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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Nation of Stoves, Chapter 5 -- The Rise of the Stove Foundry, c. 1830-1845

If I thought that the previous chapter, on "The Anthracite Revolution," was pretty hard-core stuff, well, what about this one?

On the one hand, I really enjoyed the research, thinking, and writing that lay underneath it.  I managed, in a way that at least convinced me, to revise a century and a half's received wisdom about the transformation of the stove industry's location, organization, and technology -- even its industrial architecture, though I did not develop that aspect of the story here.  What was particularly satisfying about this was that I had received this particular bit of wisdom myself, and relayed it once again to unsuspecting listeners and readers, as recently as 2007-2008, in "Inventing the U.S. Stove Industry" and the Hagley Seminar paper that preceded it.

On the other, who cared less about answers to the questions I asked about who was responsible for the innovations that underlay the rise of a distinct stove manufacturing industry, separate from old and newer charcoal iron furnaces, or when, where, and why these innovations occurred?  I had the sense of working in a vacuum, asking questions whose significance I alone seemed to understand, or care about, and to which nobody really wanted answers.  Even when I explained things to people, their eyes glazed over.

But I remain happy with this work.  My conclusions are the product of luck, persistence, and close reading.  Luck was crucial -- that, among the few major stove furnaces some of whose records survived, one was David Wood's at Millville, New Jersey; that Wood was a prolific correspondent; and that two of his big customers in the 1830s were Joel Rathbone in Albany and Jordan Mott in New York, the two men credited, near the time and since, with having built and run the first stove foundries. Rathbone and Mott have not been as considerate as Wood in leaving a paper-trail about their work, but having evidence from just one side of a business relationship certainly beats having none.  Secondly, one good set of records about a successor to Rathbone's firm, a partnership involving his nephew John, does survive -- account books for a single complete year, 1845, and a part of 1846.  For all of their limitations, they allow us to look inside the operations of a large, early stove foundry in Albany, the transformed industry's new center.  Thirdly, two other, much less successful stove industry pioneers, Charles Postley of New York and Henry Stanley of Poultney, Vermont, who also experimented with and contributed to its reshaping in the late 1820s and 1830s, have left records they would much rather not have -- of their bankruptcies in the early 1840s.  These, too, preserved in federal archives ever since, enable us to understand their businesses better than we could have otherwise.  Finally, there is even some correspondence from the 1830s relating to another small but successful Vermont stove furnace, the Conant family's in Brandon, helping us to understand the dynamics of the industry and its competitive and marketing practices in this crucial transitional decade.

So what does it matter if I have ended up answering a question that nobody else could be bothered to ask, about an industry and a time that nobody finds very interesting?  I can be bothered, I still find it interesting, and regardless of the small size and unimportance of my quarry, I found the process of hunting it enjoyable.  It kept me busy and thinking for quite a while in 2010-2011.

  • Introduction -- quite a long one, by my standards, explaining the problems inherent in the dis-integrated, very decentralized production system of the stove-furnace-based industry through the mid 1830s, a time when its market was growing rapidly in volume and geographical extent.
  • 5.1 Integration: Backward, to the Source of Castings Supply, and Forward, to the Market -- discussion of forgotten industry pioneers, who also integrated castings production, stove manufacturing, and distribution and marketing, within a single firm and even on a single site.  The Conants of Brandon, Vermont, and Thomas Woolson of Claremont, New Hampshire; Samuel Wilkeson of Buffalo, New York, and Madison County, Ohio; Charles Postley of New York City and Juniata, Pennsylvania; Henry Stanley of Poultney, Vermont.
  • 5.2 Making Stoves at a Foundry rather than at a Furnace -- John Hall of Williamsport, Pennsylvania; the New York State furnace and foundry industry of the late 1820s/early 1830s, developing the capacity for large-scale integrated production; the same in Massachusetts. Theme: even before the (supposedly) specialized stove foundry emerged in the mid- to late-1830s, the preconditions for its rapid emergence were there.  It was just a matter of time, and the development of favorable circumstances for further innovation in industrial organization.
  • 5.3 The Birth of the Stove Foundry -- A Contested Parenthood -- This is where I get to grips with the received wisdom, and with untangling the roles, behavior, and motivation of Joel Rathbone in Albany and Jordan Mott in New York.  What I explain is how, during the Panic of 1837 and its aftermath, organizational innovation (making stoves in specialized foundries where they were also finished and even assembled, and from which they were sold -- i.e. thoroughly integrated operations, the prototypes for all of the hundreds of firms making up the industry by mid-century) became a logical, available business strategy for Rathbone, Mott, and many others to implement.  This section is both a biography-based narrative of innovation, and also a somewhat revisionist explanatory account that pays more attention to context rather than individual agency.
  • 5.4 The Onward March of the Stove Foundry -- What was novel and important about the new form of business organization?  How did it actually operate?  Why was it so superior? Why and how did the idea diffuse so rapidly -- to William Resor in Cincinnati, Ohio; Sherman Jewett in Buffalo, New York; Hudson Bridge of St. Louis, Missouri; other, lesser "early adopters" of the new organizational form, many of which acquired "first-mover advantages" and became the emerging industry's leading regional or national firms.  Records of John Rathbone's first Albany foundry for 1845 show us how an early integrated operation worked -- the economies it could achieve, the specialization towards which it eventually worked but that wasn't there from the beginning.  Walter Hunt and the Kingdom of Matthias are also prayed in aid of an explanation.
Links to online content:

  • The full text of the Chapter 
  • The Bibliography -- this is new, and currently pretty rough, but it lists all of the sources, primary and secondary, cited in the text, and provides web links to copies, if available.  In due course I might integrate these into the text, but that's a long-term, rainy-day project.  In the meantime, this will serve.

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