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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Who Invented the Step (or Jews Harp, Premium, or Horseblock) Stove? {in progress}

This post is partly a product of my work on inventors and inventions in northern New England, because so many of them in the 1830s seem to have been inventing versions of the step stove and its near-relation, the elevated-oven stove (which I will also deal with here).  It's also born of a post in the "Iron Works!" Facebook group announcing the purchase of a very nice 1840s step stove, which set me thinking about where they all came from.

* * * 

What is a step stove?  It goes under many names, including (originally) the very plain and descriptive "three-boiler flat cook," and the more colloquial but equally descriptive "Jews Harp" and "Horseblock" (i.e. mounting block), and there are numerous design variations.  But basically it's a wood-fired cooking stove with the oven behind the firebox and raised slightly above it, surrounded by flue spaces on all sides.  The top plate has three or more cooking holes in it, at least two in front, immediately over the fire, and one or more behind, over the oven. The firebox is set at a right angle to the body of the stove containing the oven, so it takes quite long pieces of wood which can be fed in through the door on right-hand side.  The top and bottom plates of the stove have a characteristic kink or step in them to accommodate the change of level.  This is a good and clear early example of the type:

Joel Rathbone, Albany NY, "Jews Harp or Flat Cook Stove," Patent 8677X (1835).

Where did the step stove come from?  Probably the best place to begin is with the nine-plate or "Old Philadelphia"-style stove, still the most common cooking stove type in the 1820s, when the earliest step stoves were probably developed. As I have written elsewhere [Chapter Two and my "Plate Stoves" post], the Old Philadelphia had several limitations as a cook stove, not unexpected given that it was just a minor variation on a device originally intended just for room heating.  It was quite high and had a fairly narrow top, so it only offered a small working surface, with (usually) just one cooking hole.  It also forced cooks who were used to working stooped at an open hearth to lift their hot, heavy pots a long way from the floor or a nearby table with unassisted muscle power and without the help of the open hearth's swinging crane, and also to work around the hot stove-pipe, which was at the front of the top plate. The oven was quite small, and as it sat right over the fire, while the front plate radiated heat into the kitchen, it was also unevenly heated, so baking was at risk of being soggy on the bottom and burnt on top, unless the cook kept a very careful eye on it and moved it up or down, and forwards or backwards, during cooking.

For all of these reasons stove makers and designers aimed to improve it, particularly when the market for stoves began to extend beyond its traditional limits (Philadelphia and its hinterland).  They went down two largely separate paths.  The one which eventually produced the typical solid-fuel cooking appliance of mid-nineteenth through twentieth-century America, the downdraft or "revertible"-flue stove, started in the mid-teens but only began to deliver large numbers of practicable, widely marketable models in the late 1830s and 1840s.  (I may do a separate post about them, but until then look at the sections on Postley in this post and Hoxie here, as well as in Chapter Two.) Until then the other path was more productive.  It involved modest, incremental improvements to the familiar "Old Philadelphia" stove, of which the two most commercially successful were both invented in the Upper Hudson Valley, a region where demand for and manufacture of stoves were developing fast between the mid-teens and the mid-twenties.  One was the work of William James, originally of Union Village (now a part of Greenwich) and later Troy, NY; the other of John Conant of Brandon, VT.

The James "saddlebags" stove of 1815 was basically just an Old Philadelphia with two boiler holes and a larger, slightly more convenient working surface. The extra hole and extra space on top were provided by casting bulges in the sides of the stove (the "saddlebags"), and the smoke pipe was shifted from the front to the middle of the top plate.  The oven was accessed by a single forward-facing door rather than by doors on both sides, and the stove was also provided with dampers enabling the cook to direct the heat to one boiler, both, or the oven instead.  Finally, it had a large hearth with a recess in it covered by a sliding plate (a feature covered by an additional patent James took out in 1824).  The recess was used to rake ash from the fire, making it easier and cleaner to remove.  The hearth plate was also an important additional working surface -- a reflector oven ("tin kitchen") could be placed on it, to roast and bake in front of the fire; or, with live coals drawn forward into the recess and the cover removed, food could be toasted or grilled over the ashpit.    



The James stove was so successful that, for the rest of the decade, wood-cuts of what were obviously just minor variants of it were used by James's competitors to advertise their almost identical wares too, i.e. it became a generic type.

* * * 

John Conant's stove, patented 1823, was even more obviously just a modified nine-plate than James's, incorporating all of the key features of the saddlebags type, though with lower, more convenient boilers.  The extra feature that he added was a third large boiler hole at the rear of the stove, with its own independent fire (not shown in the engraving).  Because of its position it cannot have been very convenient to use, but it expanded the stove's cooking capacity, and the independent fire turned it into a particularly handy device in summertime or when only limited cooking facilities were wanted, so it helped to win him a region-wide market.


