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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Stove Inventors and Invention in Northern New England: A Summing-Up {in progress}

The last several posts all began with an old Charles Woolson stove (or maybe it was a skillet?) seen in an American collectors' and enthusiasts' Facebook group.  I knew Woolson's name from my stove patents database, but though I assumed he was probably a relative of Thomas Woolson, the pioneer New Hampshire stove maker and inventor, I knew nothing about him or his firm, and little about old Thomas's either.  So I started looking, and the rest is (several chunks of) history, of a kind -- about Charles, his daughter, his father, their lives and work.

After writing the three posts with a biographical focus, I thought that I wanted and needed to know something more about the context in which old Woolson worked, hence the post about other New Hampshire stove inventors and inventions.  And with that under my belt, I decided that I might as well do the same job on the two neighbouring states, so that I could see what was similar, what was different, and perhaps try to work out why.

So what I have been doing for the last few weeks, off and on, is research (or at least "research") driven by nothing much stronger than curiosity.  But I'm enough of a former academic historian to know that merely digging up and presenting facts and stories isn't really enough.  It's necessary to step back from the data and think about what, if anything, it says, and why the reality it relates to took the shape that it did.

Normally, proper historical research will start with some questions or hypotheses, because it will be driven not just by curiosity about the past but also by a desire to participate in a sort of conversation with other historians who have written about related phenomena.  In fact, the cases chosen for study will often be selected, amongst other reasons, for their likely ability to cast light on the questions of interpretation and explanation animating that scholarly conversation, and which are really the driving forces of the work.

But that's not the way I have approached this task, and I'm neither very familiar with nor especially interested in any particular historians' conversations about, say, the industrialization of New England, that might provide a framework of questions for me to use here.  So what follows is not really, even approximately, a proper academic historian's summing-up.  It's much more tentative and amateur than that -- merely an attempt to pull together some of the threads of the three state case-studies.

* * *

First of all, a few numbers.  Why would I not have thought of northern New England as a promising place to look for stove inventors and inventions?  Partly because I knew (or, see below, "knew" i.e. thought, but without checking the evidence first) that they were not very numerous, and, except for a very few (John Conant and Henry Stanley of Vermont, perhaps Thomas Woolson himself), they did not seem to have contributed much either to the development of cooking and heating stoves as bits of domestic technology, or to the extension of the market for them in the 1820s and 1830s.  Even Conant and Woolson were at best regionally, perhaps just locally important, and their contributions had almost ceased by the mid- to late-1830s.  The story of stoves and their industry that I told in Chapters 1 through 3 of my "book" was therefore mostly a mid-Atlantic one, with products and their consumption spreading from an area of origin in the Philadelphia hinterland north-east among the towns and cities of the Atlantic Seaboard, and the centres of invention and production following the market to New York and the Hudson Valley.

But it's (almost) always helpful to do a bit of explicit quantification, if the numbers are available.  So here are the totals for Class 126 (Heating and Cooking Appliances) patents taken out in the U.S. between 1810 and 1860.  These numbers include all of the numerous patents that were unoriginal, impracticable, and commercially insignificant, as well as the small minority contributing directly to the development of the major stove types (cooking stoves, parlor stoves, furnaces) that filled the national market by mid-century.  But they are at least a starting-point.

US Total91863975771139
Rhode Island11643
Sn. New England231511078149
% US25%17%28%14%13%
New Hampshire3527326
Nn. New England610641955
% US7%12%16%3%5%
New York3833146268503
New Jersey128811

% US62%65%49%59%65%

As we can see, at least in terms of these raw numbers, perhaps I was wrong to neglect the inventors of northern New England?  There were always far fewer of them than there were New Yorkers, or even their southerly Yankee neighbors, but their share of inventive activity more than doubled between the 1810s and the 1830s.  So one way in which one could read these data is that something interesting was going on: an area where stoves were only beginning to be adopted in the 1820s and 1830s was the scene of a very substantial increase in recorded inventive activity at the very same time.  Only after the 1830s did this region move back towards the margins of a maturing market for technology which was by then even more centred in New York State than it had been.  New York went from generating just 2.3 times as many stove patents as northern New England in the 1830s, to 14 times as many in the 1840s, a figure it had never achieved before.

