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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Giles Filley, 'Inventor' of the Charter Oak, Victorian America's Favorite Cooking Stove

This is the final part of my draft of the first half of Chapter 6, on the development of the mature US cooking stove and range (the shorter second half would be about heating stoves), which I decided to tell as a story of invention and "invention," with a focus on a few leading figures in order to impose some necessary order on an industry and a technological community giving more attention to this subject between the mid-1830s and mid-1850s than ever before or since.  

Figure 6.#: Giles Franklin Filley. (J. Thomas Scharf, A History of St. Louis City and County (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1883), Vol. 1, opp. p. 600.)

Giles Filley, 'Inventor' of America's Favorite Cooking Stove

Giles Franklin Filley was born in 1815, the son of a Bloomfield, Connecticut, tinsmith. His father and his brothers ran a family firm with branches in Philadelphia and Troy, and networks of peddlers selling the essential household goods they made to rural consumers right across the United States.1 In 1829 Giles's older brothers Oliver and Marcus went to seek their fortune and represent the firm in St. Louis, whose population had increased by 62 percent in the 1820s and would rise by 149 percent in the 1830s and then 347 percent in the 1840s, turning it from a town of about 7,000 to a city with almost 75,000 people while the Filleys were building their careers there. Oliver soon became a tinsmith and tinware dealer in his own right; Marcus trained as a lawyer before returning to practice in Troy in 1833; and in 1834 Giles took his place, joining Oliver in his growing business. His first journey to St. Louis was even more of an adventure than P.P. Stewart's arduous but peaceful trips to the Choctaw Mission, and reminds us of the difficulties to be overcome in building and sustaining business networks in the heroic age of frontier enterprise. He traveled by steamer from Hartford to New York, then by riverboat to Albany, railroad to Schenectady, canal to Buffalo, and ship to Cleveland, surviving a storm that claimed several vessels. After crossing Ohio by stage and on foot, he boarded a riverboat in Cincinnati that, delayed en route by low water and sandbars, eventually exploded twelve miles from Cairo, Illinois, killing all passengers except Giles and his brother Oliver, who had joined him for the voyage home.2

His life in St. Louis after that was comparatively unexciting but financially quite rewarding. He served an apprenticeship with his brother, then became his partner, and by 1838 was able to report to their father that they had survived the Panic almost unscathed and “all live like piggs in clover here a right Yankey sett.” The Filley brothers were founding and then leading members of the city's mercantile elite, supplying tinware and tinners' supplies to a dynamic region where “every place that has a name in the country has also a Tin Shop” and new settlements were growing almost overnight. They imported their raw materials, their skilled workmen, and some finished items (notably Connecticut clocks) from the East Coast, as well as manufacturing locally.3

By 1844 Giles wanted to branch out into his own business (he had married and was starting a family), as well as to diversify the brothers' interests, so he decided to move into a related trade, first of all selling imported crockery from a store next door but one to his brother's and then, like other merchants, moving into manufacturing too.4 St. Louis had good clay deposits nearby, so Giles planned to exploit them and undercut imports of earthenware pottery (“queensware”). He traveled to England to learn the trade and recruit skilled workers, but abandoned it within a few years because of the difficulty of disciplining and retaining them, selling his shop to cousins who reverted to the simpler business of buying their stock across the Atlantic and shipping it upriver. Giles had decided to pursue a more promising opportunity instead, stove manufacture, where Hudson Bridge and Buck & Wright had already demonstrated the potential of the local market and showed how to make money satisfying it. As the St. Louis historians Dacus and Buel explained, “The progress of our factories has been made in the path of the pioneers; after rearing their rude habitations as a mere protection from the most unkind elements, the sturdy yeoman (sic) then turn their thoughts to the more accessible comforts, and among their first wants is a cooking stove.”5

The earliest picture of Filley's factory, across the street from his store --
Green's St. Louis Business Directory, for the Year of Our Lord 1850 (1850), p. iv.  For his pre-Charter Oak product line, see also advertisement,
The Western Journal of Agriculture 6:1 (April 1851): 72.

