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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Parlor Stove as a Work of Art: The Peckham Brothers, Erastus Dow Palmer, and a Few Questions (upd. 15 Aug. 2016)

[20 Nov. -- I think I will leave this as it is for now, and maybe forever, but transfer the text into a Google Doc form for any subsequent edits.  That's because I think this has got beyond the size of a convenient blog post, and it's also become too thoroughly researched.  It is now crying out for proper footnotes, which this blog format doesn't allow.  If I do that, I will provide a link to the document version here.] 

Last week, while I was trying to work out who was the probable designer of a rather fine (but odd) parlor stove in the Old Sturbridge Village collection, I came across something extraordinary as I plowed my way through 1840s design patents, looking for an answer: a parlor stove designed in Utica, NY, and patented in October 1845 by John  S. Peckham and his younger half-brother Merritt, proprietors of one of the city's foundries that had been in the stove-making business for at least a decade.  It was their first patent of any kind, and it was unlike any other that I had ever read.  The stove itself was quite different from any other that I had ever seen too, even in the low-resolution image presented on the US Patent and Trademark Office's site. While the Peckhams' competitors, notably in Albany and Troy a hundred miles to the east down the Mohawk Valley, were producing parlor stoves that were either just decorated boxes (see e.g. Jagger, Treadwell & Perry of Albany's "Gothic"-pattern stove of 1846) or decorated boxes surmounted by two, three, or four columns and an upper box (see my post on this distinctive contemporary type), the Peckhams offered the public a very unusual box with a uniquely rounded and elongated shape, a bit like a flask with an enormous bunch of fruit and flowers in place of the stopper (or the urn on conventional stoves).  Every inch of it was decorated -- quite normal at the time, especially with the kind of design thought to be worth the trouble and expense of patenting -- but not with the usual eclectic mix of elements taken from architectural, cabinetry, and furniture-makers' pattern books.  Instead, what they proposed was an apparently allegorical low-relief sculpture of two young boys in classical dress, almost buried in fruit and flowers.

Almost as strange as the stove was the text of the patent.  Sometimes the designers and makers who produced these patents made a fairly detailed attempt to describe their stoves, but usually they were defeated by the number and complexity of their design elements, and an apparent lack of a suitable vocabulary for bringing them together on paper.  So the explanatory text of design patents was often short, ending with a formula like this: "It is impossible to describe accurately in language the ornamental carvings on the surface of the plates but the same is represented as accurately as possible in the side plate of the Engraving or drawing hereto annexed and by the pattern or model herewith transmitted" (Ezra Ripley [Troy], "Stove-Plate," US Design Patent No. 25, 26 Nov. 1844), a practice leaving the US Patent Office by the mid-1850s cluttered with the masses of heavy iron prototype plates stove makers sent in with their paperwork and application fees, as proof of their originality; or, even more briefly, "The surface of the plate ... is ornamented with small fanciful carvings as represented in the drawing, and not susceptible of verbal description" (Anson Atwood [Albany], "Stove," US Design Patent No. 33, 14 July 1845).

The Peckham brothers were not so tongue-tied.  The body of their text, i.e. the meat in the sandwich of their application, between the opening and closing paragraphs whose words were more or less prescribed by law, and probably taken from lawyers' form-books or other published guidance to patent applicants, amounted to more than 700 words [see Utica Stove Design Patents 1845-1847 for complete transcriptions of the descriptions of the stove design patents discussed and, where possible, illustrated in this post].  They did not explain their sculpture's allusions (if any), and I do not know how to do so either, though the themes seem to be Innocence and Abundance.  But they described almost every feature of it, making the above muddy reproduction of what was probably a beautiful piece of work (from my experience of marvelling at original stove design patent drawings from the 1840s-early 1850s, usually about one-third or even half-scale on near-transparent parchment; there are several in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy) much more legible.

There was one final feature of the patent that arrested me: the name of one of the witnesses. Experience of reading other patents had taught me that patentees' choice of witnesses often said quite a lot about the networks in which these small-scale businessmen lived and worked. And the Peckham brothers' first witness was E.D. Palmer.  I knew already that in the mid-1840s Erastus Dow Palmer, probably mid-nineteenth-century America's most famous sculptor, was still a carpenter and pattern-maker in Utica, and that this was how he always signed his name. According to his first biographer, Henry T. Tuckerman, whose sources were Palmer himself and his most important early patron and then friend in Utica, Palmer in the early to mid-1840s had been "specially occupied in the more artistic labors of his trade, and his services were in constant demand, when an original stove-pattern, or an elaborate stair-case was required."  But between 1846 and 1848 "he emerged from this sphere to that of pure art" [Henry T. Tuckerman, "The Sculptor of Albany," Putnam's Monthly Magazine Vol. 7, No. 40 (Apr. 1856): 394-400, quotation at p. 400; fuller version in his Book of the Artists  (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 2nd ed. 1867), "Palmer," pp. 355-69.]  (The other witness was Edward Herrick, a carpenter; for a map of where Palmer, Herrick, the Peckham brothers and their relatives, the other Utica Palmers in the carpentry trade, and Otis Whipple, the other witness on the Peckham brothers' next two design patents, lived, see this Google map -- all addresses from the 1844 Utica City Directory.  Herrick was one of Peckham's old associates, like him an early director of the Utica Mechanics' Association -- Edwin Williams, The New-York Annual Register for the Year of Our Lord 1836 [New-York: Author, 1836], p. 296).

