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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Staff of Life: Baking Bread

This is what the cooking stove was for, most of all -- the greatest test of its quality, efficiency, and economy, in an America where as late as 1900 95 percent of all the flour sold was for private household consumption, much of it turning into home-baked bread.  As Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe had written, "The true housewife makes bread the sovereign of her kitchen." Affordable mass-produced flour, and the increasing availability of stoves for baking, had allowed them to make it so. [Janet A. Flammang, The Taste for Civilization: Food, Politics, and Civil Society (Univ. of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 109.] 

"The New Sterling Did It," Sill Stove Works, Rochester, NY,

From the time that cooking stoves were first invented and sold, patentees and manufacturers made great claims for them as bakers of bread.  Their particular stove always had the largest oven, the quickest oven, the most controllable and efficient fire, the oven that baked bread most uniformly. 

They made these claims because bread was such a staple food (20-30 percent of the average household's caloric intake), and also because a stove made it much easier for the smaller, poorer household -- one without, or unable to afford a built-in brick oven beside the cooking fireplace -- to bake its own bread, rather than in a cast-iron "spider" (buried in hot ashes on the hearth), or a tin reflector oven in front of the fire, or being forced to rely on breads that were fried on a griddle rather than baked, or having to get their bread by purchase or trade from neighbors with an oven, or even, in towns and cities, from a commercial bakery.  Stove inventor Philo Penfield Stewart therefore summed up the conventional wisdom of the trade: "The Baking qualities of a Cook Stove are the most important of all." [1863.  The Peculiarities of the Stewart Cook-Stove: Embracing the Latest Improvements, Briefly Stated, with Directions for Using by the Inventor and Patentee (Troy: Fuller, Warren & Co., 1863), p. 19.]  They were what allowed the young housewife (or cook?) in the 1917 Kalamazoo Stove advertisement to make her votive offering to the rather quizzical (or impressed?) head of the house:      

Kalamazoo Stove Co., Kalamazoo Stoves and Ranges (Kalamazoo, 1917).

When the Sill Stove Works published its ad, showing the middle-class housewife and her loyal and jovial black cook, the era of domestic self-sufficiency was beginning to draw to its close: while in 1890 90 percent of American bread was still home-baked, by 1930 the same overwhelming proportion was factory-produced [Aaron Bobrow-Strain, White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf (Boston: Beacon Pub., 2012), p. ##.  David Katzman, Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), p. 129, has commercial bakeries supplying 25 percent of bread as early as 1900].  But what its ad celebrated was one of the key arguments that generations of manufacturers had made for their stoves: the combination of economy (one scuttle full of coal) and efficiency (a barrel of flour turned into a mountain of bread in the American stove's large oven, its most important selling-point, several loaves at a time).  For a long time, this argument worked.  But, from the turn of the century, for reasons that Bobrow-Strain has made most fully and convincingly, it became increasingly irrelevant; though, as the Kalamazoo ad makes clear, the idea of the home-baked loaf still had a residual cultural force, one it has recovered in recent decades.

[Go to for the continuation of this theme -- an account of the great competitive baking contests that were such a feature of mid-century county and state fairs.]

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