When he set up the Excelsior Stove Works in 1849, Filley did not need to invent a business format, simply to copy one, so the Excelsior was purely a stove foundry from its beginnings, and thanks to his and his family's capital resources it was also quite big, starting out with twenty-five molders (recruited from the East) and twenty other employees, and rapidly building up to a capacity of seven tons (about sixty stoves) a day. Filley, like Bridge, bought his patterns from Troy rather than having to attempt at the outset to master the most difficult aspect of the business, product design.  Also like Bridge, he gave his firm a name suggesting a New York pedigree, an implicit promise of quality and innovation at a time when New York State made almost 40 percent of the nation's stoves and dominated interstate trade. (An alternative or perhaps complementary explanation is that, rather than “Excelsior” referencing the Empire State's motto, which can be roughly translated as “Onward and Upward,” a good sentiment for an ambitious entrepreneur to tie to his firm, it was inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's 1841 poem, the start of whose third verse was also appropriate for a stove works -- “In happy homes he saw the light / Of household fires gleam warm and bright.” There were eventually three stove makers in the United States all called Excelsior, but whether the other two, in Quincy, Illinois and Philadelphia, were also inspired by Longfellow, or were instead attempting to make consumers think their goods were from Filley's by then famous company, is impossible to know.)6

Filley's timing was good – the city was recovering from the disasters of fire, flood, and cholera that had beset it in the late 1840s, and the discovery of gold in California meant that an enormous emigrant trade was flowing past his door. Excelsior grew quickly, making about 6,000 stoves in its first full year of business (1850), struggling to keep up with demand, and reinvesting to expand capacity by four to five times over the next few years until the Panic of 1857 temporarily slowed its growth.  By then Filley employed well over 300 molders, pattern makers, carpenters, stove mounters, and laborers.7

The Excelsior Works in the late 1850s -- note the importance of its river-front location; this is a pre-railroad firm.  This picture was engraved from a drawing by Filley's pattern-maker, and when enlarged shows every detail of the works -- the steam engine for the mounting (finishing and assembly) shop facing the levee; three molding rooms (roof monitor vents, walls mostly window, to provide the light required for fine work) either side of two cupola furnaces (iron smokestacks with conical tops); material storage yards, and blacksmiths' shops (five small chimneys) across the street behind.  Taylor & Crook, Sketch Book of St. Louis (1858), opp. p. 391.  An earlier version of this was used in a trade card -- basically the same, but before its expansion across the street to the west.

Nicholas Vedder's original patent "Charter Oak" design --
note the oak leaf motif on the panels and feet.

Key to his success was the invention of what became the largest-selling cooking stove in the United States, the Charter Oak, designed in 1851, placed on the market in 1852, registering 2,619 sales in its first year, and patented in June 1853 (Patent 9788 -- Reissue 873 in 1859, then extended for a further seven years in 1867, testifying to its importance). The patent bears Filley's name, and some of the ideas may have been his, but his pattern maker Nicholas Vedder of Troy, the most influential in the United States (see below, Chapter##, p. ##), made them work and gave the stove its distinctive appearance with his Design Patent 519 (November 1852). 

The patentable improvement was simple but effective -- tapering the flues in a standard three-flue stove rather than leaving them straight-sided, which resulted in a stronger draft and better heat-distribution around the oven.  (The innovation was partly anticipated by Jonathan Hathaway in his original 1837 large-oven patent -- see Figure 7 -- but it was not a key feature of it, nor was it imitated in other three-flue stoves that followed, so perhaps Filley's or Vedder's idea was new to them even if not entirely original.)  It also, perhaps unwisely, incorporated an insulating air chamber between the oven and the fire-box, like several previous inventors including Buck – something that would make Filley vulnerable to Buck's widow's and son's lawsuits, in due course; but when he took out the patent he may have anticipated that Buck's was about to expire

The stove had an attractive design, with a naturalistic oak-leaf motif, and a name communicating its Yankee virtue to a market originally consisting mostly of Northern settlers and German migrants, who regarded cooking stoves as “'a blessing to the poor housewife'.” The Charter Oak, the ancient tree then still standing in Filley's home city, Hartford, in which Connecticut colonists had hidden their colony's charter from King James II's forces, was an icon of American liberties, something about which the Free Soiler Filley had been very sensitive ever since the return of the slavery-extension controversy to plague American politics after the Mexican War. (Filley maintained the patriotic theme in naming his leading cook stoves: by 1857, he was also offering the public a Valley Forge).8

Kennedy's St. Louis City Directory for the Year 1857 (1857), advertising section p. 44.  Cf. the similar ads for his major local competitors Bridge & Beach (p. 18) and Buck & Wright (p. 58).

Giles was aggressive in defense of his own Charter Oak patents, and equally aggressive in attacking Buck's, which threatened it. He was prepared to fund a lawsuit which he had “no doubt but that it will be a long and tedious one,” and was assisted in this endeavor by his brother Marcus, well placed in Troy to gather documents, testimony, and artefacts undermining Buck's claims, and providing most of the basis for the account of the development of the large-oven stove presented earlier in this chapter and in Chapter Two. The progress of the contest between these two determined antagonists is not clear from the surviving records – not even whether it came to court at all; no case was ever reported. But the outcome was plain enough: before Buck's extended patent expired in 1860, Filley had successfully defended his own against violators, and was able to secure a reissue of it in 1859 that clarified his own claim in precisely the area that Buck had contested.9 

* * * * 

Why did I give up at this point?