So I assumed that that E.D. Palmer was probably the Peckham brothers' pattern maker on this piece of fine work, and just carried on looking for columnar stove designs.  I had never seen a picture of the resulting stove in either of the major works on these products, Peirce's Fire on the Hearth or Groft's Cast With Style, and not come across one in any American museum or collector's site either, so I expected that, if any had ever been made, they would have suffered the common fate of most cast-iron stoves (see below), particularly of those which would have looked pretty extraordinary even at the time, and unwanted reminders of a certain kind of early Victorian taste within a decade or so.

Marjorie Collins, "Washington, DC Scrap Salvage Campaign, Victory Program," 1942.

But then, a couple of days later, looking through the online guide to the Ford Museum's holdings for an image of something I knew that they had (the oldest and best-preserved ten-plate cooking and heating stove in existence, the 1767 Maybury stove), I saw something instantly recognizable: at least one of the Peckham brothers' unique stoves had survived!

And this gave me all the incentive I needed to go back and have a harder look at the Peckham brothers, Erastus Palmer, and anything relevant that I could find about the connections, if any, between them, in 1840s Utica; especially when I found that E.D. Palmer had also been the first witness on the brothers' next two fine, but more conventional, parlor stove patents in October 1846, both of them Gothic in design, and both of them also described in unusual detail.  The drawing of their first 1846 patent, No. 85, for a boxy parlor heater "of semi-gothic form ornamented with tracery and flowers," is too poorly reproduced in the Patent and Trademark Office's online records for it to be worth including here, but a transcription of the text, with its very precise description demonstrating once again a good command of the language of design, is provided in Utica Stove Design Patents 1845-1847. The drawing of No. 89, for a handsome gothic two-column stove, is worth including, and as this patent's text was subsequently printed rather than still handwritten, it is even legible to Google.  Like No. 85's it describes the stove as if it were a piece of architecture rather than of functional furniture, but at greater length, befitting such a large, handsome object.  (The other witness was the Peckhams' neighbor Otis Whipple, a leading local lawyer.) 

The Peckham Brothers

John Southwick Peckham was born near Troy, New York, in 1803, from which his father Samuel moved the family to Walesville, near Utica, in 1813 after his own father's death, probably following his older brother Seth.  According to John's obituary, Samuel died too, leaving John to join Seth in Utica in 1819 to make his own way in the world -- a propitious year to be doing so, as the first section of the Erie Canal, joining Utica to Rome, had just opened, and the town's future must have seemed very promising.  Seth, a practising Quaker (referring to March, for example, as "Third Month"), became one of Utica's pioneer manufacturers, opening a factory making plows and other iron tools on a very central canal-side location (see below) in 1820, and taking in his son Amos as partner shortly afterwards.  John, "an ambitious boy," worked with them from the start, and (according to his obituary in 1879) "before he came to man's estate he had mastered [the trade] in all its details."  In 1827 or 1828 this "enterprising nephew" took control of his uncle's business, by buying it.  Seth moved into a different line of work (vinegar manufacturing), and both of them prospered with the growing city, Seth's son John [b. 1821] becoming a molder himself, probably at his cousins' foundry.  Utica's population increased by 180 per cent in the 1820s, much faster than Albany [92%], Troy [120%], or Schenectady [a mere 8%], demonstrating the enormous impact of the completion of the Erie Canal on its fortunes; by 1825 there were said to be a thousand travellers a day passing through a town whose resident population was only about five times larger.  [For a superb account of the impact of the canal system on upstate New York, and advocacy of further railroad building, see The Speech of Samuel P. Lyman of Utica: At the Convention of Delegates, Held at Ithaca, July 11th, 1839, on the Subject of the New York and Erie Rail Road (New York: Narine & Co., 1839).]

Peckham's original foundry, from Atlas of the City of Utica (1883), Plate F --
bounded by John and Catherine Streets and the Canal. 

In 1835 John took in his younger half-brother Merritt (b. Utica, 1813), to whom he was close (he gave his first-born son Merritt as his middle name in 1826, and they remained together for the whole of their lives, their houses next door to one another on one of Utica's finest residential streets), as partner, and made a fateful strategic decision: they broadened their product line to include stoves, which became in due course the main focus of their attentions.  In this respect, the Peckham brothers were quite similar to other forward-looking foundrymen across upstate New York and beyond (as far west as Cincinnati and St. Louis), who were responding to the surging demand for stoves in the mid-1830s, the increasing difficulty of supplying it from the traditional sources, the cold-blast charcoal iron furnaces of south-east Pennsylvania and south-west New Jersey, and the growing ease of and experience with making them in anthracite-fuelled, often steam-powered, foundries instead.  

