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Monday, October 28, 2013

A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, III: Columnar & Parlor Heating Stoves [upd. 17 September 2014]

UPDATE 15 June 2014: The Google Art Project has added a wonderful (high-quality, zoomable) image of Ezra Ripley's 1844 masterpiece for Johnson, Geer, and Cox, with his patent dolphin flues.  At maximum on-screen magnification, it's probably a third to a quarter life-size.

UPDATE 17 September 2014: this post has now gathered more than a thousand page-views, and is evidently my most popular thing (or at least the one that comes up in searches most often).  So I'm going to tidy it up a bit, and maybe try to turn it into more of an essay than simply a catalogue with commentary.

Major museums' online collections, other than Old Sturbridge Village's, and perhaps their physical ones too, share a common feature: the stoves and plates that they have collected, retained, and sometimes displayed, seem to be those that they find particularly aesthetically interesting, rather than those that were most common at the time; hence the massive over-representation of Pennsylvania German stove plate and Shaker stoves, both of them long considered as very collectable types of folk art.  [For Shaker products, see esp. Stephen Bowe and Peter Richmond, Selling Shaker: The Commodification of Shaker Design in the Twentieth Century (Liverpool University Press, 2007), Limited Preview, and this post; for Pennsylvania German, see esp. Steven Conn, "Henry Chapman Mercer and the Search for American History," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 1992), pp. 323-355,]  There's then a great leap from the early C19th to the stove industry's first Golden Age in the 1830s-1840s, and from a period when most stoves were still quite utilitarian heating and cooking appliances, to one where collectors' attention seems to have fixed on a new and very particular family of products: columnar parlor stoves, costly and lavishly decorated items for an upper-middle-class market.  These were the focus of Tammis K. Groft's wonderful and pioneering exhibition "Cast With Style," on show in  Albany, New York, and Williamstown from 1980-1985, attracting plentiful press attention at the time, and helping to guarantee that these objects would be taken seriously as works of art.  They are very well represented not just in Groft's own book (which started out as the exhibition catalogue) but also in the other classic work, Josephine H. Peirce's Fire on the Hearth: The Evolution and Romance of the Heating Stove (Pond-Ekberg Co., 1951), esp. pp. 106-117.  They deserve all of the attention they can get, so I will add my two penn'orth now.

1. In the beginning: origins of the columnar heating stove in the United States

The pioneer columnar heating stove (in the United States, at least -- they were already a common type in central and northern Europe -- see Norwegian examples in Helge Lokamoen's Flickr photostream, e.g. was the new anthracite-burning type invented and then manufactured by the Reverend Doctor Eliphalet Nott, President of Union College, Schenectady, where he maintained an experimental workshop from at least the mid-1820s. The example below is recorded as having been made in New York City in the early 1840s by (or at least for) Shepard & Co., stove dealers, whose display of church, hall, and store stoves like these won the top prize in the city's American Institute's annual exhibition of manufactures in 1842 and again in 1846 [note??]. The foundry business that Nott had established in 1830 in Albany and then New York, under his sons' management and nominal ownership, went bankrupt in about 1839, but he still owned his patents and continued to make money by licensing them to other makers. Shepard & Co. were his direct successors. They were based in 242 Water Street, New York, Nott's wholesale depot, workshop, and showroom, and continued to advertise themselves to the public as "Nott's Stove Warehouse" until at least 1856. So we can assume that the Nott brand name and product line remained quite valuable years after he had made his final stove invention.|23
Shepard & Co. (New York City) Nott Stove, c. 1842-1845, 7 feet 8 5/16 inches x 18 7/8 x 21 1/4 inches (234.5 x 47.9 x 54 cm), the largest size sold -- Philadelphia Museum Collection No. 1907-181.

The base of this stove (up as far as the top of the second stage, decorated with Jacques Louis David's famous image of Napoleon on horseback) is the same as the one illustrated in Peirce, Fire on the Hearth, p. 127, and includes a small mica window permitting a sight of the fire; the third and fourth stages are very similar to those shown in the model on p. 128. There is a better picture of a slightly incomplete version in Groft, Cast With Style, p. 92; and there is a similar, perhaps earlier, and certainly smaller Nott stove, with more elaborate styling and cleaner, sharper surface decoration (or maybe it's just a better picture?), in the Ford Museum:

Nott Stove, c. 1833, Object No. 19.4.1,

cf. Groft, Cast With Style, p. 93, for another (less intact) example of the same model 

(no mica window), 72.5 x 17.5 x 17.5."  

