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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, I: Plate Stoves

Anybody interested in the history of material culture knows that, in many respects, there is no substitute for seeing (and, if permitted, sometimes inspecting) relics of the past.  I will always be grateful for the time I spent in the Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy, and the Albany Institute, which have surely got the finest collections of stoves from the mid-nineteenth-century "Golden Age," when these two Hudson Valley towns dominated the industry and were the most important centers of technological improvement and inventive design. 

But touching the past in all its dark metallic glory is usually not possible (see below), and just looking at images of old objects, in print or online, many of them not even on display in the museums that own them, can be a reasonable substitute.  What I have done here is therefore to put together a largely chronological "virtual exhibition" of items from a number of major American collections.  This will remain a work in progress, even when its title no longer announces it as just a working draft; the nice thing about a blog entry is that it is open-ended. But it started as a response to spending some time with the online holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- a small, but high quality and quite representative, collection of American stoves and stove plates, covering the period from the 1750s to the 1840s.  The purpose of this posting is to draw attention to these and other items, and (once I have assembled them) to comment on them in a way that adds meaning to the images and objects.  

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Museum Display of Nine-Plate Stoves, April 2009.  The big one on the right has got a "cooking" or  "boiling" hole at the back of the top plate, for a pot or kettle.

I won't try to replicate what is probably the best online version of a real museum collection -- the Old Sturbridge Village site -- but will aim to complement it, and to cross-refer when useful or necessary.  And if anybody finds this interesting, the best places to go for more are Tammis K. Groft's Cast With Style: Nineteenth Century Cast-Iron Stoves from the Albany Area (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984), limited preview on Google Books, and Josephine H. Peirce's Fire on the Hearth: The Evolution and Romance of the Heating-Stove (Springfield, MA: The Pond-Ekberg Co., 1951), even more accessible via the wonderful Hathi Trust.  The Good Time Stove Co. of Goshen, MA, also maintains an excellent archive of pictures and descriptions of antique stoves for sale and sold -- see e.g. for Franklin stoves, which are well represented in the next part of this posting as well as in Groft's and Peirce's works. 


Samuel Flower (ironmaster, Reading Furnace, PA), "Jamb Stove" (1756)Accession Number 15.104.1a–e.

A jamb stove is probably about the hardest stove to "read" and understand when it's presented to you out of context, in a museum -- especially when, as seems to be the case with the Met's, it has been defaced by being fitted together with very obvious shiny modern bolts and an internal frame, rather than being cramped together with iron rods on the outside as it should be.  It is also hiding its most important side from the viewer.  The jamb stove was a five-sided box, and the back side we can't see in this picture isn't there -- it's blank and open.  

So how did it work?  There is a good explanation, with a drawing, in Groft, Cast With Style, p. 12:  "The five plates formed an open box that was placed against an aperture in the wall that opened into the kitchen fireplace of the next room. Live coals [i.e. burning wood] were inserted into the stove through the opening into the kitchen fireplace.  The adjacent room, thus, was heated economically without the discomfort of smoke." But to really understand a jamb stove we also need an architectural drawing, because the key feature of the Pennsylvania German house was that it had two principal heated rooms, kitchen and stube (or schtupp, in the local dialect), plus the unheated kammer, on the ground floor, and they shared a single chimney in the center of the house, with the jamb stove projecting through the back wall of the kitchen fireplace into the stube.  In late 18th century south-east Pennsylvania you could therefore tell a family's nationality without going into their house: the "English" had a chimney at each gable end; the Germans had just one chimney near the middle.  (See esp. William Woys Weaver, "The Pennsylvania German House: European Antecedents and New World Forms," Winterthur Portfolio 21:4 (Winter 1986): 243-64, Cynthia G. Falk, Architecture and Artifacts of the Pennsylvania Germans: Constructing Identity in Early America (University Park: Penn State Univ. Press, 2008), and Sally McMurry & Nancy Van Dolsen, eds., Architecture and Landscape of the Pennsylvania Germans, 1720-1920 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).

The Winterthur Museum has numerous excellent images of another complete jamb stove -- dated 1768, and produced in Marlboro, near Winchester, VA, an area of Pennsylvania German settlement.  Unlike the Met's, it is properly mounted, and though one cannot see its open side, this is the way that the owners would have seen the decorative and functional part of their jamb stove sticking out through the wall at the back of the kitchen fireplace, and into their stube. (There is also one from 1766).  

