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Monday, August 17, 2015

Thomas Woolson (1777-1837), Pioneer Stovemaker and Constance Fenimore Woolson's Grandfather

Thomas Woolson (1777-1837):

Like most early stove inventors, not a lot is known, and not much is easily knowable, about his business and its productsBut Woolson was a local notable towards the end of his life -- a representative in the state legislature in 1826 -1827, a state senator and a presidential elector on the John Quincy Adams ticket in 1828 -- and after his death he was also celebrated, perhaps too much, as one of the pioneers of the stove trade.  When he died in 1837, he was memorialized more for his public service and his character than for his business career:


Mr.Woolson during his lifetime fulfilled several important public stations. He was one of the Presidential Electors for New Hampshire in1828, and was for several years a senator in the legislature from this district. He was a great mathematical and mechanical genius, and a man of strong and vigorous mind. He has been a most useful member of society, and dies lamented by his numerous connexions and friends." [The Farmers' Cabinet 14 July 1837, Vol. 35, Issue 46, p. 3.]
But it was also claimed on his behalf that he "invented and patented the first successful iron cooking stove in America, [and] a cast iron plow blade, [and] built town clocks."  This is how he is recorded online now, with the exaggerated, confused, and imprecise versions of his practical achievements contained in late C19th local histories translated into a sort of garbled lasting memory.

The principal source for his life seems to be an 1894 local history, which has been mined and mangled by everybody else writing about him since then.


Son of Thomas Woolson, was born at Danvers, Mass., in 1777, and came to Claremont about 1813, from which time until his death, July 3, 1837, he was prominent in business and politics. He was well educated, an intelligent mechanic, and an ingenious inventor. His leading business was iron founder and stove maker. He invented and had patented the first cooking stove that met with any success in the United States, about 1818. He also made parlor stoves, some of which are in use at the present time, all known as the Woolson stoves. About the same time he made the first cast-iron plow ever used. It was with considerable difficulty that farmers could be induced to adopt them. He had as partner in the furnace business, Roswell Elmer. ... Mr. Woolson carried on some other kinds of business alone and with other partners. He made cards for carding wool, the teeth being bent and set in the leather by hand, an operation in which half the families in town -- men, women, and children -- employed time not otherwise occupied. This business was continued until a machine was invented which did the whole. He had a machine for spinning cotton yarn, which was sold to work into tow cloth made by housewives at that period. Mr. Woolson also made several town clocks, that now in the tower of our town hall being one of them. ... He lived and died in a one-story house, nearly opposite [his factory].
Otis F.R. Waite, History of the Town of Claremont, New Hampshire, for a Period of One Hundred and Thirty Years from 1764 to 1894 (Manchester, NH: John  B. Clarke Co., 1895), pp. 498-9.  Woolson's parlor stoves, none of which seem to survive either, won commendation at the time, as "quite pretty" -- The First Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, at the Faneuil and Quincy Halls, in the City of Boston, September 16, 1837 (Boston: Dutton & Wentworth, for the Association, 1837), p. 18.  No Woolson products were exhibited at subsequent annual fairs.

Elsewhere in the same book there is a slightly different take on Woolson's business: the furnace or foundry was established before 1833 by Roswell Elmer on the south side of the Third Fall (a thirteen-foot head of water) on the Sugar River, with his wool carding and fulling mill alongside it, i.e. he was probably the senior partner, with Woolson a collaborator in both enterprises but only (perhaps) a partner in the foundry.  The Sugar River had been exploited for its water power since about 1820, but the real take-off of local manufacturing only began in about 1833-34, at which time Claremont was still just "a little hamlet of some 300 or 400 inhabitants," so Elmer and Woolson were among the pioneers of local industry.  Elmer's wares were the usual iron products for rural communities -- stoves, plows, and potash kettles. [Waite, pp. 193, 195; Simeon Ide, The Industries of Claremont, New Hampshire, Past and Present, p. 3 (quotation), Waite's main source.]