Nott's stove was a functional, vertically organized modular device -- firebox, with ash drawer underneath; on top of that the fuel magazine; and above that a two- or three-section smoke pipe, with or without a finial. He professed himself to be indifferent about its external appearance, but in fact his stoves were carefully designed and quite lavishly decorated -- usually in that most modern and fashionable of styles in 1830s America, Gothic, but sometimes classical instead, or as well. Their designer, if not Nott himself, is unknown, but Groft identifies the pattern-maker as Joseph Horsfall, whom she describes simply as a skilled Schenectady wood carver, though he was actually a trained architect and contractor. He may even have been the actual designer, just following Nott's general instructions -- a common way of organizing the relationship between stove inventors and the men who had to translate their ideas into wood patterns from which practicable cast-iron stoves could be made.  

As the surviving examples shown here or included in Groft's and Peirce's books demonstrate, Nott stoves were available in different sizes and styles to suit a range of users, and cost from c. $38 to $60 in 1832, shortly after their introduction -- in relation to the purchasing power of an unskilled worker's wages, between $10,000 and $15,000 in 2012's money, i.e. these were expensive products for an elite market of domestic users and a variety of commercial or institutional customers needing efficient, powerful space heaters.

Shepard & Co. advertised their stoves in these terms:

"We again call the attention of those who seek for comfort in their dwellings during the inclemency of winter to our rich and varied assortment of NOTT'S STOVES, which received the first premium at the late fair. The result of their use for a series of years by a large portion of our citizens, is their universal approbation. We assert, and can prove to the satisfaction of any one, by the collected testimony of numbers of the most scientific, practical and influential men among us that they are the most economical and efficient heaters in use. A stove of suitable size is capable of heating an entire house without recourse to the parlor grates during the winter with the same quantity of Coal requisite for one parlor grate. That they are far superior to furnaces is acknowledged by all who have had experience with both. Those who study health, economy and comfort will find it in their interest to favor us with a visit." [Shepard & Co. advertisement, "Nott's Stoves, and Shepard's Rerverberator," The New World (New York) 6:1 (7 Jan. 1843): 31,].

The model Shepard & Co. were selling in New York was actually quite similar to, though apparently more elaborately decorated than, the one on sale at the same time in London -- Nott and his sons had been so confident of the value of their products that they had put an unusual amount of effort (for American manufacturers in the 1830s) into patenting their device and cultivating a market for it in Britain, an enterprise that was for a while quite successful.

Similar advertisements appeared in The Times through 1835-1836.

These and other Nott stoves were the result of the work of the most prolific and perhaps influential stove inventor of the 1820s and 1830s.  All of Nott's key anthracite stove patents survive, or were restored by their owner after the 1836 Patent Office Fire, which testifies to their perceived value and continuing importance at the time, and also enables us to get a good idea of his stoves' internal arrangement and intended manner of use, both of which are extensively described in words and images.  They are easily located by number via Google Patents or the US Patent & Trademark Office site:  4368X (1826), 5048X (1828), 7258X (1832), 7635X to 7645X [1833 -- Nott's attempt to prevent imitation by patenting all of the key features of his stove as separate pieces of intellectual property on the same day; his most important plagiarist was James Wilson, for whom see], 7948X (1834), 8572X, 8790X, and 8792X (1835), and finally 1260 (1839).  [N.B. On Google and the PTO sites, enter the pre-1836 X-type numbers with the letter first, e.g., and on the PTO site padded out with leading zeros to make eight characters, e.g., for a kitchen range.]

Nott also made and sold what he called the "Saracenic Grate," which was basically just the two lower sections (firebox and magazine) of a stove, inserted into a fireplace and with its smoke flue venting into an existing chimney [see Groft, Cast With Style, p. 90].  This was the usual arrangement for "Franklins" and other parlor stoves, and his Grate was similar in scale -- three feet wide and high, a little over one deep, i.e. not overwhelming the rooms in which they were placed.

So the consumer preference for his lofty 6 or 7-foot stoves needs explaining.  This can probably be done in terms of their intended primarily non-domestic settings (or at least not in the sanctum of the parlor), including "Halls, Nurseries, Nurseries, Churches, Public Offices, Stores, Counting and Green Houses, Work Shops, Steam Boats and Ships' cabins, &c. &c." [Nott & Co. advertisement, c. 1832, in Groft, Cast With Style, p. 90], and also of the shared interest of the inventor and his customers in maximizing heat output and fuel economy.

In a Nott stove, the tall smoke-pipe, which made up more than half of the device's overall height, was not just a design statement and an extra set of surfaces to embellish (and then clean!), it was an integral feature of the stove's operation.  It was basically an enormous heat-store and heat-exchanger, intended to increase the amount of useful heat transmitted into the room by radiation and conduction and to minimize the quantity wasted up the chimney.

The patent drawing for Nott's stove pipe, Patent 7639X (1833), shows the construction of the upper sections of his standard vertically-organized design:

As we can see, it was essentially a flat box with sides and front highly decorated, held together by bolts from front to back, and (ideally) kept smoke-tight because of the design (Fig. 5, precise front corner joints) and the quality of the casting, dimensionally accurate and with flat matching edges, rather than simply by stuffing the gaps with cement. However, as the Philadelphia Museum's stove, with its bulging side-plates, may indicate, the design must in fact have been vulnerable to minor manufacturing errors and also to the stresses and strains inevitable in an assembly of long and short bits of metal, repeatedly heated and cooled, and just bolted together, all of them leading to a likelihood of leakages.

