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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Nation of Stoves: Introduction

This doesn't really exist yet -- a couple of different beginnings, neither worth sharing.  But there's a bit from a draft of a later chapter that does say something relevant here: an explanation, of a kind, for the title I have chosen.  The book is about the processes by which America (or at least the northern states) turned into a "nation of stoves" between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries -- a history of products, makers, and users.  Contemporary Americans and foreign observers soon became aware that the new technology of heating and cooking, and the way that Americans employed and enjoyed it, was quite distinctive -- a part of an emerging national lifestyle.  That's what the title is meant to sum up.  This section of text begins with a bit of forgettable fictional prose; it might end with another piece of almost equally forgettable verse, Eugene Field's patriotic "Stoves and Sunshine":


Prate, ye who will, of so-called charms you find across the sea-- 
The land of stoves and sunshine is good enough for me! 
I've done the grand for fourteen months in every foreign clime, 
And I've learned a heap of learning, but I've shivered all the time; 
And the biggest bit of wisdom I've acquired--as I can see-- 
Is that which teaches that this land's the land of lands for me. 

Now, I am of opinion that a person should get some 
Warmth in this present life of ours, not all in that to come; 
So when Boreas blows his blast, through country and through town, 
Or when upon the muddy streets the stifling fog rolls down, 
Go, guzzle in a pub, or plod some bleak malarious grove, 
But let me toast my shrunken shanks beside some Yankee stove. 


[and so on, and on, for another five verses.]

Printed in The Hardware Reporter in 1891, and widely circulated by the Michigan Stove Company -- see The Hardware Reporter 26 (1896): 19.

* * * 

“This Land of Stoves”

"What shall be my first act of homage," enquired Gerard: -- "shall I ring for coffee, and stir the fire?"

"Yes; its blaze will be quite delightful, this chill autumnal morning: -- the sparkle of a fire is one of the luxuries of autumn.  I am glad I live in merry England, where we can see the blaze, and feel the glow: -- to live in a land of stoves to me would be a serious privation."

"A serious privation, would it?" said Mr. Mortimer, smiling.

"Oh, quite an affliction !" exclaimed Helen.

Mary Jane Mackenzie's character Helen Seymour, in her forgettable work of fiction Private Life (1829), expressed the very conventional and enduring British preference for an open fire, but by the time her American readers came across it (the novel was sold in New York, Albany, and Philadelphia) that preference was already eroding fast among them.  America was indeed becoming the “land of stoves” that English visitors would continue to attack and bemoan for most of the rest of the century.  Thirteen years later the same phrase cropped up again, this time in the work of Solon Robinson, a Connecticut-born and -raised Indiana farmer and agricultural journalist, writing approvingly about Orr's Air-Tight, “the chef d'ouvre [sic] in the art of stove-making in this land of stoves,” and the liberation from wood-chopping that its renowned fuel economy promised.[1]  And eight years after that Dr. J.A. Kennicott, writing from Grove, Illinois to the celebrated architect and horticulturist Andrew Jackson Downing of Newburgh, New York, apostle of (middle-class) taste, used it again, to describe his deeply rural neighborhood, eighty miles south of Champaign, sixty south-west of Terre Haute, and far from the nearest significant town.  Kennicott, like Downing, loathed the new technology of home heating that had become universal across the northern states in less than a generation, even in the middle of nowhere: “we have as many patterns as can be found in the Patent Office.  I hate the whole breed of them, though, doubtless ... they are useful, and perhaps necessary in cooking.”  He yearned for the good old days: “I have a strange hankering for the old 'trammel' and hooks [kitchen fireplace fittings].  And I ... have liberally indemnified myself for the introduction of stoves elsewhere, by building a real old-fashioned, capacious, family fire-place in my original 'log cabin,' which I love like an old friend.”  Dr. Kennicott retired into his “embalmed” piece of the recent past in search of solace:

in this primitive sittingroom, with a rousing fire of dry hickory logs, there is much comfort; and with the free air constantly sifting through the 'chinking,' there is more than comfort; there is pure food for the lungs, and plenty of it; and there is health, and almost entire exemption from 'colds,' and 'croups,' and 'quinzies,' and 'all the long catalogue of ills' that infant 'flesh is heir to,' in the air-tight rooms, heated by 'air-tight stoves' of our city residences.[2]

As we saw from Charles Briggs's 1825 address to the Society of Middlesex Husbandmen and Manufacturers in Chapter 2, Americans had responded to the new technology of cooking and heating with a mixture of enthusiasm and nostalgia for what Solon Robinson called the “good old-fashioned Christian fire-places” almost from the start of the 'stove revolution.'  By the 1840s and 1850s middle-class periodicals, particularly Downing's, were full of criticisms of the mechanical comfort of stove and furnace heating, the vitiated internal atmosphere said to result, and the alleged tastelesness of stove-cooked food.  All of this commentary is culturally interesting, and its causes and significance will be explored later in this chapter, but its volume and its overwhelming negativity should not blind us to one great fact: it does not represent effective resistance to the triumph of the new domestic technology as much as it demonstrates how swiftly and throroughly Americans across the northern states became dependent upon it.  It was evidence for the speed and extent of change in consumer habits and everyday experience, producing a critical reaction within parts of the middle class but scarcely seeming to affect most stove buyers' and users' behavior.[3]




    Mary J. Mackenzie, Private Life; or, Varieties of Character and Opinion: A Story (New-York: J. & J. Harper, 1829), Vol. 2, pp. 52-3.
[1]    S.R., “Orr's Air-Tight Stove,” The Farmers' Cabinet, and American Herd-Book 7:5 (15 Dec. 1842): 153.  Robinson was at best ambivalent about stoves – see e.g. "Warming Houses with 'Hot Air' and Stoves," The Prairie Farmer 7:3 (March 1847): 85 -- they were “'one of the inventions of the devil for destroying human life,'” but he acknowledged that he lived “in a heathen land, where stoves are worshipped, and to avoid 'burning my own fingers' I must bow my knees to the national idol.”  Thirteen years later he seems to have become reconciled to modernity, building stoves into his recommendations for American households -- How To Live: Saving and Wasting, or Domestic Economy Illustrated by the Life of Two Families of Opposite Character, Habits, and Practices, in a Pleasant Tale of Real Life, Full of Useful Lessons in Housekeeping, and Hints How to Live, How to Have, How to Gain, and How to be Happy; Including the Story of a Dime a Day (New York: Fowler & Wells, 1860), esp. pp. 37-8, 97, 256, 292, 298-9.
[2]    Kennicott, "Rough Notes on Horticulture, from the West," The Horticulturist, and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste 4:10 (April 1850): 450-53 at p. 452.  For Downing, see David Schuyler, Apostle of Taste: Andrew Jackson Downing, 1815-1852 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996) and below, pp. ##.
[3]    Briggs, A Discourse Delivered at Concord, October the Fifth, 1825; Robinson, "Warming Houses with 'Hot Air' and Stoves," p. 85.

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