When did Elmer and Woolson enter the business?  Probably not the vague "about 1818" date given in the quotation from Waite.  No furnace is recorded in Claremont in the 1817 or 1823 state gazetteers, though they do count numerous establishments for processing the products of field and forest, but by the end of the decade one can be confident that the manufacture of stoves was becoming established.  This is because three other Claremont residents took out relevant patents before Woolson ever did: Abraham Fisher [a cabinet maker with a small farm and water-powered cider mill; Waite, p. 426], for a Cooking Stove, Patent 5106X, 1828; Josiah Richards [probably the local obstetrician rather than his ancient father of the same name; p. 458], for a Double Furnace Cooking Stove, Patent 5601X, 1829; and Oliver Hubbard [wagon maker; p. 73], for the Manufacture of Tin or Copperware Stove Funnels, Patent 5712X, also 1829.  All of them were lost in the great fire at the US Patent Office in 1836, but the mere fact that Claremont artisans were responsible for a small cluster of related patents over a three-year period is quite good evidence for the quickening of industrial activity that Simeon Ide recorded.  Woolson was not alone, nor even the first -- he was just the most influential and successful.

One later author who did add some detail to Waite's account of Woolson's life and work was William J. Keep, an experienced stove maker and designer himself, whose career had begun in the 1860s as assistant to Philo Penfield Stewart, originally of Pawlet, VT, 60 miles west of Claremont, who had entered the stove business in the 1830s.  Keep had a huge fund of oral tradition about the industry at his disposal, which he extended through years of assiduous research.  In his retirement he compiled an enormous unpublished manuscript history of the stove industry that he finished or abandoned by 1916, shortly before his death, and from which the following article was extracted fifteen years later, by which time his daughter had bequeathed the original to the Baker Library at Harvard Business School, where it remains. [See "An Unpublished History," Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 4:2 (Mar., 1930), pp. 10-13; "William John Keep," Science Vol. 48, No. 1244 n.s. (1 Nov. 1918), pp. 437-38.]


In 1831, Thomas Woolson of Claremont, N. H., patented another type of cooking stove known as the Elevated Oven Stove. It was a flat-top stove with the oven at the side of the fire box. The heat was supposed to pass over and around the oven. The castings for these stoves were made at a furnace in Brandon, Vt. More than six thousand of them were sold. [See below: 1,500 were claimed to be in use in New Hampshire and Vermont by 1834.] At the time they were introduced the farmers said they didn't burn half wood enough, but when they were superseded by an improved stove, the complaint was that they burned too much wood.

A sheet iron stove, with an elevated oven, was made about 1832-1833 by Thomas Woolson, which he called "The Yankee Notion," and which led the way for all elevated oven stoves.
William J. Keep, "Early American Cooking Stoves," Old-Time New England 22 (October 1931): 78.

Keep's manuscript is notably fuller than this, and spells out his sources: the 1831 patent itself; an 1839 catalogue that Keep had collected during the research he did on the history of the stove industry for his company, Michigan Stove, in preparation for its exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago; an article in the trade journal The Metal Worker in April 1893 based on an interview with one of Woolson's surviving sons (said to be aged 94!); and an 1895 letter from another of Woolson's sons, the source of the anecdote about farmers and wood consumption.  Only two of these sources still survive, the patent and the Metal Worker article.

[P.S. 21 Aug. 2015 -- There is a partial transcript of H.C. Woolson's 1895 letter, the source of the later, confused and incorrect, attribution of the "Yankee Notion" to Woolson, in Jeremiah Dwyer, "Stoves and Heating Apparatus," in Chauncey M. Depew, ed., One Hundred Years of American Commerce (New York: D.O. Haynes & Co., 1895), Vol. 2, pp. 357-363 at p. 360.  Dwyer was Keep's boss at Michigan Stove, and this article was probably written as well as researched by Keep, whose name is not among the acknowledgements.  The letter makes no claim that the "Yankee Notion" was Woolson's invention, only that it was brought out at about the same time, 1832-33.]

