Total Pageviews

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Nation of Stoves, Chapter 6 -- Completing the Range

This is where I ran out of steam.  By the time I had finished Chapter 5, I had advanced my story almost to mid-century, but Chapters 3 through 5 had all been pretty heavy-duty business and technological history, and I had rather lost sight of the focus on buyers and consumers and the cultural conversations about economy, comfort, and convenience that had also characterized Chapters 1 and 2. What had begun with the ambition to be an (almost) all-embracing industrial history had narrowed down, and it had also taken up so much space that I knew that, if the remaining chapters were as long, I would end up with a manuscript like my last one -- for Bloodless Victories in the late 1990s, which topped out at 250,000 words and ended up at 180,000, still too big to achieve the sales and make the impact of my first book, a mere 100,000+.  I didn't want a manuscript that was unpublishable without major surgery and, in Bloodless Victories' case, a subsidy to cover some production costs too, and that still ended up destined for a few hundred institutional sales, if I could persuade a university press to take it on at all.  I only explored publication with one good press, and they said no.  I didn't try any others, because I didn't know when I would get the thing into decent shape.

One way that I had tried to make the business-&-technology history throughout the first five chapters into a more interesting narrative, as well as to explore the contributions of important and representative individual inventors and entrepreneurs, was by using lots of biographical material in order to organize the chapters and at the same time inject some of the human interest that I was in danger of squeezing out.  My research had brought me into contact with a lot of fascinating and forgotten early nineteenth century lives and thoughts, and I wanted to share them with any readers.  I decided that I would rely on the same approach in my attempt to wrap up my account of the development of the industry and its products in this chapter, and then in the seventh I would change my focus and look once again at the buyers and users I had neglected for too long.

So this chapter was organized around a handful of individuals who helped round out the range of products offering mid-century consumers a full array of cooking and heating appliances appropriate to almost all circumstances.  The transformation of the stove into the "first universal consumer durable," at least across the American North, depended on the development of this broad spectrum of products that satisfied most of the cooking and heating needs of households large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural, and living in regions that remained firewood-dependent as well as those that were adopting anthracite as their fuel of choice.

I started out with looking at three key figures in the development of the standard large-oven cooking stove -- the industry's most important product, and every household's must-have appliance.
  • P.P. Stewart and the Ideal Cooking Stove -- Stewart had an extraordinary life, intersecting with the larger history of American reformism at many points between the 1820s and 1860s, and alongside of his evangelical devotion to the improvement of society he managed to develop what was generally accepted as the best as well as one of the biggest-selling cooking stoves.  I probably gave him too much attention here, but it was hard to resist.
  • Darius Buck and the "Invention" of the Large-Oven Cooking Stove -- This section was a bit like my account of Rathbone, Mott, and the development of the stove foundry, i.e. a somewhat debunking exploration of what invention and innovation actually meant in a mid-nineteenth-century context.  It's not at all clear what Buck invented (most of it depended on the appropriation of the design ideas of dead predecessors and live competitors), but he managed to patent key features of the design of the large-oven stove and to turn that intellectual property into a worthwhile commodity, thanks to the federal courts.  He also managed to lay the foundations of one of the midwest's earliest and, in due course, biggest stove manufacturing concerns, Buck's Stove & Range Co. of St. Louis.  So the study of his career also turned into a way of looking at the geographical extension of the new stove industry, organized around integrated stove foundries, into new territory, with the result that by mid-century stoves were being made and bought right across the emerging "industrial belt" and its rural hinterland, all the way from the Atlantic seaboard as far as the Mississippi Valley.
  • Giles Filley, "Inventor" of America's Favorite Cook Stove -- Buck's and Filley's careers were intertwined with one another.  Both were migrant Yankees who helped the stove industry, and the stove consumption habit, to extend very rapidly from New England, the Middle Atlantic states, and parts of the Old Midwest -- their limits by the end of the 1830s -- to embrace all of the rest of the free states and even some of the slave-holding Border over the next couple of decades.  In writing about Filley I also managed to squeeze in an account of the slightly older but otherwise very similar Hudson Bridge -- Bridge, Buck, and Filley were the founders in the 1830s-1840s of the firms that would remain the "Big Three" of the St. Louis stove industry for the next couple of generations.

    But this is where I ran into a problem.  In order to write a definitive account of the legal battles between Buck and Filley about how big an obstacle Buck's patents were to Filley's ability to make and sell his own improved large-oven stove, the Charter Oak, I decided that I needed an archival research trip, certainly to Washington for the US Patent Office records, and maybe as far as Missouri for federal court records too.  And I didn't really want to, couldn't see the point of spending so much time and money adding ever more detail to a story that was already far too long.  So I set the thing to one side, with holes in the road that I couldn't cross.

What would the rest of the chapter have contained?  At least three more sections on significant inventors and the things they invented, or at least improved -- the Reverend Isaac Orr and his sheet-iron, "airtight" heating stove (I used this blog post to put together some working notes); Gardner Chilson of Boston, leading designer and maker of hot-air furnaces (who got the same treatment);  and Dennis Littlefield, who claimed to have perfected the base-burner.  Littlefield's life and work remains largely unwritten, except by himself (The Morning Glory: Origin of the Base-Burning Stove, and its Mode of Operation Clearly Defined, by One Who Has Made Them A Study for Fifteen Years, Albany, 1868 and reissues, with slight modifications, in 1869 and 1870 and thereafter).  This is no longer quite true: there is a brief biography of him in Timothy Starr's Great Inventors of New York's Capital District (The History Press, 2010), which also includes entries for Eliphalet Nott, the Rathbones, and P.P. Stewart, with all of which I could pick a few nits, but it's broadly reliable.

None of these three left any manuscript records (I had MSS for Buck, Bridge, and Filley, some printed letters and a detailed memoir by his widow for Stewart), but all of them had spent a lot of time in the Patent Office and the federal courts, defending their claims.  So I knew that I couldn't finish writing about them without that trip to the US National Archives either, which led me to conclude that I might as well not start, except in the less demanding forms of the blog posts I have written about the first two, with Littlefield still to follow.
So what you get here is just a part of a chapter, and an unfinished part at that -- still in need of some crucial research that may or may not get done.

Links to online content:
  • The full text of the Chapter itself
  • 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.

Tag Cloud:

No comments:

Post a Comment