Peckham's was probably just a forge and wood-working shop (correctly described as a "manufactory" in the local history), with no complex machinery and no inanimate sources of power, when it opened in 1820 and for at least a decade after -- it does not figure in the McLane Report's detailed list of Oneida County furnaces and foundries active in 1828-1830.  Its central location would have made it unsuitable for a hugely polluting air (reverberatory) furnace that could be wood-fuelled and needed no power source.  But by 1828-1830 Oneida County's furnace and foundry operators were already using about as much mineral fuel as wood, the rate of growth in their demand for anthracite was startling, and Utica had even acquired its own steam-engine builder, so Peckham's decision to install an anthracite-fuelled cupola furnace, its air-blast powered by a small steam engine, and do his own casting, would have been very logical as well as quite straightforward to implement.  The further step into stove making would not have been a large one either, but after they had both been taken, Peckham's foundry's canal-side location would have become increasingly advantageous as its raw-material needs increased.  After the Albany and Schenectady railroad extended to Utica in 1836, it was close to that transport artery too (see bird's-eye view).  [John F. Hoag, “Hoag's and Related Families,” 2001 -- “Genealogy Data,”; Moses M. Bagg, The Pioneers of Utica: Being Sketches of its Inhabitants and its Institutions, with the Civil History of the Place, from the Earliest Settlement to the year 1825, the Era of the Opening of the Erie Canal (Utica, NY: Curtiss & Childs, 1877), p. 511; Bagg, ed., ed., Memorial History of Utica, N.Y. from Its Settlement to the Present Time (Syracuse, NY: D. Mason & Co., 1892), p. 593; obituary, Proceedings of the Eighth Semi-Annual Meeting of the National Association of Stove Manufacturers, Boston, June 11-12 1879 (Albany: Leonard & Weeks, 1879), pp. 37-9; New York furnace and foundry data in McLane Report (1833), pp. 115-8.]

Detail view of Peckham's original foundry, from the North -- ware-rooms, office, and manufactory in 2-4 storey buildings along John St., steam-engine (and cupola furnace?) chimneys in small square building by the canal, foundry probably in the extension to the left into the yard, pattern-shop and storage probably in small buildings across the yard (for safety from destruction by fire).  On-site materials storage was limited, so it must have depended on regular canal supplies of anthracite, limestone, pig iron, and sand, or had a separate storage yard.  By the time of this view and the above map, the business, with a capacity of c. 18,000 stoves a year, had outgrown its original site and acquired another one, 2,400 square feet in area, five blocks east, for its foundry (see below).  The old site was still known as "Peckham's Furnace."  No trace of either survives in present-day Utica.

Central Utica, 1873 -- Peckham's stove works indicated (block below red arrow = original factory; see blow-up, above; white arrow = foundry no. 2 -- see blow-up, below).  
See for zoomable image.

John S. was clearly the dominant as well as the senior partner, meriting a long and admiring portrait in Moses Bagg's history.  Peckham was "[i]n business, prompt, energetic, decided, he was willing to work hard and accomplished much by his broad views and his industry. A consistent friend of temperance he carried his principles to the point of a crusade against tobacco. Originally a Whig he went into the Free Soil movement in 1848, and became a Republican, giving to that party toil and counsel and believing in it with intense faith. His zeal was born of patriotism and not of ambition, for he sought not place, but only the success of the principles which he espoused. He was distinguished for his public spirit, for his efforts for the common welfare, and especially for the advancement of those who labor with the hands. In the Utica Mechanics Association he found a means to that end. He entered it in early manhood and gave to it of his means and his labor. He was one of those who organized the lecture system on a paying basis and agreed to the plan of including in every course some scientific instruction. He was active in maintaining the fairs which were for years so useful a feature of that society. Out of the same aims and purposes grew the Art Association, of which Mr. Peckham was one of the founders. He had enthusiasm himself and was able to impart it to others. He was one of those positive, energetic men who are a power in a community. He gave an impetus to the city in many directions which was long felt for good." [Bagg, ed., Memorial History, p. 222]  