Keep did not think much of Woolson's 1831 patent, and was scornful of its "misleading" illustrations, so he relied on the 1839 catalogue for his description of it instead.  It was by then -- two years after Woolson's death and the Crash of 1837 -- advertised as being made and sold at the recently-opened Tyson Furnace, Plymouth, Vermont.  Its design and appearance had evolved considerably over the years, and Woolson's oldest son Charles, who had been "seriously crippled" by the Crash and would shortly migrate to Cleveland, Ohio, to make a fresh start, had probably sold the manufacturing rights to the larger and better-capitalized enterprise.  [Collamer M. Abbott, "Isaac Tyson, Jr.: Pioneer Industrialist," Business History Review 42:1 (Spring 1968), pp. 67-83.]

There is one other early secondary source, also informed by oral tradition and some contemporary evidence, which adds a bit more detail but which also shows the same sort of exaggeration and error as Waite's account and everything that has recycled them in the last century:
Thomas Woolson, who settled in Claremont about 1813, operated a foundry here, and it is a matter of history that he patented and manufactured what was known as the first successful cooking-stove in America. Of these Woolson stoves (one of which I well remember to have been the first I ever saw in my mother's kitchen) there were said, in a newspaper "ad" in 1834, to be 1,500 in use in New Hampshire and Vermont, all of which must have been made in this town.
Henry H. Metcalf & John N. McClintock, eds., "The Claremont Anniversary: New Hampshire's Largest Town Celebrates an Important Historic Event," The Granite State Monthly: A New Hampshire Review,
vol. 46 [n.s. 9], nos. 11-12 (Nov.-Dec. 1914): 341-415 at p. 400.

Finally, there is an obituary of Woolson's pattern maker, David H. Hilliard -- the man who translated his ideas into the wooden models from which his stoves could be cast:
David H. Hilliard, the eldest son of his father, was born in Cornish [ten miles north of Claremont], December 3, 1806. After finishing his course of study in the town schools, he learned cabinet-making, and worked at that trade for five or six years. Then he went into the employ of Thomas Woolson, of Claremont, building stove patterns, the castings from which were made in Tyson, Vt. It is claimed that he got out the pattern for the first cook stove that was ever made in this country. He was the inventor of the Yankee Cook Stove, the first stove having an elevated oven.
This is frustratingly inexact, but if one can assume that he left school aged 12, served his apprenticeship until he was 18, and worked at his trade until he was 24, that gets us to 1830, round about the right time for Woolson to need a pattern maker.  

If this piece of local and Hilliard family tradition is correct, though, it seems that Hilliard, not Woolson, deserves the credit for the Yankee stove and elevated oven, which the anonymous author of the posthumous article culled from William Keep's manuscript counted as the second of Woolson's significant inventions.  But, given that neither of them ever patented anything like it, while other people did, we should probably doubt the tradition and look elsewhere.  Another local firm (John Conant's, i.e. Woolson's probable supplier) both made and sold a stove called the "Yankee Notion"; William H. Akins of Berkshire, NY, patented an elevated "Domestic Oven" heated by the smoke rising in the stovepipe in 1836 [Patent 9704X]; and that same year Willard A. Arnold, a tinplate worker of Northampton, MA, did patent what he called a Yankee cookstove, albeit without an elevated oven [Patent 9722X] (it was first advertised with an elevated oven in November 1838).  So we are probably entitled to dismiss Woolson's and Hilliard's claims to originality or priority in both of these cases as products of local and family pride, faulty memory, and, in William Keep's case, sloppy writing.  [Zenas & Charles R. Wood, Montpelier, VT, advertisement for "Conant's New Cooking Stove," Vermont Watchman & State Bulletin 1 Nov. 1841, p. 4 -- an improved version of their Yankee Notion; Dickenson & Chandler, Brattleboro, advertisement "Save Your Wood," Vermont Phoenix 3 Nov. 1838, p. 3.]  Keep, at least, had a good excuse for a minor error in an article published in 1931, as by that time he had already been dead for thirteen years (i.e. it was probably ghost-written from his notes by his daughter). 

