The Sandheap itself
This was both the name I chose for my site and, I thought, the ideal picture to illustrate it and serve as a clickable link opening the door to an index of its contents. It shows a skilled molder preparing his heap of sand for the day's molding -- mixing new sand and old, watering it to get it to the right consistency, riddling it, and (here) shoveling it to aerate it and break up any remaining lumps. I liked the picture, and believed it appropriate: my conceit was that my Sandheap, like this molder's, would be a place of preparatory work for a future work of art, or at least craftsmanship. The picture came from a wonderful source -- the International Correspondence Schools' textbook on Green-Sand Molding (1903) -- and, going back to the original, I discover that I actually picked the wrong picture of sand-shoveling. This one shows the technique of efficiently shoveling sand from place to place without mixing it; Fig. 1, on the previous page, is the one I should have chosen; but maybe I just thought this one was a more interesting composition. The picture (and the textbook) was something I was familiar with from my time in the 1990s at the Hagley Library in Wilmington, Delaware, working on the history of the US metal-casting industry and its technology -- an enthusiasm that resulted in just one article, "The Rocky Road to Mass Production," finally published in 2000. But if I hadn't done that work, I wouldn't have been primed to start working on stoves a decade or so ago.
The Charter Oak
This was the other front-page illustration for my website, and if you clicked it, you got to the area dedicated to my stove research. I came across this picture in the New York State Library's marvellous collections in September 2005. This was an advertising broadside [call number BRO1919], dating to 1874 or thereabouts, and I made a copy of it not just because it was a rather nice example of advertising ephemera, but because it was an illustration of the key product of Marcus Lucius Filley's Green Island Stove Foundry in Troy, NY.
Marcus Filley's was a very ordinary business, and that was part of its attraction to me -- it was average sized (capacity c. 900 tons/9,000 stoves p.a. in the early 1870s), it wasn't large or innovative, it was in the industry's original home (the New York Capital District), it was established right at the industry's outset in the mid-1830s and then bought and carried on by Marcus and his son Mark from the 1850s to the 1880s, right through until the beginning of the decline of Albany and Troy as stove-manufacturing cities. I could therefore make an argument that Filley's firm was representative of the industry, and especially of the Capital District, as a whole. This mattered, because the other reason for being drawn to work on the Filley firm was that it was the only one of the hundreds of firms that existed in the Albany and Troy stove industry from the 1830s through the Great Depression which had left any substantial body of records.
I knew about these in the first place because they had been worked on by an economic geographer [Gordon M. Winder, "The North American Manufacturing Belt in 1880: A Cluster of Regional Industrtial Systems or One Large Industrial District," Economic Geography 75:1 (Jan. 1999): 71-92] and he seemed to have found a lot there. I planned a research trip to Albany and Troy in September 2005, and after consulting the online catalogues of the New York State Library and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, both of which had parts of the Filley papers, which had been broken up and partly lost in the 1970s after surviving intact for over a century, I thought I knew roughly what the collections consisted of and how large they were. A few days should do it, I reckoned, far more of them in Troy than in Albany, as the NYSL catalogue only showed 3/4 of a foot of materials at that time, while RPI had 3.2 feet.
So imagine my surprise, if not quite delight, on my first day at the NYSL, when the staff member sent to bring me out the box of papers said "we've got fifteen more back there just like this one." What was supposed to be a couple of days' work turned into about five weeks, spread over two return trips during the Easter vacations of 2006 and 2007. The first thing I did was to go through every box and folder and find out what was there, and the resulting inventory is available at the NYSL now, should anybody else ever wish to use these fascinating old papers after me. And then I read as much of the Filley material as I could -- almost everything at RPI and about half of the stuff in the NYSL, sampled pretty systematically.
The odd thing about all of this work is how little has come out of it -- or at least, how little so far. Of the articles I have published since 2007, the Filley material makes the greatest contribution to "Inventing the U.S. Stove Industry," my prizewinning 2008 Business History Review piece, and to a lesser extent to both "'The Stove Trade Needs Change Continually'" and "Coping with Competition". That's because the richest parts of the papers consist of inbound correspondence from customers and salesmen, which I could mine heavily to write about marketing, feedback from customers into the design process, and competitive practices. If my research focus had remained on the industry's maturity, between, say, the 1860s and the early 1900s (my original intention), I would have made far more use of the Filley papers and of other surviving records of larger stove firms (the Reading Stove Works at the Hagley, the Detroit Stove Works in Detroit Public Library) that I also consulted in the mid-2000s. But what happened instead is that my interest shifted back to the period of the industry's beginnings and even its prehistory, so that all of this archival work and much else too became much less relevant.
The Charter Oak is still an important stove for me, though -- not because Marcus Filley made it, but because his younger brother Giles Franklin invented it in St. Louis in the 1850s and built one of the largest firms in the industry on this key product. Marcus merely imitated him, so these two brothers ended up in the law courts, fighting patent-infringement suits against one another, for decades afterwards. Giles is a much more interesting person to me now than Marcus -- he mattered much more at the time too, and was one of the industry's leading figures from the 1860s through the 1880s. But unfortunately his papers are much scantier than his older brother's, and some of the most important things he wrote only survive because Marcus kept them.
The Frying Policeman
|Chicago Police Sergeant Louis Kroll wearing his uniform and an apron, cooking (c. 1908), |
Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum
When I started serious work on the history of the stove industry, back in the summer of 2004 when I had a research leave term, I was laboring under a significant disadvantage: I was working from my office in England, and it was in the relatively early days of digitized resources (before Google Books, for example). So I spent an awful lot of time familiarizing myself with what was readily available, and back then lots of it consisted of images, notably at the Library of Congress, but also in other research libraries. This was interesting to me (I like old photographs) and also useful: I became aware of the ubiquity of cast-iron stoves in nineteenth and early twentieth century America, and of the ways in which ordinary people seemed to relate to these useful household objects. I liked this particular photograph because it was funny -- Sergeant Kroll looks irresistibly like a member of the Keystone Kops -- and also because it "violated gender norms." Cooking was women's work, stoves were women's tools, and here we have Louis Kroll, his gleaming white pinny stretched over his ample belly, doing his best to keep body and soul together.
If anybody stumbled on "The Sandheap" and clicked on the picture of the "Charter Oak," this is where they landed -- the front page of the Stoves area of my website, illustrated by the Frying Policeman's picture. The accompanying text read:
This is the place to begin if you have ever felt a need to know about the first consumer durable goods with near-universal market penetration in U.S. history, or if you are just enthusiastic about the great lumps of highly-decorated cast iron which were turned out by the million to cook people’s food, heat their water, and warm their homes, schools, offices, shops, churches, railroad stations, and indeed every conceivable private and public space.
A starting-point on your quest might be the contributions of “stove_fanatic” (me) on Discuss Detroit in March 2006. One of the list members was good enough to refer to my nicely-illustrated jottings as “STOVES 101,” i.e. an introductory course. You can check out an edited version of the ensuing discussion here – mostly me rabbiting on, but getting some interest.
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And now, more than seven years later, I'm still doing it.