Nott's pursuit of thermal efficiency in his stoves is most obvious in his last patent, 1260 (1839), and its wonderful drawing, probably his (or Horsfall's?) finest.  It shows very clearly the way that his design ideas had evolved beyond those reflected in the above single-column stoves.  The result was grandiose three-column Gothic-cum-Classical stoves, few of which seem to have survived -- essentially, a large single-column Gothic stove topped by an enormous smoke-box g and then sandwiched between two hollow Classical columns k and h:

Nott, "Magazine Stove," U.S. Patent 1260 (1839), Fig. 5.
In Nott's multi-column stove, the two flanking classical columns were as functional, as well as decorative, as the main central pillar -- in his own words, they were "connected at bottom for conveying the flame from the entablature [the smoke-box g] to the floor and back again," the smoke circulating down columnar flue h, behind the stove through pipe i (not very well shown), and up columnar flue k.  The aim was to 'squeeze' as much of the 'caloric' as possible out of the smoke and, through the cast-iron, into the room.  Peirce has a picture (p. 127) of a Nott stove with plain iron pipes instead of the classical columns, which makes the arrangement a bit clearer:

The design may have been partly inspired by that of Nott's colleague and rival, Denison Olmstead (later usually spelled Olmsted), Professor of Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Astronomy at Yale, or by Olmsted's New Haven precursor and competitor, James Atwater. Both men enjoyed significant success in the rapidly developing markets for anthracite heating stoves in the seaboard cities in the 1830s, and Olmsted emulated Nott by extending his sales territory to include England.

Atwater's design for his "Combination Stove" in 1833 was driven by the usual desire for maximum economy in the use of this new and still quite costly fuel.  What he did was to surround his fire chamber with a ring of columns for the circulation of flue gas, possibly following established designs for sheet-iron "dumb stoves" (which channelled the chimney flue through a sheet-iron radiator, as a way of warming an upper room -- cf. John G. Treadwell [Albany], "Dumb Stove for Parlors," US Patent 820, 1838), and to surmount it with a sort of wedding-cake of hollow cylinders to further increase the radiating surface.  

Atwater;s Combination Stove, US Patent 7725X (1833).

Olmsted's anthracite stove, unlike Atwater's, which was probably free-standing, 
was of a scale to fit comfortably into an existing large parlor fireplace.  But he was equally dedicated to the goals of maximum fuel economy and thermal efficiency.  He bracketed his firebox with two large vertical chambers designed to let the flue-gas circulate and give up as much heat to the room as possible, while also ensuring that the outside of the stove never got too hot -- probably an implicit critical comparison with Atwater's design -- by increasing its effective surface area. (His original "Anthracite Coal Furnace" [1834] Patent 8485X, is no longer available, having burnt up in 1836, but his "Stove or Furnace for Burning Anthracite Coal" [1835], 9167X, certainly is, though only the image, not the text; however, he made up for this omission by writing a long pamphlet summarizing his design principles, reprinted as "Observations on the Use of Anthracite Coal" in The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for the Year 1837 [Boston: Charles Bowen, 1837], pp. 61-9). 

Ad for Olmsted stove with just one radiator, A. McElroy's Philadelphia Directory, for 1839,
unpaginated advertising section.
Something else that Atwater and Olmsted had in common was that, working in New Haven, they were far from the centers of iron-casting expertise, so, like the Reverend Isaac Orr (living in Washington, DC, but another Yale graduate and former Hartford resident), they made their stoves from sheet iron instead, a ubiquitous material that any black- or whitesmith could work with.  Nott, with his foundries in Albany and later New York, and his ready access to the stove-making furnaces of S.E. Pennsylvania and S.W. New Jersey, had the advantage over them in that his designs were fabricated in cast iron from the start, a more durable material and one allowing for much more surface decoration than on Atwater and Olmsted's more purely utilitarian devices.

But regardless of whether the idea for improving his stove by adding to it with extra columns containing hot flue gases originated with Nott himself, or Atwater, Olmsted, or one of the many lesser American inventors in the 1830s working on stove design, or indeed was simply imitated or adapted from common central and northern European practice, the fact is that Nott, the market leader, helped establish a new American cast-iron stove type.  In the 1830s and 1840s, many other designers and makers, and particularly Nott's Hudson and Mohawk Valley neighbors, would follow him, and devise their own versions.  