[It is in fact not at all clear that Akins or indeed anybody in particular did "invent" the elevated oven; it's more likely that his patent, the text of which does not survive, was simply an improved version of the already common elevated oven, an adaptation of the sheet-iron heating-drum in a stovepipe that had been a regular feature of some Pennsylvania Dutch houses and churches, and of the Moravian domestic stove, since the eighteenth century.  Stovepipe heating drums were coming into regular use on columnar parlor stoves at the same time, the mid-1830s, and from 1836 onwards there were numerous stove patents incorporating them on cooking stoves too.  They were an obvious device, capable of being manufactured and installed by any tinsmith or sheet-metal worker, and answering the demands of the market for increased fuel economy and additional oven capacity.  By the time of the Second Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association in September 1839, elevated ovens were common.]


* * *

What else can we actually know about Woolson's stoves, given that none seem to survive?

One place to start looking is the patent record.  Unfortunately, Woolson's first patent -- T. Woolsen (sic), Amherst, NH, "Stove for Heating Water and to Wash and Boil Clothes," No. 1772X (1812) -- was destroyed in the 1836 Patent Office fire, by which time it had long expired, so unsurprisingly it was not restored.  It is therefore impossible to know what it may have looked like, how it was supposed to function, or how or even whether it was made, though the safest guess is that it was probably pretty much like most others at the time, i.e. a modified box stove, with, in Woolson's case, perhaps a bigger than usual boiling hole in the top plate, to accommodate a large utensil.  

The patent record only really tells us two things for sure about Woolson's pre-1831 inventive career: Woolson's first stove patent was not, as some of the printed sources suggest, in 1818; and he did not take out a patent for a cast-iron plow share or indeed for anything else either, in 1818 or at any time between 1812 and 1831.  So another piece of the received story about Woolson seem to lack foundations too.   Cast-iron plowshares were actually quite a popular invention during this period -- at least 21 patents (some may not have been named in a way enabling them to be readily identified in surviving lists) between 1821 and 1833, ten of them in New York State, 1821-30 and four in Vermont, with its comparatively large iron furnace industry, 1820-26, but none anywhere else in New England.  Understandably, plough patents of all kinds were very common in the overwhelmingly agricultural United States -- about 207, 1797-1836 -- but only one of them was taken out by New Hampshire residents, William Atwood (a blacksmith "identified with various business enterprises") and Daniel Hamblet, his nephew and partner ("a black-smith, stone cutter, farmer and a generally useful man"), both of Cornish, in 1833 [Patent 7885, no longer extant].   Elmer and Woolson probably made cast-iron plowshares by the later 1820s or early 1830s, but there is no evidence that they were at all novel by then, except perhaps in New Hampshire.

The 1831 patent is therefore where we must start --No. 6655X (1831), the "Double Horizontal Cooking Stove" -- Woolson's own title for it, not Keep's "Elevated Oven Stove," which is another error.  Look carefully at the design drawing below: a prize of $5 is available to the first person who can spot an elevated oven in it, or find any reference to such a thing in the patent text.



Woolson's description of his device is more than 1,400 words long, but the essence is digested below, in the words of Thomas P. Jones, former patent official and expert technologist, who summarized and critiqued all significant patents within months of their publication for a receptive American readership:


For a Cooking Stove; Thomas Woolson, Claremont, Sullivan county, New Hampshire, July 20 [1831].
The form of this stove is such as to give it the appearance of two ordinary cooking stoves joined together. One of these parts constitutes the fire place, the other the oven, and surrounding flues; the back plate of the fire place forming one side of the oven.
The claims made are the placing the two parts of the stove, horizontally, side by side; the mode of turning the blaze and smoke round the oven; the arrangement of dampers by which the blaze may be admitted into the funnel without passing round the oven; and the method described in the specification of making the fire place in one or dividing it into two parts by a moveable plate.

Thomas P. Jones, editor, "American Patents. List of American Patents Which Issued in July, 1831. With Remarks and Exemplifications by the Editor," Journal of the Franklin Institute 9:1 (Jan. 1832): 40-62 at p. 47.