Jamb stoves were an old technology, already being replaced, even in some German homes, by a new design -- the closed, six-plate stove (see below) -- well before the Revolution.  So it is understandable that few of them survive intact.  By the time that Henry Mercer and other late 19th century antiquarians began to collect them and celebrate them as a distinctive kind of folk art, most of what they found were single plates that had been discarded decades earlier and, mostly by chance, not sold as scrap to be remelted.  One of the best collection of these plates is at the Bucks County Historical Society's Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA, built on Mercer's enthusiasm -- see his pioneering The Decorated Stove Plates of the Pennsylvania Germans (Doylestown: McGinty's Job Press, 1899), to accompany an early exhibition, and his magnum opus The Bible in Iron; or, the Pictured Stoves and Stove Stove Plates of the Pennsylvania Germans (Doylestown: Bucks County Historical Society, 1914). But the catalogue only seems to include images for half-a-dozen of them. Fortunately a nearby museum's online collection is much better. The Winterthur has almost a dozen C18th plates, mostly from S.E. Pennsylvania furnaces -- search "stove" and "stove plate." Many of the plates in both collections are from early six-plate rather than jamb stoves, but until the advent of new rococo designs in the 1760s and 1770s to suit the taste of furnaces' "English" owners and their new "English" or increasingly Anglicized German customers, they did not differ much.

Henry William Stiegel (Charming Forge, PA), Jamb Stove Plate (1765)22 1/2 x 19 in. (57.2 x 48.3 cm), Accession Number 47.137.10.

There are other good online images of Pennsylvania German and early "British" Pennsylvanian stove plate, e.g. for a 1762 plate from York County with the same sort of vernacular decoration, sold in 2005 for $3,335.

[Update, 16 Jan. 2014: There is also an excellent collection -- eighteen stove plates, c. 1720s-1760s, at Yale Art Gallery.]

But the fate of most old stoves is not to end up in public or private collections, so one cannot tell for sure whether or how well the few surviving stoves and plates are representative of the lost multitudes.

Scrap Pile, Hopewell Furnace N.H.S., April 2009

AMERICAN STOVES, c. 1760-1850: 6-, 9-, AND 10-PLATES

Neither the Met nor, strangely, the Philadelphia Art Museum seems to have a good version of the most common stove types in America from the 1760s until, probably, at least the 1830s, i.e. 6-plate "box stoves" and the 9- or 10-plate versions which were adapted for cooking with the addition of a small oven and, by the early C19th, one or more "boiling holes" in the top surface.  (See the stoves illustrated in most of the pictures in my post "The Ubiquitous Stove: Stoves in Public Places," as well as the first illustration in this blog.)  For these, one needs to turn to the collections of other museums, notably the Winterthur, which has good examples of all three, and, for some of the earliest surviving models, to other regional collections.

1772 Mark Bird 6-Plate Stove, Hopewell Furnace, PA; 35" L x 41" H x 18" W; Birdsboro Community Memorial Center, Birdsboro, PA; on loan to, and on display at, Hopewell Furnace N.H.S. (Heckscher & Bowman, American Rococo, p. 224).

This fine stove is the only early 6-plate for which I can find a good-quality image online.  It was of a type probably introduced into the Colonies three or four decades earlier, and is derived from a northern European design, the "Holland," "Dutch," "draft," or "wind stove," sometimes even called an "English stove" because the Dutch originals were imported to the seaboard colonies via Britain.  Local manufacture began in the 1740s-1750s.  

As we can see, it differed from the jamb stove in several respects, notably that (i) it contained its own fire of long pieces of wood rather than live coals shoveled in from the kitchen fireplace, and had its own flue at the rear of the top plate, (ii) it was therefore free-standing and portable (though very heavy!), and could be installed wherever its owner wanted it rather than requiring a Pennsylvania German central chimney, and (iii) by the 1760s-1770s its decorative scheme had become rococo rather than Pennsylvania German vernacular.  In the beginning, though, techniques of manufacture were much the same as for jamb stoves, in the same rural furnaces, and styles of decoration were probably still German too.  