The key details in this portrait for present purposes are his roles in establishing, first of all, the Utica Mechanics' Association in 1831, and its offspring the Utica Art Association, of which he was a founding trustee, in the 1860s. The purposes of the Mechanics' Association were "to establish a library, form a repository of drawings, models of machinery, &c, and to establish and maintain courses of lectures, &c." Peckham was an early and long-serving activist, representing it, for example, at the state convention of mechanics' associations called in 1834 to protest about the effect of competition from convict labor. His role in founding the Art Association came almost a generation after his collaboration with Palmer; but it helps make plausible a role for him in the mid-1840s as a patron of the fine arts, including the designing or commissioning of some exceptionally ambitious stove patterns. He and Merritt were both members of the American Art-Union at that time, as well as of the local mercantile elite whose homes helped provide Palmer with an artistic education when he went into them to build a staircase or some other piece of fancy joinery, and who by 1846-1848 were also giving him commissions to carve them portrait cameos as he began the transition from artisan to artist himself. ["Legislation," The American Jurist, and Law Magazine 11 (Jan. 1834): 203-33 at p. 216; "Mechanics' State Convention. Proceedings of the State Convention of Mechanics, held at Utica, August 21-22, 1834," Mechanics' Magazine, & Register of Improvements 4:3 (Sept., 1834): 133-41 at p. 140; Henry J. Cookinham, History of Oneida County New York from 1700 to the Present Time (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1912), Vol. 1, pp. 387-8, 502-4 esp.; "History of the Utica Art Association,"; Transactions of the American Art-Union for the Year 1847 (New York: G.F. Nesbitt, 1848), p. 108.  The report on the art section of the Mechanics' Association Fair for 1852 noted that Mrs. J.S. Peckham had entered for exhibition a portrait of a child -- "a beautiful picture" which "should not be overlooked."  Oneida Morning Herald 23 Feb. 1852.]

Erastus Dow Palmer

Erastus Dow Palmer by Matthew Brady, New York, 1860

Erastus Palmer cuts a much larger figure in the historical record than the Peckhams.  They were never more than locally influential, briefly recorded in filiopietistic biographical compilations and popping up as bit-part players in other contexts (John's support for antislavery agitation, enthusiasm about phrenology, etc.).  Palmer, from very humble beginnings, made it into the periodical press, the newspapers, salerooms, and major art galleries during his lifetime, and into reference works and research libraries in the 110 years since his death.

Palmer was born in Pompey, NY, forty miles west of Utica, in 1817, the second of nine children. His father, also called Erastus Dow, was a carpenter, born in Coventry, CT, and like the Peckhams part of the great Yankee migration to what became the Burned-Over District. In May 1826 he moved his family on the canal boat "DeWitt Clinton" to Utica, then in the midst of its boom time stimulated by the canal's recent completion, where several members of another branch of his family were well established in the woodworking trades. [E.D. Palmer, letter of 27 February 1882, in Oneida Historical Society, The Semi-Centennial of the City of Utica (Utica: Curtiss & Childs, 1882), p. 106.] Young Erastus, who displayed abundant mechanical and creative talent from an early age, entered an apprenticeship with his father in about 1828, after no more than six months' formal schooling, and by 1834 was ready to embark on an independent life as a journeyman, after his father's death in Otsego in 1832. He spent the next six years moving from one small town to another in upstate New York, getting married, fathering and losing a son, and, in the same sad process, his young wife.  By 1840 he was back in Utica among the Palmer clan (the most successful of whom, Chauncey, a builder and co-owner of a planing machine turning lumber into stuff for other carpenters and joiners, joined John Peckham as a Director of the Mechanics' Association in due course), and his career as a skilled, respected, and increasingly successful craftsman in wood began to take off.  In 1843 he remarried, and by 1844 he was describing himself in the city directory as a pattern maker, the elite of the carpenter's trade. According to a long-time friend, even after he had become famous, comparatively wealthy, accepted and respected by his elite clientele, "if he is proud of anything it is his carpenter work." [J. Carson Webster, Erastus D. Palmer: Sculpture -- Ideas (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983), p. 116.]  He was a meticulous craftsman, "exceptionally careful as to the most minute details of his work," designing and building his own house, and more than fifty years later still had "the book containing every detail, even to half a pound of nails." ["A Self-Taught Sculptor," New York Times 19 April 1896].  At some point, probably in 1846 or at the latest 1847, he was commissioned by the Utica Woollen Co. to carve them a great wooden ram, which was gilded and placed at the factory entrance, where it stood for many years.  No trace or photograph of it remains, but if they did it might, I suppose, be counted as his first known public sculpture. 

Palmer's work often took him inside the houses and mansions of Utica's upper class, and in one of them he chanced to see a cameo brought back as a souvenir from a recent trip to Europe.  He was impressed, and decided to try his hand at a style of carving that was new to him, making himself fine tools from old files and creating his first likeness, of his young wife Mary, on oystershell.  He decided to show it to Thomas R. Walker, a local lawyer, politician, and entrepreneur (b. 1806, and educated at nearby Hamilton College), probably early in 1846.  Walker already knew of him as an "honest and industrious mechanic of the town," not necessarily just by reputation: Palmer may also have done some work for him.  