No examples of this idiosyncratic stove seem to survive.  It is an example of makers' and inventors' many attempts in the 1830s to develop a wood stove with a larger oven, more cooking surface, and greater controllability.  But though many of Woolson's design were made and they enjoyed a substantial local market for a few years, his stove ended up as just one of several interesting dead-ends, because at the same time as he and his son were making and developing their model, other inventors in Upstate New York were perfecting the large-oven, downdraft-flue, four-boiler-hole square stove that would become the prototype for almost all American cooking stoves, wood- or coal-fired, of the next several decades.

The 1839 catalogue on which William Keep relied in reaching his dismissive account of Woolson's original 1831 stove does not survive, but we do have clear evidence of what the mature version of the Woolson cook stove looked like.  This is because David Hilliard, his pattern maker, did take out one stove patent, in November 1840 -- after Woolson's death and his son's departure for the West -- for a small improvement that he appended to a Woolson cook stove, which he described as "well known and highly approved." [David H. Hilliard, Cornish, NH, "Cooking-Stove," Patent No. 1858, 26 Nov. 1840.]



What can we say about Woolson's stove on the basis of these two images of it, and Woolson's detailed description?

First of all, its construction and appearance changed considerably through the decade.  Woolson said it was "usually constructed partly of cast, and partly of sheet iron, but may be built wholly of either as convenience may dictate."  This would have made sense for a maker in a rural community where blacksmith's skills, tools, and materials were probably more readily available than those for working with cast iron, and where castings were sometimes or perhaps even usually obtained from furnaces miles away by wagon haul over dirt roads across the mountains of Vermont -- originally, according to Keep, the Conants' at Brandon, 65 miles away, or after it opened in 1837 from Isaac Tyson's at Plymouth, just 30.  But the stove Hilliard depicted was all cast and rather finely made, its body a single unit, and a plain square rather than Woolson's awkward original plan of "two oblong stoves, the ends and sides moderately curved, placed one beside the other, so connected as to form one stove."

What the 1831 and [1839-; see below] 1840 versions seem to have had in common is that they were both quite low.  Woolson gave the dimensions for the largest of his four sizes, and it was just 14" high (plus the legs, so c. 20-22" overall) and c. 30" square, plus a rounded hearth 22" x 12" projecting in front and either side of the 16" firebox doors.  This would have suited cooks used to bending or kneeling to work at an open fire, the great wide hearth of which, with its limited headroom, would probably have been where the stove was sited in most farm kitchens; it would also limit the amount of lifting of their heavy old cast-iron pots that they needed to do.  Woolson's oven was a sheet-iron box inside the right-hand oblong, 24" wide by 9" deep, surrounded by smoke flues on all sides for even heating (a big desideratum of cooks adapting to stove use -- many stoves heated one or two sides of the oven much more intensely than the rest).

By the time of Hilliard's version, the stove had acquired a much larger full-width hearth, and a sunken ash-pit A with a covering slide.  This had been a feature of the more advanced Hudson Valley stoves since the early/mid-1820s, and enabled the cook both to empty ashes more easily and with less mess, and also to rake hot coals into the ash-pan and use them for grilling.

The 1840 stove still had just three boiler holes in the top -- there was no room for one directly over the oven -- but Hilliard had added another, with its own small independent fire venting its smoke into the main body of the stove, in the extended hearth plate.  This had enabled him to dispense with the peculiar internal complications of Woolson's stoves -- the hinged "division plates" in the firebox (evidence: there are no longer any control handles extending through the top plate; all that is left is the damper control knob to the right of the firedoor, permitting the cook to direct the fire around the oven or maximize the direct heating of the cooking holes instead).  Their purpose had been to enable the cook to close off the front of the firebox and make a small fire right under the rear boiler hole, fed and controlled through the small firedoor n, to save fuel if only one boiler was needed, or to allow her to continue to use the stove indoors during the height of summer.  (It was probably much too heavy to move outdoors easily.)  In doing this, Woolson had been imitating John Conant's market-leading Vermont cook stove of the early 1820s, which also had an independent fire for a third boiler hole at the rear of his stove.  Hilliard provided something even more convenient, because at the front rather than the back of the stove -- what would later come to be known as a "summer arrangement" in the hearth plate which could also function as a fourth cooking hole or grill at any time of the year.