The change in pattern-making style and technique in the 1760s was because furnace owners (generally British American) began to commission them from Philadelphia carpenters, and also because the market for 6- and 10-plates was broader than that for jamb stoves and included British American consumers as well as wealthier and more assimilated German Americans who were embracing their neighbors' modern taste.  Rococo decorative details were often simply pinned and/or glued to the boards of the wood pattern plate rather than being carved into them, whereas jamb stove plates had been all carved.  Even after this change, the plates were still generally cast in "open sand" on the furnace floor, and were thick and flat, heavy and quite rough.  In 1771 the Elizabeth Furnace in Bucks County made 6-plates in three sizes, varying in weight from 250 to 450 pounds. 

The 6-plate became an even more useful appliance in the 1760s when it was adapted to include a small oven.  This was done by cutting a rectangle out of each of the side plates, fitting four more plates stretching from side to side of the stove (top, bottom, front, back), hence the name, 10-plate, and closing each side of the resulting small oven with a wrought-iron door. The Thomas Maybury stove in the Ford Museum, Dearborn, MI, so called after the ironmaster whose furnace made it and whose name it bears, dates from 1767, and is the oldest surviving 10-plate -- Hereford Furnace in Bucks Co., PA, where it was cast, is said to have been the first to make them. There is a good image of this survivor in Peirce, Fire on the Hearth, p. 94, with dimensions, and better ones at the Ford Museum itself.  

Ford Museum Object No. 28.402.1, Dimensions 33" high x 28" wide x 37.5" long,

The Maybury stove has an interesting history -- it was brought forward in 1892 by a member of the public in response to the offer of a $100 reward for the oldest cooking stove, in the best condition (in proportion to average wages, that would have been a $21,000 tempter in 2012) by the Michigan Stove Co. of Detroit, then one of America's largest, which wanted an exhibit for its stand at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition. The firm's superintendent and chief designer, William J. Keep, an enthusiastic stove historian, subjected it to close analysis, so we know more about it than almost any other.

1769 Henry W. Stiegel 10-Plate Stove, Elizabeth Furnace, PA; 63.25" L x 44.25" H x 15" W; Hershey Museum, Hershey, PA. (Morrison Heckscher and Leslie G. Bowman's classic American Rococo, 1750-1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992), p. 226).

The Stiegel stove illustrated above is also one of the earliest, as well as (in the opinion of Morrison Heckscher) one of the finest, rococo 10-plate stoves in existence.  Even without looking inside it, one can work out its internal arrangement -- particularly with the assistance of Keep's careful study of the Maybury stove.  The oven extended all the way to the front of the stove, i.e. it was larger than the door opening.  This meant that smoke and flames travelled in a recumbent U-shaped path, round the back of the oven, then along the underside of the top plate to a smoke-pipe collar at the front.  The small hatch at the top of the front plate was to give the user access for cleaning out the soot that accumulated on the oven's inaccessible top with a long-handled scraper.

In due course (i.e. it is not clear when) makers made a small but significant modification to the ten-plate, rendering it somewhat easier and cheaper to make.  They dispensed with the front plate of the oven box, whose only purpose was to keep the upper and lower plates in place, and cast locating grooves onto the insides of the main stove plates (front, sides) instead. This enabled them to make the oven a bit bigger and more usable too.

There is no contemporary drawing of a 9-plate (that I know of) to make its internal arrangements clear, apart from one good near substitute: Philadelphia stove dealer Nichodemus Lloyd's patent 1676X (1812), which aimed to increase the amount of oven space over that in a standard 9-plate stove by having two smaller ovens, one above the other, with the smoke and flame taking an S-shaped path behind the back of the lower oven, along its top to the front, and then up the front of the upper oven, then back to a smoke pipe located more conveniently at the rear of the stove.  As the drawing makes clear, Lloyd fitted soot-scrapers in both of his horizontal flues. 

The following three illustrations demonstrate how easy it was to make a 9- or 10-plate and a 6-plate using the same patterns for the external plates, especially the front, back, and sides, which were commonly decorated.  There wasn't even any need for separate side-plate patterns (the largest and most costly) -- as the Batsto pattern (a rare survivor, possibly because it was made of mahogany rather than the cheaper and more common white pine) makes clear, the pattern simply had a removable hatch in the middle, held in place by cleats on the back.  Take the hatch out, and you make a 9- or 10-plate casting, with a rather plain wrought-iron oven door to cover the hole; leave it in and you get a 6-plate, for heating only, but with a more attractive appearance to compensate.

