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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, Part II: Franklins


Franklin's Original Stove, 1744, showing (plates iii, iv) the complicated arrangement of
heat-exchanger (iv) and downdraft flue (rear of iii).

This piece had its origins back in October, when I decided to do a posting that would provide a sort of "union catalogue" of major American museums' online collections of images of stoves in their possession.  I would just provide a bit of structure, and some commentary.

Well, the content, and the commentary, grew well beyond the reasonable limits of any single blog post, and is now stretched out across several separate themed essays -- the first on plate stoves (five-plate jamb stoves, six-plate heating stoves, nine- or ten-plate heating and cooking stoves); the second, at least in chronological order, here;  the third on some of the classic products of the first great age of the new American stove industry of the 1830s and 1840s, columnar and square parlor stoves; and the fourth, which is as yet just a bit of a draft, on so-called "Shaker" stoves.

Completion of this posting has been sidelined for weeks, partly because Part III had so much more potential material for me to assemble and make sense of, but also because something entirely unplanned (the posting about the Peckham Brothers, Erastus Palmer, and some wonderful Utica, NY  stoves of the mid-1840s) grew out of it.  And I was entirely happy to let it grow, because frankly I find it hard to get excited about Franklin stoves -- not that they don't have an interesting history, but it's been done very well, so why repeat it?  

The best sources on the Franklin Stove:

The key conclusion of the best work (Edgerton's) on Franklin's stove is ably summarized by Block: "Franklin's wonderful gift to the human race was a commercial flop, a bust, a dismal failure.  It just didn't sell."  [p. 118]  And one of the reasons it didn't sell is that it didn't work, either easily or at all, and certainly not as well as Franklin claimed; except, perhaps, for him. 

So the first thing to say about the "Franklin" stoves that fill American museums and antique stove stores is that what they share with his original idea is basically that they are fireplaces made out of cast iron, and that's about it.  What he thought of as the most distinctive and important features of his design -- the cold-air feed from outside the room; the air-warming heat-exchanger box at the back of the fire, and the downdraft flue behind it -- were eliminated when his device was simplified and reinvented by others in the Early Republic (notably by David Rittenhouse, Franklin's successor as America's most famous scientist).  And it was these devices that began to fill the parlors of late eighteenth century Philadelphia, and then of cities and towns along the Eastern Seaboard.
Ross & Bird, Hibernia Furnace, NJ, Stove Plate [top front plate of a Pennsylvania Fireplace -- see below] (1782)12 x 29 3/4 in. (30.5 x 75.6 cm), Metropolitan Museum Accession Number 2006.548.
"Franklin Stove" (ca. 1795), 29 1/2 x 40 x 36 in. (74.9 x 101.6 x 91.4 cm), Metropolitan Museum Accession Number: 22.26.2. Old Sturbridge Village has a similar item, which it describes as a "Hearth Franklin" -- see

Hopewell Furnace Franklin Stove (c. 1816-1840, i.e. any time during the Furnace's main period of operation -- this is a standard product), in situ, Hopewell Furnace N.H.S., April 2009 -- an inset iron fireplace for wood, with andirons.

Franklin was a national hero, a patriotic icon, an advocate of cast-iron stoves, an inspiration -- and he became a sort of brand name for stove makers to appropriate.  Other men made iron fireplaces like Rittenhouse's, and people called them Franklins.  In 1816 James Wilson, a merchant from Poughkeepsie who soon became one of New York City's first and most successful stove merchants, designers, and manufacturers, patented his own improved version, which was made in large numbers, sold widely, and seems to have been a prototype for many of the stoves, original or replica, now sold as Franklins.  Wilson's patent, 2450X of 1816, was lost in the great Patent Office Fire of 1836 and not restored by him afterwards, though he was still active in the business for at least another decade, which suggests that it was no longer commercially significant, even to him (it had, after all, been long expired as well as much copied).  So it is hard to be sure what its key features may have been, even from examining surviving Wilson's Patent Franklins.  

Was his innovation the doors, which open to reveal the fire, and when shut reduce the draft and increase the efficiency of combustion by turning an iron fireplace into a serviceable approximation of a close stove?  Or the cast-in grooves permitting the easy fitting of a grate, useful in the seaboard cities already importing plenty of bituminous coal from the James River field in Virginia, or from Britain, to burn instead of increasingly scarce and costly wood?  Or the large brass urn on top, both decorative and functional (increasing heat radiation, and evaporating water, possibly scented, to deal with a common consumer objection to stoves of all kinds, that they dehydrated and "burnt" the air)?  Which of these were new to Wilson, and which merely imitated from anonymous predecessors?  It is impossible to say. But of at least one thing we can be sure: we are  justified in calling Wilson stoves and those that imitated them "Franklins" rather than "Wilsons," because Wilson was also the first to call his  own patent appliance a Franklin, borrowing some of the old hero's status for his own innovation.