Hilliard had also introduced another feature invented or at least popularized by Hudson Valley stove makers in the 1820s, the huge boiler hole at the back of the stove on the left, made of concentric, removable rings of cast iron.  The point of this was not just to accommodate pots of different sizes -- the other three holes would only take a standard (probably) 7" or 8" pot or kettle -- but to adapt to the occasional needs of farm families for very large pots for e.g. heating water for laundry or hog-scalding, warming milk for dairying, seasonal sugaring, and more frequent soap-making.  These adaptations demonstrate how responsive the Woolsons and Hilliard were to the specific needs of their back-country clientele.

Hilliard's 1840 patent does not fully depict Woolson's stove at the peak of its development, because it does not show its left-hand side.  For this we have to go to Hickok & Catlin's advertisement in the Burlington Free Press, 1 November 1839, p. 4, local dealers using copy and illustrations supplied to them by "the proprietor," probably by then already the Tyson Furnace rather than Charles Woolson himself.  (Their advertisements for "Woolson's Improved Patent" ran in October and November -- the peak of the stove-purchasing season, when the roads were still passable for going to market and collecting heavy freight, but also when farmers had cash in their pockets after the harvest, and could see winter staring them in the face.)


The same woodcut was used by other dealers in their local advertising in other Vermont papers through the end of 1841.
Hickok & Catlin claimed to have 500 of these stoves on hand to meet the season's trade, and that there were by then over 6,000 in use across New England.  Woolson's quite old and rather idiosyncratic design still, they asserted, "competed successfully with the various kinds of Cook Stoves in use, not excepting the latest invented and most puffed."

The Hilliard patent -- evidently made and sold well before the patent was secured, a risky but normal practice at the time -- was described in these terms:


A FURNACE for hard or soft coal or small fuel has been recently attached to the stove, for summer use, in such a manner as to be used in boiling, and also for the baking of small bread, and that, too, with the smallest possible consumption of fuel, being so arranged as not in the slightest degree to interfere with the other operations of the stove. This alone is found to afford the advantages of an ordinary Cooking Stove, and when in use, does not cause inconvenience by giving out heat, smoke or gas.
The other improvements illustrated were all on the left-hand side of the stove, hidden in (because not relevant to) Hilliard's patent, notably the large glazed door and the "Tin Kitchen" designed to sit against it and cook by radiant heat [see below for more about these features]:


A valuable improvement in ROASTING has been added to this Stove which will roast meat, fowls, &c. in a more perfect and satisfactory manner than can be done in any other way, the old fashioned ten foot fire place not excepted. The oven is warranted superior to that of any other stove in use, the heat around the same being more even and quickly controlled than in any other stove yet introduced: for such as choose, an elevated oven is added and so arranged as not to interfere with the top of the Stove, being quite accesible (sic) and out of the way, and equal to any thing of the kind in use. [Which makes it clear that they did NOT claim to have invented it, just made a small design improvement -- HJH.]
One of the interesting features of this long advertisement is the way it even tried to make a positive out of the fact that the old Woolson's Patent was not of the market-leading rotary type invented by Henry Stanley of Poultney, VT and others, and also made by many other firms, including the Conants:


The Proprietor wishes it to be distinctly understood that the top of this Stove does not revolve, its construction being such that it is the decided opinion of those who have had them in use, that the Boilers are at all times in precisely the right place
They also emphasized its compensating advantages:


The TOP of this Stove being large and of an even surface [unlike a rotary or a step-stove], with considerable space unoccupied by the boilers, adds greatly to its convenience and value.  The construction and operation of this Stove being such as to render the top at all times of a different temperature on different parts of its surface [one of the rotary stove's claimed advantages too, moving pots closer to or further from the fire], so much so that while liquids are boiling in flat bottom vessels upon one part, other parts will be found to vary from boiling down to blood heat, therefore forming the best possible place to boil coffee, make tea, gravies, &c., and to place cooked dishes upon, which it is desirable to keep warm until served up.  Persons who have used this Stove, regard the top as nearly indispensable.

