive smell of the classroom.