The record of patenting activity is quite suggestive by itself, but of course the above table raises an immediate and obvious question: what can we relate it to?  To states' population, perhaps?  Are New York's 503 recorded patents in the 1850s, for example, more than you might expect if inventive behaviour was evenly spread across the United States, and if so, how much more?

(In the following table, the second row in each state's or region's entry is its population growth rate since the previous census -- in Connecticut, for example, a mere 4 percent in the 1800s.  The third row gives the state's or region's share of the national population total.)

1810 1820 1830 1840 1850 1860
Connecticut 261,942 275,248 297,675 309,978 370,792 460,147

4% 5% 8% 4% 20% 24%

3.6% 2.9% 2.3% 1.8% 1.6% 1.5%
Rhode Island 76,931 83,059 97,199 108,830 147,545 174,620

11% 8% 17% 12% 36% 18%

1.1% 0.9% 0.8% 0.6% 0.6% 0.6%
Massachusetts 472,040 523,287 610,408 737,699 994,514 1,231,066

12% 11% 17% 21% 35% 24%

6.5% 5.4% 4.7% 4.3% 4.3% 3.9%
Southern New England 810,913 881,594 1,005,282 1,156,507 1,512,851 1,865,833
Decadal Increase 9% 9% 14% 15% 31% 23%
Share of US 11.2% 9.1% 7.8% 6.8% 6.5% 5.9%








41% 8% 19% 4% 8% 0%

3.0% 2.4% 2.2% 1.7% 1.4% 1.0%
New Hampshire 214,460 244,161 269,328 284,574 317,976 326,073

17% 14% 10% 6% 12% 3%

3.0% 2.5% 2.1% 1.7% 1.4% 1.0%
Maine 228,705 298,335 399,455 501,793 583,169 628,279

51% 30% 34% 26% 16% 8%

3.2% 3.1% 3.1% 2.9% 2.5% 2.0%
Northern New England 661,060 778,477 949,435 1,078,315 1,215,265 1,269,450
Decadal Increase 35% 18% 22% 14% 13% 4%
Share of US 9.1% 8.1% 7.4% 6.3% 5.2% 4.0%







Decadal Increase 19% 13% 18% 14% 22% 15%
Share of US 20.3% 17.2% 15.2% 13.1% 11.8% 10.0%

New York 959,049 1,372,812 1,918,608 2,428,921 3,097,394 3,880,735

63% 43% 40% 27% 28% 25%

13.2% 14.2% 14.9% 14.2% 13.4% 12.3%
New Jersey 245,562 277,575 320,823 373,306 489,555 672,035

16% 13% 16% 16% 31% 37%

3.4% 2.9% 2.5% 2.2% 2.1% 2.1%
Pennsylvania 810,091 1,049,458 1,348,233 1,724,033 2,311,786 2,906,215

34% 30% 28% 28% 34% 26%

11.2% 10.9% 10.5% 10.1% 10.0% 9.2%
Delaware 72,674 72,749 76,748 78,085 91,532 112,216

13% 0% 5% 2% 17% 23%

1.0% 0.8% 0.6% 0.5% 0.4% 0.4%
Maryland 380,546 407,350 447,040 470,019 583,034 687,049

11% 7% 10% 5% 24% 18%

5.3% 4.2% 3.5% 2.8% 2.5% 2.2%
MID-ATLANTIC 2,087,376 2,772,594 3,664,412 4,604,345 5,990,267 7,571,201
Decadal Increase 42% 33% 32% 26% 30% 26%
Share of US 28.8% 28.8% 28.5% 27.0% 25.8% 24.1%

Of course, any assumption that some fairly exceptional behaviour -- stove patenting -- should have been evenly spread across the country would be pretty ludicrous.  But at least the above table allows us to do a simple calculation: the Northern New England states had, in the 1830s, roughly half the population of New York State (their share of the U.S. total population fell from 7.4 percent to 6.3 percent between the 1830 and 1840 censuses, while New York State's was more stable at 14.9 to 14.2 percent), and recorded roughly half as many stove inventions (64 to 146). In these terms, at least, this peripheral region's inventors and entrepreneurs were punching only a little below their weight in the 1830s, but more or less abandoned the fight in the 1840s.  So this is probably what we need to focus on explaining: the great increase in inventive activity in the 1830s, and then its sudden collapse.