Walker was the son of the editor and publisher of Utica's principal newspaper, and president of one of its banks, i.e. by birth and his own efforts he was at the heart of the local elite, and he like John Peckham was also one of the city's leading connoisseurs of the fine arts. According to Palmer's authoritative biographer, J. Carson Webster, this small city probably had a more active local artistic life than the much larger Albany [Erastus D. Palmer, p. 116] -- for example, in 1842 Utica boasted almost as many supporters of the Apollo Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts in the United States [35] as the much larger state capitol, with only six more members -- Transactions ... for the Year 1842 [New York: The Association, 1842] -- one person in 400 vs. one in a thousand; however, in 1847, local American Art-Union membership was just 48, against 112 in Albany, i.e. more in proportion, one in 300 vs. one in 400.  According to Bagg, the local historian, "Art was a passion with him. It led him to practice painting in his younger years, and at a later day to the dissemination and encouragement of a love of art in others." [Memorial History, p. 185] Palmer was looking for an informed opinion on his work from a man known for his taste, not for a commission. Walker was delighted and impressed by Palmer's cameo; Palmer responded with gratitude and a cameo portrait of Walker himself. Walker told him that he should do more, lent him books with reproductions of famous artworks, and gave him the introductions to clients in the Utica, Albany, and even New York elites that enabled Palmer to begin the transition from woodworker to fine artist, a process that was almost completed in the following two years.  

The cutting of a hundred or more cameos on shell -- painstaking, miniaturist work, the finished products just two inches high -- damaged his eyesight, or made him fearful for it; this at least is the conventional explanation of why he changed the methods, materials (to clay and then marble) and, of course scale of his work. But, as Webster has pointed out, this cannot have been entirely true: Walker had always encouraged him to progress to larger sculptures in due course, and financed a trip to New York in September 1846, very near the outset of his artistic career, where he bought modeling tools and materials, met leading artists, and began to make the contacts on which his future would depend. Over the next couple of years Palmer moved to and fro between Utica, New York, and Albany before finally settling in the state capital for good in 1849. Up until then he had maintained a footing in Utica -- he still showed up in the city directory, though now as a cameo cutter -- but by the end of the decade he had moved on, though never losing touch with the friends and patrons who had helped him to make such a success of himself.

The above account is cobbled together from the many very similar narratives of Palmer's origins, upbringing, and road from poverty to comparative wealth, craftsman to fine artist, upstate wanderer to respected citizen of Albany and even European traveller, anonymity to earned renown, published while he was alive and since. A part of Palmer's appeal as an artist to the mid-century middle class was his story -- a self-creation myth with ample dollops of personal tragedy and happy chance, and the great advantage of being very largely true. The sources for Palmer's early years were mostly Palmer's own recollections and those of his friend and promoter Walker -- his detailed record of commissions, and correspondence with friends and clients, etc., only seems to reach back to late 1846, i.e. after the start of his transition from woodworker, to cameo-cutter, and finally to sculptor in clay, marble, and eventually bronze, and his removal from Utica to Albany to tap into a larger market. But later accounts are remarkably consistent, and even J. Carson Webster's exhaustive research only resulted in the questioning of a few small details.

Biographical and Critical Sources for Palmer used in the above:

Palmer and the Peckhams: A Question of Attribution

Thus far, I have assumed that Design Patents 39, 85, and 89 were the Peckham brothers' own work, not just in the sense that their names were on the drawings and the documents, and that the resulting potentially valuable intellectual property was theirs to use and otherwise sell or exploit, but I have given them the benefit of the doubt: would God-fearing and upright mid-nineteenth-century American men have made false statements in the process of creating this property?  (The Peckhams were birthright Friends, but John's obituary and memorials, most unusually for a pillar of mid-nineteenth-century local society, make no mention of his adult religious commitments, only of his community service.)  "To all whom it may concern be it known that we ... by our industry, genius, and expense, have invented and produced a new and original design, shape configuration and pattern of stove plates to be used in the manufacture of Stoves."  [No. 39, p. 1] "What we claim as our invention and desire to secure by Letters Patent is the design, shape, configuration, style and ornamental carvings of the external surface of the plates of the stoves." [p. 4]  Surely it could not be clearer?

The brothers were investing in a design that had cost, and that they hoped would bring them, quite a lot of money -- either by enabling them to charge a premium price for a desirable stove that none of their competitors could imitate without either paying them a royalty, or risking an infringement suit; or by selling their competitors the right to use their design and patterns.  [For the best, indeed only, detailed investigation of the history of stove design, see my "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.]  Infringement suits were common in this bitterly competitive trade, and pattern makers were obvious witnesses to call if litigants on either side wished to either defend or question the vital legal story about the creation and originality of a contested patent.  So even if the Peckhams had been tempted to embroider their claims, and arrogate to themselves a design that had resulted from somebody else's "genius," for which they had simply paid, they would surely have known that they were running a risk of undermining the value of their own investment.

The risk was real, and it was also easily avoidable.  There was a very straightforward way for stove makers to employ the talents of skilled pattern makers and stove designers, and still acquire a sound legal title to the resulting intellectual property whose creation they had commissioned: it was simply to pay them for the assignment of their rights.  Design patents therefore often bear the names of their designers (pattern makers) and of the firms that had bought the intellectual property from the outset. 