(1) A book, particularly a work of academic history (and that's what I was supposed to be -- and all that I was capable of -- producing), needs an argument, and what I had instead was lots of content and stories.  Had I carried on with Chapter 6, it would have continued in this vein, with three more biographical sections on (a) Isaac Orr, "inventor" of the airtight heating stove; (b) Dennis Littlefield, "father" of the base-burner heating stove and (c) Gardner Chilson, who probably did more than anybody else to perfect the warm-air furnace.  I have begun the first and last sections, and will complete them; but only as blog posts.  Littlefield will get the same treatment, partly because he also had a wonderful beard that I want to use as an illustration somewhere.  I might then assemble the pieces to complete Chapter 6, and I'd have achieved my objective of providing a reasonably comprehensive, but still manageable, account of the evolution of all of the principal types of cooking and heating appliance that the mature American stove industry produced by the time of the Civil War, for a market that was by then also mature, diverse, and nationwide. But I'd still be left with the problem of how to wrap up my six very meaty chapters in such a way that they looked enough like a book to be worth showing to a publisher.

(2) As I wrote all of this I reached the conclusion that my research for these stories of invention was incomplete.  To be really satisfactory, it would need more on-the-ground research in the archives of the US Patent and Trademark Office, and probably also in US Circuit and District courts.  In the PTO I might be able to find evidence about the innovation process from the correspondence (including any challenges from competitors) surrounding the original patent filing and any subsequent disclaimers or reissues; about the success of marketing from the case made at the time of extension application; and in the assignment registers there should be information about the sale of patent rights, a vital part of Hathaway's and Buck's business model, though not of Stewart's or Filley's.  In Circuit and District courts there might be trial papers, enabling me to get below the surface of the few reported cases.

(3) But I was not sure that I wanted to do this kind of research.  I'm still not sure.  I'm retired now, so this has turned from work into a hobby.  Nor can I get financial support for the costs of research, which would certainly entail quite a bit of time and travel.  However, my reservations go further than that.  This is not just supposed to be a study of stove invention; I don't want the tail to wag the dog. Other historians of business and technology -- Carolyn C. Cooper on Thomas Blanchard, Ross Thomson on shoe machinery and more generally -- have done this sort of immensely detailed study of the invention process and inventors' business practices.  I don't want to repeat it.  But I'm not sure that I can complete this chapter, even to my own satisfaction, unless I do.

* * * 

There is, in any event, an awful lot more to write about Giles Filley, some of it touched on in Donald Southerton's family history and Randy Baehr's biography -- his leading role among Missouri Unionists and anti-slavery men, in politics in the 1850s and in supporting the Union war effort after 1861; the thing that earned him national and even international celebrity, the way that he traded his way out of bankruptcy after the Civil War and managed to clear all of his epic debts; his trenchant anti-labor attitudes and behaviour, which made him one of the industry's most important strategists in its battles against the Iron Molders' Union from the 1860s through the 1880s; and his vital contribution to organizing the industry into an effective trade association through the 1870s and 1880s.  I have dealt with these aspects of his business career in my last proper publication about the stove industry, "Coping With Competition: Cooperation and Collusion in the US Stove Industry, c. 1870-1930," Business History Review 86:4 (Winter 2012): 657-692. [Free Version]. There's not really enough about Filley to be worth a proper biography, but too much to squeeze into the narrow compass of just part of an article or a chapter, which is all that I have ever been able to devote to him.

Excelsior after another 30 years' growth, during which it became the largest stove manufacturer in the country.  The plant had grown upwards and spread across the streets to the north, west, and south.  It had even reclaimed land from the Mississippi as it turned from a riverboat- to a railroad-dependent business.  George W. Orear, Commercial and Architectural St. Louis (St. Louis: Jones & Orear, 1888), opp. p. 272.


1 Richard Edwards and Menra Hopewell, Edwards's Great West and Her Commercial Metropolis (St. Louis: Office of Edwards's Monthly, 1860), p. 516; Shirley DeVoe, The Tinsmiths of Connecticut (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), pp. 11, 16-21; David Meyer, The Roots of American Industrialization (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2003), p. 81; Gina Martin and Lois Tucker, American Painted Tinware: A Guide to Its Identification, Vol. 3 (Cooperstown, NY: Historical Society of Early American Decoration, 2007). For peddlers, including tinners like the Filleys, see esp. David Jaffee, “Peddlers of Progress and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1760-1860,” Journal of American History 78:2 (Sept. 1991): 511-35.