2. The Wood-Fired Heating Stoves of Upstate New York and Upcountry New England

By the mid- to late-1830s, as Nott's stoves and patent drawings demonstrate, the arts of stove design and casting had made great progress.  Nott had his own pattern maker in Schenectady, and Albany and Troy acquired their own specialized resident craftsmen in the 1830s.  By the mid- to late 1830s, too, both of those cities were the sites of new "stove foundries" that did all of the work of casting and assembly under one roof, whereas up until then most local stove makers (including Nott) had continued to buy all or most of their castings from rural blast furnaces in the Philadelphia hinterland, the traditional source of supply.  The industry also became more competitive, with many new entrants to the trade.  A consequence of all these developments was an increasing amount of competition in design as well as technical innovation, i.e. treating stoves as objects of furniture rather than just utility.  Thus began the great "age of decoration," when pattern makers became more and more inventive (if not necessarily tasteful) in piling on surface embellishment, confident that skilled molders in stove foundries could realize them with a sharp, clean finish in cast iron. [See my articles "Inventing the U.S. Stove Industry, c. 1815-1875: Making and Selling the First Universal Consumer Durable,” Business History Review 82:4 (Winter 2008): 701-733 [Winner, Henrietta M. Larson Article Award, 2008], Free Version, and "'The Stove Trade Needs Change Continually': Designing the First Mass-Market Consumer Durable, c. 1810-1930,” Winterthur Portfolio 43:4 (Winter 2009): 365-406, Free Version, for the best recent account of these changes, and this period.]

Here, for example, is O.G. DeGroff of Albany's Box Stove (c. 1838), 23 1/4 H x 17 W x 33 L, Accession No. 1987.21, Albany Institute:

Every visible surface (apart from the top, probably used for occasional cooking) is decorated. Why have a boring old box stove, looking much like any six-plate manufactured in the past century, when you could buy one dressed up, for no very good reason other than to make it a more desirable object, like a small house in classical-revival style?

Stove makers and users were still interested in functionality, too, and one of the ways in which designers had traditionally increased stoves' efficiency in transmitting heat into the room rather than wasting it up the chimney was by running the stove pipe into and through a sheet-iron heating drum (cf. Merritt Bradford [Saugerties, NY], "Heating Drum," US Patent 153, 1837) or even having two stove pipes, at either end of the firebox, with a heating drum in between.  One of the advantages of this layout was that it enabled an adapted box stove to be rotated through 90 degrees and, rather than projecting out from the fireplace into the room, it could sit parallel with the wall and function as a parlor stove.  

There was a key difference between devices like these and Nott's stoves: these were designed for use with wood as a fuel, which mandated their dimensions, proportions, and internal arrangement (no grate).  Preparing wood for stove use rather than to be burnt in a fireplace was a labor-intensive process, involving more splitting and cross-cutting: the larger the firebox door, and the longer the firebox, the less extra labor had to go into fuel preparation. Nott's stove, fed with anthracite from the top, had quite a small, square firebox and footprint (2.1 to 2.8 square feet); box stoves and the types derived from them, both columnar stoves and the squatter parlor stoves, all had elongated, rectangular fireboxes and thus took up more space.  The footprint of a sample of twenty-five columnar stoves from the 1830s and 1840s in American collections averaged 4.4 square feet, the same as a sample of twenty parlor stoves from the 1840s and 1850s.

There is no record of who was the first American maker to transform a box stove into a parlor stove by adding columns, or where, or when; and perhaps there is no answer to these questions, because stoves similar to this originated as a vernacular type, and were sometimes known as "Moravian" stoves after the Pennsylvania German migrants who had brought them from Europe to America in the first place.  So perhaps the question should be rephrased: when did Moravian stoves begin to move out of their home community and be used and made by Anglo-Americans, laying the foundations for a distinctive stove type?  The question is easy to ask, but like many about late C18th-early C19th technological change, almost impossible to answer with any degree of precision.

Many of the surviving examples in American collections provide no reliable evidence either, in the form of cast-in names, dates, etc., to enable one to fill in the gaps in the missing history, or even to slot them into a useful typology or "family tree" of the development of these devices.  So what follows, with its organization from cruder to more highly elaborate stoves, cannot claim, and does not even suggest, that the latter "evolved" from the former in any neat or linear way. Indeed, it is quite likely that cruder, simpler devices continued to be made in and for less-developed stove markets, or just for less well-heeled customers, alongside the finest Albany-Troy multi-column stoves of the mid-1840s.

3. A gallery of columnar wood-fired heating stoves.

Cast Iron Parlor Stove with Two Pipes and Smoke Chamber, c. 1840, thought to have been made near Poultney, Vermont, Collection No. 2.77.37, Old Sturbridge Village.  