This was what the only other user of the new design patent system in Utica in the mid-1840s did: Lucius O. Palmer, described in the 1844 city directory simply as a carpenter, who patented two parlor stoves a week after the Peckhams in 1846 (Nos. D94, boxy, and D95, columnar), and then another in the following year (D162, boxy, assigned to Asaph Seymour of Seymour, Savage & Co., whose City Furnace was one of the Peckhams' local competitors; D95 was assigned to another Seymour, John F., and D94 was probably for the same customer, given that Richard Savage, Asaph's partner, was one of the witnesses, together with Henry Green, a local attorney).  Lucius Palmer was about the same age as Erastus, born c. 1817-1818 to a Quaker family in the village of Bridgewater, NY, on the Cherry Valley turnpike about twenty miles south of town, and about 40 miles east of Pompey though on the same important highway, the main migrant route before the opening of the Erie Canal.  His relationship to Erastus was quite close -- as far as I can make out, his grandfather and Erastus's great grandfather were from the same Connecticut Quaker family, and their descendants clustered in the skilled woodworking trades in Utica following a bridgehead established by Lucius's uncle Asa, Jr. in the 1810s; Chauncey Palmer, Mechanics' Association activist, was his uncle; and another of his uncles, Alanson, had married Erastus's aunt Emily, a pattern of endogamy quite common among Friends  [Mary J. Knights, "Descendants of Ephraim Miner, Sixth Generation, contd.,"; Marcia Ernst, "Lawrence, Dunbar, Trolson, Edwards and Ernst, Drown, Clark, Wade Family Genealogies" (2009),]

For an image (not very sharp) of a surviving but rather battered and neglected example of this stove, at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, PA, see Ethan Stock’s photo on Flickr.

For the text of Lucius Palmer's patents, see Utica Stove Design Patents 1845-1847 

But the Peckham brothers did not go down the assignment route.  Instead, they jumped straight into the new game of design patenting (No. 39 was only the sixteenth stove design patent since their introduction in 1843, and just the third west of Albany) themselves, with no previous experience as patent originators. (They must however have been quite familiar with patent law, because even if they did not originate their own designs, they would have had to enter the intellectual property market as purchasers of licences to use other men's ideas in their ten years of stove-making; see their 1849 advertisement, below, for evidence of this practice.)  In a little over a year they produced three wonderful, ambitious, and eloquently described designs -- and then, did nothing comparable for the rest of their long lives.  

Ten years later, Merritt took out an "improvement" patent by himself (he had already done so in collaboration with Lucius Palmer in 1853 -- No. 9522, for an Ore Washer; Lucius had joined the Gold Rush in 1850, but must have returned to Utica before permanently relocating to Nevada City, California, where he died [Marcia Ernst, "Lawrence, Dunbar, Trolson, Edwards and Ernst, Drown, Clark, Wade Family Genealogies" (2009),].  It was for a sectional fire-pot for a stove, and accompanied by a competent technical drawing.  In 1860 John S. and Merritt collaborated again, with a neat minor modification to a standard cooking stove enabling four sad-irons to be heated on it.  In 1865, by which time John had helped set up the Mechanics' Association's art shows out of which the Art Association would grow in the following year, they produced their only other patent that demonstrated any similar aesthetic ambitions to those in their annus mirabilis, 1845-46.  It was for a farmer's boiler, a useful device for heating animal food, scalding the bristles off dead hogs, and other purposes. They described its design in some detail:

"The corners of the stove A. are in the form of paneled columns. The capitals are fluted and are in bas relief on the circle, as seen in figures 1 and 2. The bottom of the side plates of the stove have a wavy configuration like the base of the columns, while what represents the columns converge towards the centre of the plate as seen in figures 1 and 2. The joints of the top of the stove A and circle B and of the card circle and the casing C are covered by moulding or beading as seen in figures 1 and 2. The casing is plain with the exception of the joints where the parts of which it is composed are united. The top D is composed of concave and convex moulding with what may be called a fillet between, with a like one on the edge, the whole forming a more neat and tasty design for the purpose than hitherto used or invented."

Trade Card, "Peckham's Portable Agricultural Furnace, and Farmers' Boiler," n.d.,
distributed by S.H. Cheney, Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin, dealer.
The Peckham Brothers' was indeed a very fine farmers' boiler, as the obverse of the leaflet makes clear, but it was hardly a work of art.