Valentine Eckert (Sally Ann Furnace, PA), Side of Ten-Plate Stove (ca. 1791-1803)26 x 35 in. (66 x 88.9 cm), Accession Number 2006.549.

This should be compared with a wonderful picture in Heckscher and Bowman's classic American Rococo, p. 228of the fine mahogany pattern for a very similar rococo stove from Batsto Furnace, NJ, and the Historic American Buildings Survey's image of a rather decrepit surviving example of the stove itself, in its 6-plate version:

for another picture of the pattern)

c. 1787-1810, John Brien, Catoctin Furnace, MD, described as a 9-Plate; 38.5" (H) , 15.551" (W) , 49.752" (D) [97.79 (H) , 39.5 (W) , 126.37 (D)]; Winterthur Museum Obj. No. 1960.0771.  Though the stove looks stylistically C18th, so a date towards the beginning of the suggested range seems defensible, there is a problem: John Brien did not buy the furnace until 1820.  It thus seems more probable that the furnace, somewhat removed from the main stove-manufacturing district in the Philadelphia hinterland (160 miles away across the mountains, whereas Hopewell, for example, was just 50 miles up the Schuylkill valley), was a bit backward, and perhaps its market's tastes too.

The Winterthur's rather crude, slabby, and barely decorated Brien stove -- with just a few patriotic details, an eagle and Washington's head, pinned to an otherwise flat pattern -- is described as a 9-plate, and has the same features as the much earlier Maybury and Stiegel (i.e. soot-scraping hatch and location of smoke-pipe collar).  It also seems, more clearly than  the Stiegel, to bear a couple of other signs of technical progress in the arts of stove design and manufacture.  The flat plates -- sides, front, back, and oven (the three internal plates) were probably still cast flat, but the base plate, with its raised rim, and the top, with its stove-pipe collar cast as an integral part of the plate rather than, as in the case of the 1772 Hopewell stove, probably just cemented on, are most likely to have been cast by a new method -- in two-part frames ("flasks") of sand, with a double-sided pattern between the flasks to make both the upper and lower surfaces (with open sand casting, patterns were single-sided, as the top of the casting was open to the air; gravity simply ensured that the puddle of molten iron poured into the open mold ended up reasonably flat).  

Flask casting, though more difficult and costly than the old open-sand method, had many advantages: castings were flatter, smoother (on both sides), thinner, and could be more complicated (the stove-pipe collar, the rim on the base plate, retaining grooves for the oven plates).  A saving on raw material could make up for some of the increased labor cost, and the joint between base, top, and side plates could be made tighter, reducing problems of smoke and ash leakage into the room, and making the fire more controllable.

c. 1815-1825 Henry Schreiner, Philadelphia, PA, "New Orleans Victory" 9-Plate Stove; L 30" including hearth (76.3 cm) W. 13 3/8" (33.9 cm) H. 31 1/2" (80 cm) including base; Old Sturbridge Village Collection No. 2.77.90.

By the time the John Brien stove was being made at the Catoctin Furnace in the 1820s, technical and design progress in the Philadelphia hinterland had made it look very old-fashioned.  The Schreiner, Richards, and Slaymaker stoves (below) were the mature form of the 9- or 10-plate that turned these stoves into mass-market products reaching new consumers up and down the Eastern Seaboard and deep into the interior, wherever water transport permitted.  All of these stoves' plates were now flask-molded, so that they were thinner, lighter, cheaper, more crack-resistant, and easy both to decorate (in both of the first two cases, with patriotic and Federal-style images; the Slaymaker, a little later, is more elaborateand to curve.  The classic cooking stove became much more attractive to look at as it assumed its characteristic ovoid shape (see the 1812 Lloyd patent drawing, above), with only two external plates still needing to be flat: the top and the base.  This product remained on the market until the end of the century as a cheap staple, known by then as simply an "old Philadelphia"-style stove.