This is the smallest columnar stove whose dimensions I have found [35 x 26 x 16"], and this and its plainness suggest that it may have been of the type known in New England as a "4 o'clock stove" -- made for the bedroom, not the parlor, hence its lack of decoration, and intended just for taking the chill off the room, hence its name (its lighting-up time) and small size.  With its clean lines and limited but sharp decoration, it is obviously a product of the stove-foundry era, post-1837, but it stands first here because of its simplicity.  The heating drum at the top is made from sheet-iron, and could have been fabricated, mended, or replaced by any small-town tinsmith.  Between the pipes, in the top plate, is a removable cover enabling the stove to be used for boiling a kettle or warming a pan of stew.  The front door is not primarily for feeding the fire (that was the role of door in the right-hand side), but for seeing it, either by sliding the slatted cover or opening the door wide, something valued in a culture associating the feeling of being warm with the fact of looking at flames and glowing embers.  There is a circular air-register in the front hearth plate, allowing some control over the draft; and there is a sunken ashpit -- a feature patented, which does not necessarily mean invented, by William James of Troy in 1824, "Sink or Box-Hearth for Stoves," No. 3854X, lost in the 1836 Fire, but universally imitated even before then.

Here is a similar example from the Good Time Stove Company's collection -- in some ways even simpler (the plain legs and top, the odd heating drum), in others a bit fancier (the arched, cast, and decorated smoke pipes), but with equally little detail about its maker:

The Good Times Stove Company has restored and sold a number of similarly quite crude and purely functional examples, e.g. another anonymous "Early Wood/Coal Antique Column Stove" -- I don't know why they think it was adapted for coal, as it has no grate -- with plain, square columns and cross-piece, and simple applied decoration on the front face only; and a somewhat more elaborate four-column stove from Logan Foundry, with rather fancier castings and decoration on the sides of the cross-piece as well as its front, and the fronts of the two front columns.  A strength of the web pages for both of these comparatively humble objects is the number of detailed photographs included, allowing one to understand the construction of these stoves rather better than one can from most illustrations.

Museum collections, understandably, tend not to include the more everyday objects like these.  What they have concentrated on instead is the finer examples of more artistic casting, but some of these seem to be hybrids or transitional types.  One that looks quite curious to modern eyes -- at least, to this pair of modern eyes -- blends a finely-molded stove base and elaborate Rococo Revival cross-piece with plain, purely functional vertical columns, made out of ordinary stove-pipe.  At first sight I thought that these were botched-up repairs, replacing lost or broken or leaking columns with serviceable sheet-iron, but I am assured by a museum conservator at Old Sturbridge Village who has inspected theirs that there is no evidence that the columns were ever any different; and as there are other similar examples, the safest course is just to accept that enough American consumers of the 1840s were prepared to accept such clumsy-looking (but presumably less expensive) products that manufacturers competed to satisfy them. 

Two-Column Parlor Stove by Ransom & Rathbone, Albany, c. 1844-1848, Collection No. 2.77.39, 42" x 32" x 20", Old Sturbridge Village.  

The Ford Museum has a similar stove, made by (or at least for) Alonzo Wainwright of Middlebury, Vermont, c. 1845:

Object ID 00.136.20, 34" x 25" x 22" [i.e. almost as small as the "4 o'clock stove"], Good Times Stove has restored and sold one recently, and provides more detailed images and information

This shares the same general arrangement as the Ransom & Rathbone stove, and also the same decorated cross-piece as a Shepard & Co. stove of about the same date.

Detail of Shepard & Co. heating stove, with thanks to its owner (and photographer), 

Justin S., who does not want to be identified more precisely.

It was a small step from stoves like these to the fully decorated types that are now most collectable.  It is difficult to be sure when the first of these emerged, as there are few surviving stove catalogues or display advertisements from before the 1850s, by which time the fashion for columnar stoves had passed.  The patent record is not very helpful either, partly because so much of it was consumed by fire in 1836, but also because columnar stoves included little patentable matter (there was, after all, no invention involved, except in the case of stoves designed to burn the new fuel, anthracite), and patents for designs only began to be issued in 1843, by which time the type was well established.  There are however a few anthracite coal stove patents which, like Nott's, Atwater's, and Olmsted's, included columnar heating flues.  The most relevant of these here were the work of James Wilson, an experienced New York stove dealer and maker, and his younger and more successful rival Jordan Mott, who, like Wilson and Nott, made his stoves from cast, not sheet iron, and, also like Nott, established his own foundry for the purpose.

Wilson's design was for a free-standing anthracite-burning grate, but he surrounded it with a mass of cast iron, including four hollow vertical columns and two horizontal tubes, designed to increase the amount of heat transferred into the room via radiation from their surfaces or convection via currents of warmed air:

Mott produced an anthracite heating stove design in 1837 that seems to have been intended to look more like the sort of wood-fueled cast-iron columnar stoves with which consumers were becoming increasingly familiar, though its internal arrangement was different.  As in Olmsted's stoves, the vertical cylinders contained an air chamber (in his case, inside the smoke flue rather than surrounding it) acting as a heat-exchanger; they were not (as in Nott's and Wilson's stoves) plain hollow columns.