In 1870 Merritt produced another very practical patent, for a self-cleaning stove grate, and a minor improvement to base-burning stoves, illustrating an extraordinarily plain, functional version of a device which was usually highly decorative.  Finally, in 1871, John made another small but, he thought, useful improvement to the front of cooking ranges.  And this was the sum total of these men's contributions to the design of stoves, or at least those that they thought worth patenting, over the next twenty-five years after Erastus Dow Palmer began to carve cameos and execute increasingly ambitious sculptures, rather than persisting with a noble calling for which he was evidently at least equally well qualified.  Having been the first of Utica's growing stove- and furnace-making community to become active patentees in 1845-1846, they were soon left behind in this respect by more active and innovative, though much less successful, younger competitors.  In the early 1870s the Peckhams' old furnace and new foundry had a joint capacity of 1,800 tons of stoves a year, or c. 18,000 stoves, making them the largest stove-makers in Utica, and in the top fifth of firms nationwide. By then Russell Wheeler, b. 1820, a hardware store clerk whose eventual father-in-law 
Joel C. Bailey took over the Eagle Furnace in 1842, and who progressed from book-keeper and manager to partner and son-in-law within the next three years, had taken out fifteen patents. Most of them were for entire cooking stoves, the most important ingredients of any stove maker's product line, including what was said to be the first coal-fired cooking stove made west of Albany.  But even after thirty years' effort and creativity Wheeler could only  produce about half of the Peckhams' annual output.  So the Peckhams do not seem to have paid much of a penalty for their near-abandonment of significant innovation after their burst of activity in the mid-1840s, but even so their change of behavior remains surprising, and in need of explanation. [Wheeler from Baggs, Memorial History, p. 600; Wheeler's patents, usually jointly with Joel C. Bailey or his successor Stephen A. Bailey, from my database of stove patents; output data from Dunlap, ed., Wiley's American Iron Trade (1874), summarized in "The Stove Industry in 1874: A Statistical Portrait."]    

Peckham's Foundry No. 2, 1873 --
evidently on the fringes of the city, with significantly more space.

* * * 

Now this is all merely circumstantial evidence addressing the question of attribution.  It is enough to persuade me that, in 1846, something happened that helped prevent the Peckham brothers from persisting with their early efforts as designers of beautiful parlor stoves.  

There is an obvious explanation: they lost their designer, either the man who was the source of "their" inspiration or at least the one who was capable of translating their ideas into fine drawings on paper, superb wooden patterns, and (perhaps) abundant descriptive text demonstrating an advanced understanding of the language of the applied arts.  A part of the Palmer story is that at this stage of his life he was still essentially uneducated, and that his immersion in higher culture only began under Walker's tutelage; but his surviving letters are not those of an uneducated man, though it would be 1855 before he set down at length his artistic philosophy -- see E.D. Palmer, "Philosophy of the Ideal," The Crayon 3:1 (Jan. 1856): 18-20; and a jobbing pattern maker would have had to be quite numerate as well as literate anyway. Palmer was also exactly the sort of artisan for whose self-cultivation the Mechanics' Association's winter lecture programme was designed, though of course I have absolutely no evidence that he ever attended.

But perhaps the Peckhams' beautiful stoves simply didn't sell, or nobody wanted to buy the rights to use their patterns (another way of recovering their investment), and they reverted to a line of business more suitable for a firm describing themselves as "manufacturers and dealers in stoves, stove castings, plough castings, and improvements of husbandry" [1844-45 Utica City Directory, p. 88].  By 1849, their focus on the more utilitarian aspects of their trade was clear from their advertisement in a local paper, as was their dependence on the patent assignment system for their ability to make the most important item in a stove manufacturer's product line, the cook stove, given that, unlike Russell Wheeler, they had not designed one of their own:

Advertisement in Oneida Morning Herald, 1849
(apologies for yellow highlighting, it's the way I mark up PDFs of cluttered newspaper pages).

Update, 1 February 2014: I have recently acquired a two-page advertising flier from the Peckhams depicting their "New Patterns for 1850," which adds to the above 1849 ad.  They included (page 1) four sizes of their Air-Tight Cooking Stoves (with no mention of Dr. Chauncey's patent), weighing 210 to 390 pounds, and a cheaper, lighter range at 150-380 pounds costing $7-50 to $14; two square parlor stoves, one of them described as "Peckham's Patent" and recognizable as Patent 85, for between $4-50 and $5-25; and another available in three sizes weighing from 80 to 120 pounds and costing between $2-80 and $4-20 wholesale; and (page 2) a range of more utilitarian products -- farmer's boilers, Fancy Plate Stoves (i.e. decorated six-plates, with a boiling-hole) weighing 75 to 140 pounds, Parlor Cook Stoves weighing 100 to 160 pounds and costing $6 to $8 (probably priced in pencil for a particular customer, as these are above the wholesale prices of 3.5 cents a pound), and Heavy Plate Stoves made for space heating and weighing 200 to 525 pounds at just 3 cents, in recognition of the lesser difficulty of making their plain castings.  This is a quite broad product range, though not necessarily everything the Peckhams made -- it could have been just the more in-demand products that earned their space in a cheap flier that would probably have been widely distributed -- but it is notable that while it includes Patent 85, still in production, it makes no mention of the "Palmer" stove.