As anybody who may have read the three state studies will realize, the table also includes what I think of as key information helping to define and explain states' and regions' membership of the core and the periphery of the emerging American industrial economy, their rates of population growth and therefore new household formation.  The Mid-Atlantic region, and particularly New York State, was an area of spectacular and sustained population growth -- especially impressive for a region of mature settlement.  New York's population was growing almost explosively, even faster than the nation as a whole until the 1830s (U.S. figures, for comparison: 1800s 36 percent, 1810s, 1820s, and 1830s 33 percent, 1840s and 1850s back up to 36 percent).  Across New England, population growth lagged far behind -- a combined effect of the demographic transition to smaller family sizes, lots of out-migration, and very little inward migration until the "coming of the Irish" and other new western Europeans in the 1840s and 1850s.  Within New England, one can see the clear impact of industrialization in reversing the course leading towards a stagnant population, starting in Massachusetts in the 1820s, and beginning to affect Connecticut and Rhode Island in the 1840s and 1850s.  But in northern New England there was no such reversal: instead, rates of population growth continued along a downward path, even more in New Hampshire and Vermont than in Maine.

Manufacturers and entrepreneurial inventors living in northern New England in the 1820s and 1830s thus confronted a local market for new and more efficient cooking and heating appliances that sent them very mixed signals: 
  • On the one hand, consumers were beginning the process of conversion from reliance on the open fireplace to the stove and/or furnace for their cooking and comfort.  As a result, artisans, merchants, professional men and other enterprising tinkerers were becoming familiar with different kinds of stoves, and optimistic about their abilities to make money by contributing their own improvements.  The market thus provided both the incentives and some of the means (information, experience) required to encourage and enable men living in the small commercial and local manufacturing towns and villages scattered across the more developed regions of these states to fancy their chances as stove inventors.  In the 1830s, the bandwagon was rolling, and in the "Age of Democratic Invention" almost anybody seemed to be able to climb on.
  • But on the other hand local manufacturing capabilities were very limited, except perhaps in the iron district of southern Vermont; and markets were comparatively small too.  In the parts of these states with better -- which, until the 1840s, meant water-borne -- transportation, like south-eastern New Hampshire, or much of southern Maine, or Vermont along the Champlain canal corridor, any large-scale demand for stoves that developed could be met more easily by importing them from established and increasingly efficient production centres than by attempting to compete in making them locally.  Only the Vermont iron furnaces managed, for a while, to overcome the limitations of their location, and even to ship stoves in large numbers to buyers beyond their own state.  But by the early 1840s, at the latest, the transportation facilities that had enabled them to do this were serving instead to flood their local markets with cheaper and more advanced Hudson Valley stoves. Thomas and Charles Woolson's achievement was more modest, and Elijah Skinner's even more restricted: they serviced small-scale markets in their state's interior within a couple of days' wagon-trip of their foundries, and for them the window of opportunity swung shut between the Panic of 1837 and the end of the decade.
Stove invention and, to a lesser extent, manufacture and commercial sale were thus phenomena confined to the early phases of the development of local markets for new cooking and to a much lesser extent heating appliances in northern New England in the 1820s and particularly the 1830s.  But by the early 1840s the hopes of wealth that had moved so many Yankees to jump on the stove invention bandwagon in the mid-1830s had been disappointed, and the maturing local markets for stoves and furnaces were no longer being satisfied to any considerable extent by local manufacturers.  Transportation improvements -- the beginning of the Railway Age -- only guaranteed that these peripheral regions would turn into consumers of products and ideas developed elsewhere, and in the 1840s local invention and manufacture collapsed together, leaving little trace behind.