Mott's Parlor Stove, US Patent 508 (1837).
Mott acknowledged the limited originality of his invention, by admitting that only columns arranged like his would be protected by his patent, because annular heat exchangers were already covered, probably by Olmsted's patents.  But there does not seem to be much evidence that anybody else imitated either his or Olmsted's plan anyway, because columnar stove designers went for the simpler option of having their smoke flues surrounded by the air of the room they were intended to heat, like Nott.  

In fact, Mott's design seems to have been quite unsuccessful: by the time he published his first catalogue, in 1841, there was no mention of it, and he had eliminated the superstructure of columns and smoke-chamber from his parlor stoves, which now had a different system for increasing heat transfer: cast-iron leaves surrounding the fire chamber, and transmitting more heat by conduction, radiation, and convection.

Mott's Parlor Stove, 1841 model, with columns removed. 

From about the same time as Wilson's and Mott's patents we have numerous surviving named and dated examples of this rapidly developing wood stove type.  The earliest for which there is a good image online is by the partnership of Pratt & Treadwell of Albany, and we can be fairly precise about the date because they were only in business together between 1834 and 1836.  As we can see, their stove is very similar to the slightly later DeGroff box stove, but with a fine upper storey of cast and fully embellished rectangular columns surmounted by a smoke-box in the form of a neoclassical portico.  It was topped off with an enormous urn which was both a decorative feature and a functional part of the design: it would have contained water, quite probably scented, whose evaporation would have dealt with two common objections to stove-heated apartments, their excessive dryness and the smell of dust burning on hot metal.

Elisha Pratt & John G. Treadwell, Two-Column Parlor Stove (Albany, c. 1834-1836)64" H x 32 1/2" W, Albany Institute of History & Art, Accession number 1967.29.

From these comparatively restrained beginnings, columnar stoves evolved into riots of stylistic inventiveness, the products of the first few years when American stove makers were capable of casting in iron almost anything that a pattern-maker could carve in wood. Pattern-makers and presumably stove makers' customers do not seem to have put much value in stylistic uniformity or restraint: available catalogues of fashionable ornament (probably taken from carpenters', cabinet-makers', and architects' pattern-books) were ransacked in the search for decorative motifs to be thrown together onto the surface of the same object.

Elisha Pratt, Two-Column Parlor Stove (Albany, c. 1837-1843), 57.252" (H) , 34.5 (W) , 17.252 (D) / 145.42 cms (H) , 87.63 (W) , 43.82 (D), Winterthur Museum, Object Number 2000.0046. There is a slightly fuzzy photo of one of these in a domestic setting which helps us to appreciate its scale and, in the context of a Victorian decorative scheme, even appropriateness.

Columnar Parlor Stove (c. 1840)57 x 29 1/2 x 18 1/4 in. (144.8 x 74.9 x 46.4 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number 53.132.1a–I. This is similar to Old Sturbridge Village's column stove,, attributed to W.H. Alexander of Syracuse, New York.

Francis Low & John S. Leake, Parlor Stove (Albany, c. 1844), 57 1/2 x 33 3/4 x 18 1/2 in. (146.1 x 85.7 x 47 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number 69.261. Marked "PATENTED AUGUST 10th 1844." cf. Addison Low's "Design for Stove," US Design Patent 27, 12 Feb. 1845, drawing dated 1844, assigned to Low & Leake. The stove lacks the fine decoration designed to fill the space between the columns -- a vase with foliage.  

Detail of Low & Leake's stove-topping  American Eagle, c. 18" span, showing fineness of casting.

Cf. the following example, from Albany's Ransom and Rathbone Stove Works, Ford Museum Object ID: 00.50.125, 44" x 36" x 22", which lacks the urn that should have sat between the columns, to complete the design:

All of the above examples were produced in the early 1840s, most of them in Albany.  They generally have the same layout -- for all of their stylistic exuberance, they were in fact simply box stoves with cast-iron smoke pipes and a crosspiece.  They all had the feed door for wood in the right-hand end, and some arrangement (a sliding or rotating shutter in the front doors) to give a sight of the fire.  Most of them had the sunken box hearth to collect the ashes, and a wheel register in it, to control the draft of the fire.  They were, in other words, a fairly standardized product type, stylistically but not technically innovative, and only differentiated from one another through their decoration, which probably translated into price: the heaviest, finest stoves commanded the premium.  

Something that surprises me about them is that, for all their monumental, architectonic appearance, they were in fact not particularly large -- as noted above, no larger in footprint (and therefore firebox size) than boxy parlor stoves, averaging c. 4.4 square feet (range 2.8 - 5.6), and with a height 1.6 times their width (range 1.3 - 2.1).  In pictures they look enormous, but in fact they averaged about 4'4" (range 2'10" - 5'8"), and would not have seemed out of place in an ordinary room with other items of early Victorian furniture. 