James Wilson (New York), Urn-Topped Franklin Stove (c. 1816-1832)53 1/2 x 35 in. (135.9 x 88.9 cm), Metropolitan Museum Accession Number 48.158.1. Old Sturbridge Village also has a fine example, which lacks the doors and is therefore more like the older open Franklin, above:

See also his rival Charles Postley's Franklin, c. 1815-, also frequently imitated, and illustrated in Peirce, Fire on the Hearth, p. 49 -- unlike Wilson's, designed to be free-standing, Postley's was evidently intended to mimic a traditional mantel and fireplace, and fit into an old hearth.

Watercolour sketches of two of the Delaware Furnace, Millsboro, DE's, principal products, by Gardiner Wright, the proprietor's son, c. 1833.  Top picture: a Franklin with a coal grate; lower picture -- an older-style open Franklin, for wood.  Millsboro was a major supplier to both Wilson and Postley, and other urban stove merchants along the Atlantic coast -- cf. the letterhead of Wyer & Noble of Portland, Maine, 1822, the furnace's furthest customer:

Wilson may have been the first stove inventor to call his product a Franklin, but he was certainly not the last: we can count at least seven more "Franklin" patents, some of them for quite novel devices adapted for cooking as well as heating, in the next twenty years, but most of them now lost; there were more than twice as many in the following twenty, some of them for devices almost indistinguishable from ordinary parlor stoves  except for their inclusion of what had come to be thought of as the defining feature of a Franklin -- the possibility of a good unobstructed view of the fire inside the box, without even the intervention of the mica windows that gave parlor stove users an approximation of the same cherished warmth and brightness (the latter much appreciated in houses where the fire was still one of the main sources of light as well as heat).  And there are at least as many again that, without calling themselves Franklins, were very similar.  In other words, the power of the Franklin name was so strong that it continued to be used for devices that were increasingly unlike anything that Franklin himself, Rittenhouse, and Rittenhouse's successors had made. 

* * *

Something that has fascinated me for years about the history of stoves as bits of domestic technology is the amount of inventive activity that Americans poured into their improvement. So why should a historian of technology spend any time on "Franklin" stoves, in the original sense of iron fireplaces -- a product that achieved its mature form in the late eighteenth century, and that experienced little fundamental change or improvement after James Wilson's work in the early nineteenth? Mostly because they always retained their consumer appeal, and remained in stove makers' product lists for decades, so though they might not impress the me as a historian of technology, they do stimulate my inner business historian.  They were, as mid-century would-be improvers admitted, still "generally considered one of the most pleasant and agreeable parlor stoves ever invented," largely because of their designed-in inefficiency -- the much-valued view of the fire meaning that they gave out much of their warmth as radiant heat, and continued to generate a good, healthy, ventilating draught as they took 60 percent of their heat straight up the chimney.  In return for these perceived benefits (particularly the draught, in a society where many remained suspicious of the health effects of sitting in the excessively warm, stuffy atmosphere generated by a close stove), consumers were willing to put up with their acknowledged drawbacks -- notably an inability to control the fire as carefully as with other kinds of stoves, and a resulting tendency to smoke.  [Nathaniel Cradit, Ripley, Ohio, "Franklin Stove," US Patent 5965 (1848), quotation; David Stuart, Philadelphia, "Franklin-Stove Blower," US Patent 7608 (1850); Rensselaer D. Granger, Albany, NY, "Air-Tight Franklin Stove," US Patent 7973 (1851).]

But a considerable part of the Franklin's continuing consumer appeal, certainly since the late nineteenth century, was not a matter of function so much as of meaning.  Even a modern replica Franklin looks and works just like an antique, providing a direct stylistic, imaginative, and perhaps even emotional connection between the buyer and user and the heroic years of early America.  [For a splendid gallery of relatively new and older Franklins, see the Good Time Stove Company's inventory of Franklins sold -- each link leads to a good-quality image;  there is also a large selection in Peirce, Fire on the Hearth, pp. 44-69.]  This is quite an interesting phenomenon -- the embodying of nostalgia in what started its life as simply a functional consumer durable, and originally, up until  the early 1820s, even a symbol of modernity.  This is something that has of course happened to all American solid-fuel stoves since they lost their status as normal, because essential, features of the American home, and became instead markers of a lost (and better?) past.  But the Franklin went through this cycle of change, from innovation to bearer of tradition, quicker than most.  