1827 9-Plate Stove (incorrectly described in catalogue as a 6-plate; note oven, stove-pipe position, and soot-scraper door), John Richards & Co., Union Furnace, Berks Co., PA.; 38.5" (H) , 29.724" (L) , 16.374" (W) [97.79 cm (H) , 75.5 (L) , 41.59 (W)]; Winterthur Museum Obj. No. 1998.0021.002.  

The best way of understanding the construction of an "Old Philadelphia" stove is by examining pictures of the several plates of an incomplete, disassembled, late 1820s-1830s stove in the Winterthur Collection: a Henry Slaymaker & Co. 10- (or 9-?) Plate from his Margaretta Furnace, opened in 1826, most conveniently viewed online.  

Slaymaker's was an exceptional furnace, both in terms of its metal quality and its craftsmanship: as we can see, even the firebox and oven doors were now cast, curved, and attractively decorated.  Slaymaker was one of the principal suppliers (after Clement Brooke's Hopewell Furnace) to Powell Stackhouse, Jr., probably the largest stove dealer in Philadelphia (and a fine inventor and pattern maker himself, hence, probably, the design quality of the stoves that he had made for him), so it is particularly fortunate that one of his products from the last decade of the stove furnace region's prosperity and importance, and at the peak of its technical and artistic development, should survive.  (See the map of Powell Stackhouse's suppliers, 1831-1841, which shows the region at its fullest extent, and also how remote John Brien's Catoctin Furnace, near Thurmont, MD, was from it.) 

Base of Slaymaker Stove, drilled for the long internal bolts holding these stoves together (in the other models shown, they are still external and visible, whereas with the Slaymaker only the nuts would show, on the top plate, and as the Schreiner and Richards stoves show, these could be made into decorative features).  

[Slaymaker references:
  • "Mr. Slaymaker's Furnace Produces Excellent Stoves," Republican Compiler [Gettysburg, PA], 8 Nov. 1826,, from "Miscellaneous Newspaper Articles From the Past: York County Pennsylvania." -- "The stoves cast at Margaretta (Mr. Slaymaker's) Furnace in this county, deserve honorable mention. The patterns are neat and handsome and in smoothness the castings are not excelled, if equaled, by any that have come under our notice. The pigs produced at this furnace are said to be of superior quality." 
  • Persifor Frazer, Jr., Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania 1874: Report of Progress in the
    District of York and Adams Counties ... (Harrisburg: Board of Commissioners
    for the Second Geological Survey, 1876), pp. 20, 22,]

Another, though less good, way is by looking at the following photo of a Hopewell Furnace exhibit, an "Old Philadelphia"-style stove with one side removed:

It's not just my reflection in the glass of the museum cabinet that makes this model a bit difficult to read, but also that one cannot quite work out where the smoke passages are -- probably between the rear of the rectangular oven, which now took up a much larger amount of the internal space than in the first 10-plates fifty years earlier, and the rounded rear plate (the rounding therefore might have had a functional purpose as well as being intended to make the stove more pleasing to look at).  The soot-scraper had been moved to the back of the stove -- that's the purpose of the little projection at the top right, a finger-loop at the end of a long rod with the scraper at the end of it, as in Lloyd's patent drawing; the rear plate of the Slaymaker shows the same tell-tale feature, though the rod is missing.

* * *

This posting became too long, so I decided to split it.  Part II is about Franklin stoves, Part III, about columnar and parlor heating stoves from the 1830s-1850s, and Part IV is about "Shaker" stoves -- the three other main stove types that seem to populate museum collections.


  1. If anyone one is interested in seeing a five plate 1760 and a couple 6 plates, go to visit the historic Moravian village, Old Salem in Winston Salem, NC. You can get up close and personal as they are in the museums historic homes, not under glass.

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  3. Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative. I am gonna watch out for brussels. I’ll be grateful if you continue this in future. Numerous people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers! Asadores de Carbon

  4. Greetings Mr. Harris! What a treasure trove of a blog you have. I am a contributing writer for a publication called Country Rustic Magazine ( and I am writing a historical piece on wood-burning stoves. I would love to include the first image shown on this post (from my research, I believe it is your original photo) in my article. I am writing to ask your permission to use it. The image will be used for non-commercial purposes, as part of a historical discussion. Please contact me at your earliest convenience via my Gmail account ( to let me know if this is okay or not. I appreciate your time, and thank you again for your consideration.


    Annie Krug