* * * 

Thus far, this analysis has focused on aggregated data, particularly state totals and shares of inventive activity by decade.  Disaggregating these data and using annual figures instead sheds further light on what was going on in northern New England, particularly in the couple of years before the Panic of 1837 punctured the bubble of "irrational exuberance" that stimulated so many Yankee amateur or first-time and one-off patentees to try their hand at stove invention as a path to wealth.

In fact, much of the apparent surge in inventive activity during the 1830s was a result of a very short-term phenomenon.  There were not many more stove patents taken out in northern New England in the first half of the 1830s (19) than in the 1820s.  But more (37) were taken out in 1835 and 1836 than in the entire period since 1810 (35).  After that, the decline was immediate and precipitous -- just 8 new patents across the region in the rest of the decade, 15 in the first half of the 1840s, and a mere 7 in the second half.  The stove-patenting boom of the mid-1830s was a national (or at least north-eastern states) affair, but it was participated in much more enthusiastically by northern New Englanders than by anybody else.  In the peak year, 1836, they contributed 28 percent of all stove patents taken out in the entire United States.  From the trough (1828) to the peak (1836) of the stove patenting cycle, the number of patents taken out in the rest of the United States increased from 8 to 58, i.e. by a little over 7 times; in northern New England, the comparable figures were 1 and 23.  Until 1834, the increase in stove patenting activity within this small region and in the rest of the United States was taking place at almost exactly the same rate.  Then, for two years, northern New England experienced its greatest burst of enthusiasm for the new technology, before following the rest of the United States down the pan during the years of depression and uncertainty that followed.  When the rest of the nation began a sustained recovery in 1843, and stove inventors once again took their ideas and their optimism to the Patent Office, northern New Englanders did not rejoin the parade.

Total number of Stove Patents taken out in (i) all states [black line, LH axis], (ii) all states except Northern New England [red line, LH axis], and (iii) Northern New England [blue column, RH axis -- sorry, can't get scale to show, but it runs from 0-25 i.e. there's 8x amplification ].  Emphasizes the extent to which the stove patenting boom of 1835-1836 was disproportionately a Northern New England phenomenon, and the post-1842 hiatus.

Another way of disaggregating the data, within Northern New England, is by state, just looking at the number of stove patents taken out in the peak years and those either side:

New Hampshire

The table seems to convey a paradoxical message: the greatest contribution comes from Maine, the state with the smallest impact on stove development (because most Maine patents were unoriginal, impracticable, uncommercial, or all three, and there was hardly any local manufacturing industry); the smallest from Vermont, the only state with a proper stove industry rather than just a few scattered manufacturers, and the only one whose stove inventors came up with ideas and designs (notably the rotary) that had any significant impact beyond the state boundary; with New Hampshire in the middle position.

What this suggests to me is that stove invention in Northern New England was of course a market-responsive phenomenon, and as in the rest of the United States it was strongly pro-cyclical.  But it was also very reflective of local cultures, and in particular of the way that a variety of middling citizens in communities on the edge of the emerging Northern market became swept up in a region-wide enthusiasm for invention and money-making at the height of two interconnected booms: in the Jacksonian economy; and in Americans' first large-scale encounter with the new domestic technology of cooking and comfort.  The improved stoves that provincial amateurs, first-time and one-off inventors claimed to have thought up may not have had any economic or technological significance; but the fact that they did so remains interesting as a symptom of their communities' early experience with and engagement in this aspect of modernity.  Not very clearly or elegantly expressed, but this is the best sense I can make of the evidence before me.

After reading back through the three state studies, having done a close study of all of their surviving patents, one of the things that interests me is therefore what it tells me about the world their authors inhabited.  I have read plenty of old patents in the past, but I have concentrated on those I knew (or "knew") to be more significant, perhaps because William Keep's old study told me so, or because the men behind them created major businesses (a sort of "dollars and survival" test of which inventions were "fittest"), or because they pointed clearly towards what turned out to be the mature technology of the solid-fuel cooking and heating stoves of mid-century and after.  (These three selection criteria are in practice overlapping.)  Reading everything, including the truly bizarre, is instructive in a different way.  It has brought up, for example, all of the patents which were for improvements to the old technology -- the open fireplace -- rather than, or as well as, what replaced it; all of the patents for transitional or hybrid devices, fire-frames and Franklin stoves with cooking appliances attached; all of the early attempts to build, in small-town New England, something similar to, and ideally competitive with, the better realized products of the emerging Hudson Valley stove industry.  I can't think of a better approach to stripping the "size," "success," "survival," "contribution," and "significance" biases out of my approach to the history of this technology than what I've almost accidentally come to do over the past few weeks.  So a big thank-you to the Woolsons for that!