2 “Old-Time Journey. Thirty Days Occupied Between Hartford and St. Louis in 1834,” The Weekly Times [Hartford, CT] 18 Sept. 1899, p. 4, citing a family letter, supplemented from Randy Baehr, "Giles F. Filley--A Brief Biography: A Presentation [1995]," and Donald G. Southerton, The Filleys: 350 Years of American Entrepreneurial Spirit (Lincoln, Neb., 2005), p. 70, sources for what follows unless stated otherwise.

3 Giles to John Filley [brother], 12 June 1838, and Sylvanus Wing [relative and partner] to O.D. Filley Sr., 10 April 1836, both Box 1, Filley Family Papers, Accession 487, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis. For the Yankee elite, see Adler, Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West – not wholly reliable about the Filleys, p. 67.

4 James Green, Green's St. Louis Directory (No. 1) for 1845 (St. Louis: Author, 1844), p. 62.

5 Joseph A. Dacus and James W. Buel, A Tour of St. Louis; or, the Inside Life of a Great City (St. Louis: Western Publishing Co., 1878), pp. 231-3 -- including nice pictures of Excelsior's office and showroom, and of the 1878 model Charter Oak.

6 Capacity from Southerton, The Filleys, p. 84, and Jacob N. Taylor and M.O. Crooks, Sketch Book of St. Louis (St. Louis: George Knapp & Co., 1858), p. 391. Excelsior later used the Longfellow poem in its advertising [e.g. “Charter Oak Ranges – Charter Oak Stoves,” The Stove and Hardware Reporter 7:15 (15 Jan. 1885): 2-3], but this is not definitive proof about which came first in Filley's mind, the poem or the company name. Filley's contemporary Richard S. Elliott complained “I never knew … why any concern should be called 'Excelsior,' merely because a fellow with a flag went up a mountain and perished; doing no good to anybody, unless a foolhardy climb is a pattern to be imitated instead of an example to deter” -- Notes Taken in Sixty Years (St. Louis: R.P. Studley & Co., 1883), pp. 11-12.

7 “The Excelsior Manufacturing Co.,” The Stove and Hardware Reporter 6:6 (1 Sept. 1883): 1, 7; Baehr, “Giles F. Filley”; Logan U. Reavis, St. Louis: The Future Great City of the World (St. Louis: C.R. Barnes Pub'g Co., 1876), Appendix, p. 12, and Taylor and Crooks, Sketch Book of St. Louis, p. 391. Giles F. Filley's surviving correspondence with his brothers provides snapshots of his company's growth – e.g. 24 September 1849, to Jay Filley (Hartford) [foundry in full operation, traveling East in winter for patterns], Filley Family Papers, MHS, Box 1; to “Bro. Lucius” (Marcus), 23 December 1854, Filley Papers, RPI, Box 7, Folder 7 [extending foundry, acquiring more patterns in Troy] – but is too incomplete to support a continuous narrative.

8 1851 origins: “Improved Stove,” Scientific American 7:12 (6 Dec. 1851): 93; 1852 sales: Dacus and Buel, A Tour of St. Louis, p. 232; Vedder patterns: "Supreme Court of Missouri. Giles F. Filley, Respondent, v. A.D. Fassett et al., Appellants [Filley v. Fassett]," American Law Register 17:7 (July 1869): 402-11 at 402-3 and “Cook Stove,” Design Patent 519 (1852) – taken out by Vedder, later assigned to Filley; German migrant demand: Charles Van Ravensway, The Arts and Architecture of German Settlement in Missouri: A Survey of a Vanishing Culture (Columbia, MO: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1977), p. 124. For the Charter Oak, see Missouri History Museum, “American Visions of Liberty and Freedom: No. 10 Charter Oak Hotel Cooking Stove,” [viewed 3 August 2012] and Gayle B. Samuels, Enduring Roots: Encounters with Trees, History, and the American Landscape (New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1999), pp. 3-21. The Charter Oak had become a symbol of the imperilled Union – see e.g. J. Deane Alden, ed., Proceedings at the Dedication of Charter Oak Hall Upon the South Meadow Grounds of Col. Samuel Colt. With the Addresses on the Occasion by Messrs. Hamersley, Stuart, and Deming (Hartford: Case, Tiffany & Co., 1856), p. 12, and "The Old Charter Oak," United States Magazine 3:4 (Oct. 1856): 338-42 at pp. 341-2. Valley Forge: Excelsior Stove Works advertisement in Kennedy, Kennedy's St. Louis City Directory for the Year 1857, advertising department, p. 44.

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