Finally, they made the most of its other unique selling point, the large rear boiler, before wrapping up their claims:
There is to this stove an aperture for an unusually large Boiler, so arranged that the heat is applied to the best possible advantage, affording a convenience for heating a large quantity of water or for dairy use, superior to any stove yet introduced; whether in boiling, baking, or broiling, frying, roasting, or toasting, they have invariably proved deserving of the commendations bestowed upon them, and it is confidently asserted that no other Cooking Stove in the market can do so much business with so little fuel in any given space of time...
Later advertisements, by the Tyson Furnace's agent to his Vermont customers, added to these claims, or spelled them out more clearly:


Vermont Watchman and State Journal [Burlington], 6 December 1841, p. 3.


Vermont Watchman & State Journal 1 February 1841, p. 4.

Tyson claimed that their by then even more peculiar old stove still had unique selling points making it suitable for farmers, if not for the more sophisticated customers to whom they sold more up-to-date designs.  The large rear boiler hole was still its main attraction, together with its evenly-heated oven and Hilliard's new independent furnace for "boiling, broiling, baking, ironing, &c., with the smallest consumption of fuel."

They also drew attention to features already present in the 1839 woodcut, but neglected in the advertising copy at the time.  This was the large door on the left side of the firebox, glazed with mica (isinglas) panels, so that the family could enjoy "the light of a cheerful open fire" -- an important practical consideration for families for whom the open fire was the most important light source in the kitchen -- and also use its radiant heat "for roasting meat, fowls, &c. in a more perfect manner than can be done in any other way, the old fashioned ten foot fire-place not excepted," with the aid of the open-backed "tin kitchen" that fitted into the door opening.

But despite the Furnace's apparent confidence in its product, with its claims (unverifiable, of course) of 7,000 in use with satisfied customers by then, 2,000 sales in 1840 alone, and still unsurpassed fuel economy and efficiency, their attempts to extend the Woolson patent's life seem to have run out of luck: the December 1841 advertisement, with its much briefer text, and its long list (not shown here) of newer alternatives that Tyson also supplied, seems to have been the last.  Though they had tried to keep up with the rapid maturing of more versatile and stylish stoves mostly designed and made by Albany and Troy firms, these were invading and would quickly conquer the pioneer New Hampshire and Vermont furnaces' markets, driving them out of business, or forcing them to adopt or imitate the new models as the price of survival.


* * *

One other feature of the 1839 advertisement was a great long list of customer endorsements, from which one can identify where Woolson Stoves had been sold.  The list was meant to be illustrative rather than comprehensive, but what it makes clear is that Woolson's selling territory seems to have been almost entirely restricted to western New Hampshire and southern, mostly south-eastern, Vermont.  The average distance from Claremont of these towns where Woolson recorded individual customers was 38 miles (range 13-80) -- perhaps a long day's wagon trip over a decent road in good weather.  His Vermont and Massachusetts dealers averaged 85 miles away (range 52-113), a trip more worth making with a load of goods.



For full data, see the Google Map: what this map seems to show is ...T.B.A.


Conclusions, or something


(1) Thomas Woolson did not invent and make "the first cooking stove that met with any success in the United States" or "the first successful cooking-stove in America."  But if we make a couple of small edits, the key claims about him can be expressed much more accurately: he made "one of the first cooking stoves that was commercially successful in parts of New Hampshire and Vermont."

(2) He did not invent it in 1818, and he didn't invent and patent the cast-iron plowshare then either, or indeed anything else any time between 1812 and 1831.  There seems to be no evidence that the stove he patented in 1812 was either much of an invention -- probably just a minor modification to existing practice, a large boiler hole in a common box stove -- or that it was made, either at all or on any scale for commercial sale.  It would have been hard for him to do so in New Hampshire in 1817, where one blast furnace, recently (1805-1808) established at Franconia, 115 miles north of Amherst where he then lived, and one very primitive wood-fired hollow ware foundry at Groton, about 40 miles south of Franconia, were all that the state gazetteer recorded, and no foundries at all.  

