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Friday, October 25, 2013

Shaker (or "Shaker") Stoves (upd. 3 April 2014)

This started out as just part of a planned blog post that was going to be nothing more than a sort of "union catalogue" of available online images of stoves in major American museums (plus a bit of commentary from me).  But there was too much stuff, so one post turned into two, then three, then branched off in another direction and produced an essay, and finally the fourth planned post mutated into an essay too.  Who needs plans anyway?
  1. A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, 1: Plate Stoves (begun 22 Oct. 2013)
  2. A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, 2: Franklins (begun 18 Dec. 2013)
  3. A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, 3: Columnar & Parlor Heating Stoves (begun 28 Oct. 2013)
  4. The Parlor Stove as a Work of Art: The Peckham Brothers, Erastus Dow Palmer, and a Few Questions (begun 6 Nov. 2013)
  5. Shaker or "Shaker" Stoves (begun 25 Oct. 2013), i.e. this one.
Posts 1-3 have retained their original intended character, more or less; Part 4 was an offshoot of 3, and came to dwarf its parent; Part 5 was part of the original plan, but it too has led to a substantial essay, best presented as a document file (with footnotes) rather than as a blog post.  So what I will do with this post is just (a) to provide a permanent link to the essay, and (b) to revert to my original plan, and publish this post here, now, stripped back to basics, i.e. as a guide to major museums' holdings of this small but interesting class of objects.  Almost all of the commentary will be reserved for the essay.

Classic Shaker Stoves in Major American Museums

New Hampshire Historical Society: Stove from Enfield, NH, Shaker Community, c. 1825-1850, 10" wide x 20" long, on wrought-iron legs with "penny feet," Object ID 1974.003.  This may be the earliest of these examples, because its shape (a truncated pyramid on a trapezoid box) is closest to that of the non-Shaker box stoves illustrated below, and it has not been simplified as much as that of the classic Shaker heating stove.

Metropolitan Museum, New York: Box Stove and Tools, New Lebanon (NY) Shaker community (c. 1820-1840)26 5/16 x 34 3/4 x 12 7/8 in. (66.8 x 88.3 x 32.7 cm), Collection No. 67.181.1a–I. The recess in the top could be used for warming flat irons (for which purpose a tin cover was placed over it, or contain water for room humidification, or have a super-heater or double decker (see below) added.

Philadelphia Art Museum: Shaker Stove, c. 1810-1820, 18 x 12 x 29 inches (45.7 x 30.5 x 73.7 cm), Accession Number 1963-160-103, on removable cast-iron "peg legs," fitted into sockets cast on the base of the stove.

The Ford Museum: Shaker Stove, New York [State}? c. 1830 -- Object ID: 00.136.5; Height: 25" (incl. wrought-iron legs with the usual "penny feet"), Width: 26" (seems unlikely-- 16"?), Length: 34". This has a super-heater or double decker on top, i.e. an additional heating chamber in which the smoke circulated before going up the pipe, designed to increase the stove's output and efficiency. There is a similar example at the Fruitlands Museum -- scroll down; the picture is too small, but the caption is useful.

The Winterthur Museum: 19th Century Shaker Stove, Mount Lebanon, NY --

Object Number 1953.0108.003; 27.811" (H) , 12.437 "(W), 29.626" (L) .  A very fine example, on plain, tapering rod-like removable cast-iron "peg legs."

Box Stoves 
Old Sturbridge Village has something that looks quite like the above trapezoid stoves (the classic shape of the Shaker heating stove) but that it describes simply as a "Box Stove," because it lacks characteristic Shaker stylistic features (its legs are "stretcher"-pattern, probably cast, not wrought, like those of commonplace commercial plate stoves, rather than straight pieces of cast or wrought iron), and it is a bit decorated, with a typical Federal Era pattern of reeding or fluting on the rounded edge between the sides and the top.

Old Sturbridge Village: Box Stove 27.75" L x 11.5" W x 20.5" H, Collection No. 2.77.60.

Josephine Peirce, Fire on the Hearth, p. 99, has a picture of what is said to be a stove designed in the 'teens by the Reverend Dr Eliphalet Nott, President of Union College, Schenectady, NY, before he began his work on anthracite heating stoves in the 1820s, in the Litchfield, CT Historical Society's collection but not currently shown oline. This may have been an example of what his students came to call "The Coffin," rented to them to heat their rooms.  It is set on cast-iron cabriole legs, a signature feature of much American furniture in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and has what look like common rococo decoration on its door and the angle between the sides and the top.

[Original accompanying text, as of 16 Jan. 2014, when I began to attempt to finish this.]

What are we to make of these objects?  All of them share a key characteristic: they are cast in two pieces, the box (including the pipe collar) and the base plate, to which the legs are fixed. Most box stoves, at the time and later, continued to be made of six separate plates, bolted together, as they had been since the making of the first six-plate stoves in the Colonies. A great advantage of the normal design was that stoves could be transported in pieces, by wagon or river, packed flat, from the rural furnaces where their plates were cast to the urban blacksmiths or dealers who finished and assembled them. Stove furnaces concentrated their efforts on making the plates finer, smoother, better decorated, more durable, and also thinner, by molding the plates in two-part wooden frames ("flasks") rather than simply by impressing the pattern in the sand or dirt of the furnace floor. The result of about half-a-century's technical development was that, by the 1820s, plates were only about quarter of an inch thick (a third of the late-colonial norm), and stoves were much lighter and thus cheaper.

There is thus a bit of a paradox about "Shaker stoves." Shaker products are usually celebrated for their elegance, efficiency, economy, and originality. But "their" stoves were none of these things, unless one applies a modern functionalist aesthetic that appreciates their plainness as a form of elegance rather than crudity, and assumes that a stove made up of fewer separate castings was in some sense better than one put together in the more common fashion. Neither of these propositions is really tenable -- the first is ahistorical, and the second is wrong; at the very least, it depends what we mean by "better," so this is something that needs to be explored.

* * *

And the essay is where I have explored it. I'm not going to add its contents back in here, but instead will just leave this as just a taster, and a pointer. However, I may add a couple more short (ish) blog posts, themed like this, i.e. concentrating on particular categories of visual evidence, all available online:

  1. Images from the Historical American Buildings Survey in the Library of Congress.
  2. Images from auction sites.

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