I am sufficiently persuaded by my own evidence and arguments to be prepared to publish this posting now, but I know that a definitive answer to the question "was Design Patent No. 39, and the amazing stove that it turned into and that now resides in the Ford Museum, one of Erastus Dow Palmer's first works of sculpture, or last jobs of pattern-making, or both, or neither?" is impossible at this stage, if indeed ever.  There were other pattern makers in Utica, notably Erastus's cousin Lucius, and Uriah C. Palmer, his younger brother; and by 1846 the Peckhams also had the assistance of expert patent agents Charles Keller and John Greenough in filing, and perhaps describing, the more conventional Design 89 and, probably, 85 [Kara Swanson, "The Emergence of the Professional Patent Practitioner," Technology and Culture 50 (July 2009): 519-548 at p. 526 -- Keller had been the first patent examiner appointed under the 1836 Act, while Greenough had been employed to re-create drawings lost in the great Patent Office Fire of that year, and was the author of Information for Patentees, and Persons Interested in Patents (Samuel N. Dickinson, 1841).]  Keller and Greenough were in business by 1845, so who is to say whether they or Erastus Palmer were responsible for the very distinctive supporting text of the Peckham brothers' early patents? Or perhaps John Peckham, art lover, was capable of describing his stove designs himself, if not of making them? 

Where can a definitive answer be found?  Perhaps nowhere.  J. Carson Webster, who spent years exploring Palmer's career, and read every fragment of paper that he left, mentioned the lost golden ram for the Utica Woolen Co., but uttered not a word about any relationship between Erastus Palmer and the Peckham brothers, though another Peckham (the lawyer and judge Rufus W. Peckham, who practiced in Utica in the 1830s, and whose brother Peleg was a local doctor and community leader), was among his later clients, and Erastus and the Peckhams shared the same religious background -- back in eighteenth-century Connecticut, Palmers and Peckhams had even intermarried.  This suggests to me that there is probably nothing to find in the libraries and archives holding Palmer's surviving records.  One could, I suppose, explore the question of attribution in a different art-historical way, and look at Design Patent 39 in the light of Palmer's "proper" sculptures -- his naturalism, his skill in depicting children, etc. -- but this would be a very long shot.  For the moment, at least, the case rests here.  But I bring this unresolved question to the attention of anybody who may be interested, and might even be able to make some useful suggestions.

[Update 14 Aug. 2016]

This came my way via the Facebook Antique Stove Collectors Group and what it shows is a restored version of the Peckham stove which means that at least three of these are at large:

What this shows is that Edward and Charles Gurney of Hamilton, Canada West, recent (1842) immigrants to Canada from Utica, where they had learnt the molder's trade, were making and selling this stove as their own as early as 1845.  They had probably bought from Peckham, possibly even their former employer, an iron pattern and the right to manufacture and sell stoves molded from it within a limited market area.  (American patents were not respected in Canada, and were frequently copied, e.g. this other Gurney stove, but my guess is that they did this legitimately, because the stove was so detailed, and the sharpness of their casting so good, that it could hardly have been made simply by buying a Peckham stove and using it as a pattern itself.  Another possibility is that the Gurneys could have commissioned Peckham to make stoves for them, but this is unlikely: transport costs and tariffs were enough to protect the Canadian market against US imports and give local entrepreneurs like the Gurneys the incentive they needed to move into manufacturing at home, albeit in a very small way at the time.)  The pattern was adapted to this practice, because the name badge on the centre of the front plate was probably a detachable piece making it easy to substitute Gurney's or any other foundry's name and other details for the Peckhams'.  The lozenge on the hearth (the words around the edge are "Elegant -- Everlasting -- Economical -- ?Beautiful") is an even simpler add-on. A hundred and seventy years later the stove found its way to Mill Lake Metal Finishing near Long Prairie, MN, who restored it to the wonderful condition shown in the photo.

[For more on the Gurneys, see a fine illustration of the factory and offices they built after 30 years of growth and particularly Robert Kristofferson, Craft Capitalism: Craftworkers and Early Industrialization in Hamilton, Ontario, 1840-1872 (University of Toronto Press, 2007), esp. pp. 50, 88, 92.  Gurney and Peckham are both Quaker surnames, but I have not been able to trace any genealogical connection between them.]


  1. My grandmother has this exact stove with base. I can’t find any information on these. What are the value on one of these?

    1. Lucky you! As far as I know, there are only one or two (non-reproductions) left in private hands, plus a couple in museums. So there is no real market price. BUT the one I know of for sure, which is the centrepiece of a great private collector’s collection, cost him more than he had ever paid for a stove by an order of magnitude. Think it cost him $20K. BUT there’s a big caveat about prices for rare old stoves. It’s very much a willing seller/willing buyer sort of thing, i.e. the price ends up being whatever the seller will settle for / whatever the buyer will put up. I have known, quite recently, genuinely historic old stoves from the 1840s going for just $200 at auction. So prices for things that hardly ever come on the market are always going to be a matter of luck & guesswork.

  2. Hi,

    I recently discovery a J.S. & M Peckman Prize No 26 cast iron stove in my barn left behind by the previous owners they were antique dealers. It seems to be in good shape except for some rust. it's a parlor stove how can I find out the worth? I would like to share some pictures. What is you email?