[The argument here is underdeveloped.  What I also want to say somewhere is that, given how few examples of these early stoves survive -- none in most cases -- the patent drawings and descriptions give us some of our best evidence of how they looked, how they were made, and how they were supposed to work, as well as who they were intended for and what we can infer about local consumers' tastes and requirements from them.  But this methodological stuff should probably be moved to an appropriate position in one of the earlier posts -- the first state study?]

* * *

As the first table and the chart above indicated, though northern New Englanders began to take out stove patents again in the 1850s, their share of the booming national total did not recover much.  New Hampshire is the only state where I have looked at the 1850s patents in detail, so can tell that they are qualitatively different from those that were taken out before the 1840s hiatus.  It might be useful, and not very time-consuming, to do the same exercise on Vermont and Maine.  In New Hampshire, at least, stove patentees now had a close relationship with their state's stove industry, which made up most of the region's.  It would be reasonable to expect the same sort of pattern  in Maine.  But it's worth emphasizing how small the three states' stove industry was.  They were on the north-easternmost periphery of the U.S. Industrial Belt, and none of the few firms they supported became regionally, leave alone nationally, significant.

The only surviving detailed study we have of the mature industry was compiled a generation later, in 1874.  Its comprehensiveness and accuracy are probably not perfect, and what it counted was not companies' actual output but their capacity -- something significantly different.  But, even with those caveats, its findings were pretty clear.  The mean capacity of American stove makers by the early 1870s was about 1,200 tons a year; the median was a bit less, about 900.  Hardly any of the stove makers of northern New England were anywhere near this size, and only one -- the Somersworth Machine Co. of Great Falls, NH, eighth largest in the nation -- was bigger.  All but one of the rest were among the smallest stove makers in the country -- those making less than 500 tons a year each; a group with 41 members, 19 percent of the industry total, but with a combined output representing only a sixteenth (6.4%) of national capacity.

Somersworth Machine Co.   NH   Great Falls            3,000

William P. Ford & Co.     NH   Concord                  600

Cole Bugbee & Co.         NH   Lebanon                  450

Hinkley & Rollins         ME   Bangor                   450
B.J. Cole & Co.           NH   Lakeville                425
O.E. Sheridan             VT   Highgate                 280
Harrison Eaton            NH   Amherst                  275
Wood Bishop & Co.         ME   Bangor                   275

Total:                                                5,755

[The Somersworth Machine Co. was described in 1871 as "iron founders and machinists, manufacture cooking, office and parlor stoves, hollow ware, also, all kinds of castings for mills, gas work, cast iron, steam, gas and water pipes, retorts, hydrants, &c. Capital invested $100,000; employ 100 hands; annual pay roll $60,000 and producing good of various kinds to the value of $200,000." This is interesting: by that time most U.S. stove makers had been specialists for decades, with even those that started out as general foundries having decided to focus on stoves alone, or in some cases to produce hollow ware too; Somersworth, in a relatively isolated industrial district, remained a generalist.  The company had been established in 1849, incorporating two small local foundries, by the nephew of the agent for the Great Falls Manufacturing Co., the town's major business and the owner of all of the water power other companies depended on, which had been founded in 1823 and bought in 1844 by Abbott and Amos Lawrence and William Appleton, Boston capitalists with large textile interests in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass.  This kind of close relationship between textile firms and the local machine shops that served them, and that were also sometimes (as at Lowell) major stove manufacturers too, was not uncommon in New England.  In other words, the Somersworth company was qualitatively as well as quantitatively different from all of the other small stove foundries in the region.]

TBA -- updated 27 April 2015.

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