These stoves had almost reached their peak of development, or perhaps had simply begun to go out of fashion, when the United States began to issue patents for designs as well as for inventions.  Given their numbers in American museum collections, and the fact that distinctive designs and high-quality manufacture (essential for realizing the finely carved detail of their wood patterns in cast iron) were their chief selling points, one might have expected the design patent records to be full of columnar stoves.  In fact, there are very few -- most patented designs were for the main product of the mid-century stove industry, cooking stoves, which could also be transformed by the wood carver's art into objects of beauty (as American Victorians saw it) as well as utility.  But the very first stove design patent, Number 5, by one of the most prolific and influential stove designers working in Troy in the 1840s, Ezra Ripley, is also one of the most interesting. 

It was for a key feature of a column stove: the column itself.  Without a physical examination of a stove, it is not possible in most cases to be sure whether a column was cast as one piece, or was built up like Nott's stove-pipe, of separate pieces bolted together.  The Low & Leake stove's scroll-shaped columns, though, were definitely just fabricated from front, sides, and back; so too (probably -- I have not seen it up close myself) the Ford Museum's Ransom & Rathbone.  Round columns, like those in the Met's stove, were easy enough to make, but stylistically limiting -- suitable for a classical design, but not otherwise.  

Ripley developed both an attractive, fashionable design in the shape of a dolphin (which he had obviously never seen: he thought it was a fish, and gave it scales) with the same kind of scroll form as Low & Leake's columns, and a way to make it in one piece.  This probably saved manufacturing expense as well as eliminating potentially leaky joints, though he did not emphasize these features in his claims on its behalf: it had, he said, "no advantage over the ordinary columns now in use except in beauty of appearance."  The Troy stove makers Johnson, Geer & Cox, who bought Ripley's patent from him (thereby preventing others from imitating the design, or using it except on payment of a royalty fee), and the museum curators who have acquired and displayed the resulting stoves incorporating Ripley's wonderful dolphin flues, seem to have agreed.

Elias Johnson, Gilbert Geer, & David B. Cox, Four-Column Parlor Stove (Troy, c. 1844)62 H x 34 W x 22 D, Albany Institute of History & Art, Accession number 1980.36 -- and here's the link to the Google Cultural Institute's superb version again.

Cf. a similar model from the same makers at the Ford Museum, even more massive in appearance though in fact quite a bit smaller (48" x 32" x 21") and in a wonderful state of preservation:

But after that, the records go almost dry, save for three late examples, all in 1846, and all of them extraordinarily fine.  One was by the Albany designer and manufacturer Samuel D. Vose, whose work is unusually easy for a modern-day enthusiast to study: the Early American Industries Association reprinted his 1853 catalogue in 1983, and it is widely available in libraries (or even, in the original, via Google Books!).

Samuel D. Vose's Parlour Stove, Design Patent No. 63 (1846).

Vose's parlour stove was in what he thought of as Louis Quatorze (rococo revival) style, and, with its pineapple motif, seems closely related to the cross-piece or smoke-chamber sitting on top of the sheet-iron columns of Old Sturbridge Village's Ransom & Rathbone stove illustrated above.  No example of it seems to survive, but there is what looks like a near relation in the Good Times Stove Company's inventory:

That same year, the Peckham Brothers (or Erastus Palmer?), and Palmer's cousin Lucius, patented their fine Gothic column stoves in Utica, about which I have already written at length -- on this blog, and also in a separate document version with footnotes etc.  And after that, almost nothing.  When Vose published his stove catalogue in 1853, there was not a single column stove in it.  When his neighbor and competitor John F. Rathbone, who had crafted such fine column stoves a few years earlier, for his partnership with his cousin Samuel Ransom and also for the Albany dealers Low & Leake, did the same in 1854, that included no column stoves either.  Nor did the oldest catalogue of Marcus Lucius Filley's Green island Foundry, Troy, in 1866, though when he and his partner took over from a previous partnership (Morrison & Tibbets) in 1854 they acquired all of its patterns, which had certainly included some very fine column stoves.  So in less than a decade since they reached their final peak of beauty and grandeur, one of the most distinctive early American stove types had disappeared, and the considerable investment in artistic patterns for them had been entirely written off.

The last columnar stove?  Lucius Palmer's Design Patent No. 95 (1846) for Seymour, Savage & Co., Utica, NY, broken and unrestored in the Mercer Museum, Doylestown, PA; photo used with permission of Ethan Stock.

[Postscript: There is one later model from Samuel Vose that is reminiscent of, though smaller than, old columnar stoves; it had a one-piece rococo revival smoke pipe of the same kind he had used a decade earlier. -- Vose's "Tremont": the one-piece arch was patented in 1858 (Design Patent 1065), and another example is illustrated in Groft, Cast With Style, p. 73 [giving dimensions of 38" x 26" x 23"].