(3) There does not seem to be any readily available evidence about the kind of stoves he and his partner Elmer began making at their Claremont foundry in the 1820s (probably the later 1820s).  But, given that his 1831 patent was basically two common box stoves joined together, my best guess is that most of what he was producing was still just variations on the box stove, made in small numbers using the normal combination of blacksmith-worked wrought iron for doors, hinges, latches, etc., and cast plates and perhaps legs.  Some of his castings may have been made in Claremont, others bought in from the much better established Vermont stove furnace of the Conant family at Brandon.  William Keep does not supply any evidence for his statement that the Conants were Woolson's suppliers, but it is entirely credible, particularly because Woolson's 1831 patent seems to have been at least partly inspired by John Conant's 1823 stove, Patent 3788X.

(4) The scale of Woolson's success should also be put in perspective.  What was really the first successful new cooking stove design in the United States (i.e. not just a pre-Revolutionary 9-plate "Old Philadelphia"-style stove, which was still the market leader well into the 1820s), William James's 1815 "Saddlebags," had sold about 5,000 by 1823, and continued to sell well into the 1850s.  Woolson was operating in a more mature market than the one James and his partners entered more than a decade earlier, and his sales were more localized than theirs, but even so they were only of about the same magnitude.

(5) If Woolson sold 1,500 stoves in New Hampshire and Vermont by 1834, that would give an annual production rate of c. 500 units over the first three years, probably rising from quite a low base; the claimed 6,000 by 1839, and more than 7,000 by 1841, suggest that annual output, before the stove began to meet stiffer competition from newer and better out-of-state products, and allowing for the Crash of 1837 and its aftermath, was not much more than about 1,000 units at its peak.  (Tyson Furnace's claim of 2,000 sales in 1840 is not inconsistent with this estimate -- stove sales could include unsold stocks from previous years -- but it's also possible that this much bigger firm was able to produce far more than Woolson ever had, though not perhaps to sell them all, hence the apparent discontinuance of production after a final bumper year.) 

(6) The largest New Jersey and Pennsylvania stove furnaces were producing castings for between 5-8,000 stoves a year at the same time, and had been doing so for decades; the largest Albany foundries were producing more than a thousand tons of castings by then.  Woolson was never more than quite a small-scale operator, probably not producing many more than five stoves a day, or thirty a week, during the melting season of a water-powered foundry -- between the unfreezing of the river in spring and its freeze-up in winter, enough to build up a stock of stoves for delivery to his dealers in time to meet the post-harvest demand from their farmer customers before roads became impassable to heavy freight.

(7) This does not mean that Woolson was insignificant -- he probably did a lot to develop the market for stoves among farmers and townspeople in a landlocked state without much of a local iron industry.  But he is more interesting to me as an example of a versatile back-country mechanician and entrepreneur, working at the frontier between proto-industrialization and the real thing, than he is for any other reason.  The technologies he worked with, the intelligent adaptation to the known requirements of his target consumers, the advertising techniques involving the distribution of printing blocks and copy to his local distributors, the borrowing and incorporation, without attribution or, probably, payment, of good ideas from other inventors -- all of these are typical behaviors, and not exceptional at all during the age of "Democratic Invention."




Woolson Now:

 (a) "He came to Claremont about 1813. Was a noted inventor and was the first successful maker of cooking stoves in this country. About 1818 he made the first cast iron plows ever made." [Jan Franco, "Thomas Woolson," 20 Jan. 2009, Find A Grave Memorial # 33083474, citing Charles B. Spofford, Grave Stone Records from the Ancient Cemeteries in the Town of Claremont, NH, 1896.] 

(b) "In 1831, Thomas Woolson, of Claremont (pop. 13,355), patented a flattop cooking stove. The stove featured an oven beside the firebox, allowing heat to pass over and around the oven." [American Profile, On the Road, Thomas Woolson Patent Flattop Stove, 2 October 2011.]


(c) "In 1818, Claremont resident Thomas Woolson invented and patented the first cooking stove that met with any success in the United States. He also made parlor stoves, known as the Woolson stoves. [Inventors in the Kearsarge area of NH, September 19, 2014.]

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