The Franklin was already Yesterday's Stove by the 1820s -- the most acceptable to American consumers suspicious of the new cast-iron heating technology, because it was the closest approximation to an open fire; but also already recognized as the least efficient of stove types, which did not recommend it to generations of Americans for whom fuel economy was one of an iron stove's greatest advantages.  When Marcus Bull, Philadelphia goldsmith, man of science, and advocate of Improvement, published his famous study of the comparative efficiency of a variety of different appliances for turning fuel into usable heat in 1826, the Franklin stood close to the bottom of the table -- four times more effective than an open (wood) fireplace, twice as fuel-efficient as one with an ordinary grate (for anthracite), but only between a quarter and a third as efficient as the maximum that Bull could achieve experimentally with closed iron stoves, and perhaps half as efficient as the best stoves then available, in an ordinary domestic installation.  [Bull, Experiments to Determine the Comparative Value of the Principal Varieties of Fuel Used in the United States, and also in Europe. And on the Ordinary Apparatus Used for their Combustion (Philadelphia: Judah Dobson, 1827), p. 102.]   

Bull's critique missed the point: increasingly, people did not buy a Franklin for its modernity and efficiency, but for its lack of the former, and merely acceptable performance as a space heater, which became more acceptable in homes where it was no longer the sole or main source of comfort.  If you could depend on a basement furnace or even central heating, you could afford to install a Franklin for its special blend of open-fire comfort and nostalgia, the latter of which qualities it continued to radiate even if you never lit it and treated it simply as a decorative object.  

This explains why Franklins remained in stove makers' catalogues well into the late nineteenth century, surviving examples began to be collected and preserved rather than scrapped, and self-consciously "historical" replicas began to be made to meet a demand that real antiques themselves could not satisfy.  Kate Taylor of Norwalk, Connecticut reported in 1880 on her participation in this growing contemporary fashion of doing a nostalgic makeover of her domestic surroundings: "this week we expect to have up in the dining room a genuine old Franklin stove.  Jim has found one at last, with brass pieces on the top, and brass trimmings in the front.  I don't think he can ever pay for the wood to burn in it, but he is delighted with his purchase, or trade .... With our old clock and spinning wheel, the dining room will have quite an antique appearance." [Susan H. Williams, Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts: Dining in Victorian America (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1996), p. 59.  Emphases added.] 

The Franklin Stove as decorative object -- note the cooking crane as well as the andirons in this Federal-period Hearth Franklin, emphasizing how close it was to being just an iron fireplace, used in entirely traditional ways.
(Mary Harrod Northend, "Kimball House, Salem, MA," Winterthur.) 

It would be interesting to know for sure how many of the "Franklins" and other Early American stoves and fireplaces in museums and private collections nowadays are the real thing rather than early 20th century reproductions.  In a sense, though, it doesn't matter, given that stoves were not "originals" in the first place but instead batch- or even mass-produced commercial products, and that copying was a common feature of the trade at the time, what is the difference between making a stove in the C19th from a wooden pattern, or from a contemporary product used as a pattern, and doing the same thing, with essentially the same techniques, but probably a better grade of pig iron, only a century later?  Thus the catalogue of Todhunter, Inc., Grates, Franklins, and Fire Frames (New York, 1930), is in a real sense almost as good as a museum collection of "originals."  The only pity is that it generally does not report which late C18th and early C19th products served as the patterns for its own models, though one can guess from the names chosen -- e.g. "The Brandon," p. 14 is surely a replica of one of a stove from the Brandon, VT iron furnace of John R. Conant, otherwise why the name?

Almost two hundred years after James Wilson brought the "Franklin" design close to its lasting form, there is still a demand for reproductions of "Colonial" and Federal designs.  For a fascinating video demonstrating how to mold and cast a large, heavy decorated plate, using modern, mechanically assisted methods, see "Casting a Pennsylvania Fireback," -- wrong in the sense that no C18th fireback would have been cast using a two-sided pattern in a two-part flask, but right(ish) as a guide to techniques used in stove-plate production by the early C19th, and certainly in the furnaces where Wilson and Postley's fine Franklins were made.

[22 Dec. 2013 -- I know this ends a bit inconsequentially, but I'll wait and see if I get any reader feedback before I try to refine the argument, such as it is.  14 Jan. 2014 -- none so far, and though I still have something to add, the piece is really OK as is; informative and reflective enough.


  1. Thank you for your research. I am just beginning to delve into researching Franklin stoves for our restoration of our c.1821 house. This was wonderfully informative!

  2. Love your blog - I'm trying to see if you wrote an article on a 4 door Patented Nov 18 1851 parlor stove. Would I be able to send you a photo of it?

    Best Regards,