* * *

It is easier to offer a plausible explanation for where the idea of the column stove came from -- central and northern European practice, perhaps transmitted via the Pennsylvania German migration in the form of the Moravian Stove, and with some stimulus from the leading anthracite stove designers of the 1830s -- than to hazard a guess about why a product type that seemed so full of vigour between the mid-1830s and the mid-1840s seems to have expired quite suddenly at the end of the decade.  There is no contemporary testimony that I know of that casts any light on this question, so the best way to proceed is probably by inference from behavior.  If the design patent record is surprisingly lacking in column stoves after 1843, with nothing after 1846, and some of the earliest surviving stove catalogues, all by leading column stove designers and makers of the 1840s, are completely bare of them by the early- to mid-1850s, what had happened?

Part of it, surely, is simply a change in taste.  Column stoves were a fashion, and after a dozen years or so, it had run its course.  It was no longer possible, even with decorative overkill, to make them look new.  But it is also possible that they were superseded by better devices, and partly displaced by the growing availability of anthracite and bituminous coal as heating fuels, both of them requiring something other than a modified box stove to burn in.

If the design patent record in the mid- to late- 1840s, and Vose's and Rathbone's and other makers' catalogues by the early 1850s, did not contain column stoves, what were they full of instead?  A new style: the air-tight parlor stove.  These, too, were masterpieces of craftsmanship, elaborate decoration, and sometimes frankly bizarre design.  Columnar stoves were derived from that earliest and simplest of heating-stove designs, the six-plate box; parlor stoves evolved from something almost as old, the "Franklin" (for which see this post, currently in draft).  

A Franklin with its doors fitted and closed was a quite effective and efficient heater.  Originally for wood fuel only, Franklins were having grates fitted, the necessary modification for coal burning, in the 1820s.  Atwater, Olmsted, Orr, and others established a fashion for fireplace-sized controlled-combustion heaters, which they called air-tight, in the early- to mid-1830s, and numerous other cast-iron stove designers swiftly followed suit, developing modified Franklins which were probably more convenient to use and install than columnar box stoves, and more flexible in the fuels they could be adapted to use.  

We do not have -- or at least, I have not come across -- any accounts of contemporary users' experience with columnar stoves, but it is possible to offer some reasonable suggestions about their design flaws.  How easy were they to transport, assemble, and even move within the home?  How straightforward was it to clean soot out of the chimneys and cross-piece? How possible to keep them smoke-, let alone air-tight?  Their large front doors, with sliding or rotating shutters, gave a good sight of the fire, but also must have made it almost impossible to achieve slow, controlled combustion.  So there were plenty of reasons for preferring the boxy parlor stoves that evolved alongside of, and then displaced them.

Henry Stanley, West Poultney, VT, Patent Parlor Stove, No. [Size] 8, 1845, 

Design Patent No. 40 -- Winterthur Museum, Object Number 1991.0002;
31.126"/79.06 cms (H) , 31.626"/80.33 (L) , 19.5"/49.53 (W).

An alternative evolutionary route apparently leading to some of the parlor stoves illustrated below was simpler, involving the elimination of the columns and cross-piece plonked on top of a box stove and their replacement by a single upper story to increase the radiating surface.

Cottage Air-Tight Parlor Stove, Patented 1847, Ford Museum Object ID: 31.1037.1 Dimensions: Height: 33" | Width: 29" | Depth: 19.5",

The "Cottage" stove became a common type -- small and probably quite cheap, given that its upper storey was fabricated from sheet iron.  But most parlor stoves were in cast iron, over-decorated to display to the full the pattern-maker's and molder's art, and the customer's good if eclectic taste:

Vose & Co. Temple Parlor Stove, c. 1854-1861 (not in the 1853 Catalogue, but see "The Sylvan Parlour," Plate XXIII, its obvious predecessor), Object ID: 30.1611.2, Dimensions: Height: 44" | Width: 21" | Depth: 28"

Ripley & Vedder's "Castle" Parlor Stove, Design Patent 608 (1863) -- illustrated in Groft, Cast With Style, p. 71 [giving dimensions of 36" x 32" x 23"].

Newberry, Filley & Co. [Troy, NY] Magnolia Air-Tight Parlor Stove, 1854-1858 [Nicholas Vedder & Ezra Ripley, Design Patent 690, 1855], Object ID: 00.3.8618, Dimensions: Height: 25" | Width: 18" | Depth: 26",; also illustrated in Groft, Cast With Style, p. 69 [giving dimensions of 37.75" x 32.25" x 19.5," i.e. a larger size].

Fuller, Warren & Morrison [Troy, NY] Floral Parlor Stove, 1855-1857, Object ID: 32.81.1, Dimensions: Height: 44" | Width: 28" | Depth: 21.75", -- cf. the Louis Potter & Co. "Reflector No. 6" using Warren's patent for the circular heating drum, illustrated in Groft, Cast With Style, p. 74 [giving dimensions of 46" x 31" x 24"].


  1. I have a very beautiful stove that is kind of similar to ones on your page. I was wondering if you might be able to identify it? If so, where can I send a picture?