The challenge for other stove designers was to make something with at least as much cooking capacity as these two leading types and, ideally, more convenience for the rural household just beginning the transition from open-hearth cookery.  The answer was the three-boiler flat cook, seen in this 1836 advertisement alongside what seems to be a rather primitive version of a "saddlebags" (no ashpit and hearth slide).  Its anonymous designers had made a fundamental departure from the traditional stove layout: the firebox ran side-to-side rather than front-to-back; it was bulged out at both ends to take the two front boiler holes; the oven was behind and slightly above the fire, with the single large boiler hole relocated from the back of the stove in a Conant to the top above the oven.  The stove was also much lower than an "Old Philadelphia," James, or even an 1823 Conant, and the two front boilers were particularly low and close to the hearth plate, thereby requiring the least amount of heavy lifting.  An advantage of the new firebox arrangement was that wood could be fed through a door in its right-hand side, leaving the front hearth free for cooking, whereas in an Old Philadelphia, James, or Conant stove there was just the one firebox door opening directly onto the hearth.  As we can see, by 1836 the stove had also acquired its third alternative name, the "Premium," which was either a bit of makers' boastfulness or perhaps a recognition of this stove type's ability to win prizes at county agricultural fairs, where its cheapness and simplicity appealed strongly to its intended customers.

Advertisement, Troy Daily Whig ## 1836, p. ##.

* * *

Who invented the step stove, and when?  There is no clear evidence.  It's not simply that most (78 of 95) stove patents of the 1820s, including James's and Conant's, were lost in the Great Fire at the US Patent Office in 1836 and not restored.  This was also before the development of the technical press (particularly the Journal of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia), which reported extensively on new patents and therefore fills some of the gaps from the late 1820s through the early 1830s.  So for most of the patents of the 1820s all we have left is the barest outline -- when they were issued, to whom, residing where, and a title that is sometimes useful but often not.  None of those whose text and/or drawings survive looks like even a remote ancestor of the step stove, and none of the lost patents has a descriptive title that makes it seem a likely candidate either.  

The patent record becomes much richer in the new decade.  Right at its outset rural inventors made successful efforts to produce serviceable stoves providing plenty of cooking surface closer to the ground than in an Old Philadelphia, Saddlebags, or Conant stove.  Two early examples are both from New Hampshire -- John Moore's "Cooking Stove" 5951X of 1830 and Thomas Woolson's 6655X of 1831. Moore's had a stepped top with two small boilers and one larger, right over the fire, and an oven at the back; but its shape showed its origins as just another modification of the Old Philadelphia ovoid stove rather than a prototype for the newer style.  Woolson's was certainly a flat stove, and it also had three boilers, but in other respects it was quite different from the Jews Harp (etc.) stoves that were soon to be so common, because the oven was alongside the firebox, and his stove was almost square, not the Jews Harp, Premium, or step stove's distinctive shape -- wide at the front, then narrowing, and usually sitting on just three legs, hence the name Jews Harp.  Both of these are probably best thought of as independent attempts to meet the same set of consumer requirements as the step stove, but in ways that did not catch on or meet with so much imitation. 

But then in 1832 we begin to get several patents all of which make clear that they are improvements on the step stove, which they already treat as an established type.  There is other evidence that the design had emerged by then. In October 1833, at the start of the peak season for stove sales, 
A.H. Austin announced that his Albany "Stove Factory and Kitchen Furniture Warehouse" carried "a great variety of Stoves of the most approved patterns," including "oval nine plate stoves, of plain boiler tops; three boiler cook stoves [Conant's?]; James's improved round boiler do. [ditto, i.e. cook stove, both illustrated with woodcuts at the head of the advertisement, i.e. still the leading items]; Richards' patent alterable cooking and franklin do. designed either for coal or wood; door franklins of all sizes, hall stoves, box do., six plate do., coal stoves in great variety, for stores or offices, parlour do., jews-harp do." [Albany Evening Journal, 23 Oct. 1833, p. 1.]  This gives a useful illustration of the range of stove types available at the time in the most important market for upcountry New England, upstate New York, and the lakeshore states to its west, on the brink of a great upsurge in inventive activity that would propel many new models into that market.  It also confirms that the step or jews harp stove was already established among standard stove models, and consumers were expected to be able to recognize it by its name alone, needing no further explanation. 

Back to the original question, then: who invented it?  It seems that the step stove's inventor for some reason failed to patent it.  This suggests one possibility to me: that the stove was a logical development of the Conant stove (three boilers, low down, one of them large, plenty of working surface), whose patent was still in force.  We do not know what that patent said, but it's possible that its claims may have been sufficiently broad for Conant and his sons not to think it necessary to take out another one.  Alternatively, by that time they had established themselves in a region-wide market, and did not have the same need for a patent as both an advertising ploy and tool for market-protection as newer or smaller makers, or inventors whose product was the patent, whose manufacturing rights they intended to sell to others.  Studying the hundreds of stove patents take  out in the industry's opening decades, it may often seem as if every new or imitative design or minor improvement found its way to the Patent Office, but in fact most of the myriad stoves produced at this time didn't seek or qualify for such protection.

That argument can only be speculative, though it's at least plausible.  Conant was the leading stove maker in upper New England at the time, the area where other men quickly began to attempt to improve upon the step stove.  Those who patented their improvements generally made marketable products themselves, and within a very few years succeeded in perfecting the step stove into a mature, durable design.  The first of these improvements led to a new and briefly important variant, the rotary stove, explicitly compared with the three-boiler type in contemporary advertisements (A. Randol & Co. advertisement, Newburgh Telegraph 11 Sept. 1834, p. 2 and 30 Oct. 1834, p. 2).

Stanley Stove with Elevated Oven, Henry Ford Museum --
from Bryan & Evans, Henry Ford's Attic (1995), p. 264.

It was only when I re-read Henry Stanley's patent in the context of all of the other inventive activity going on in northern New England at the time that I fully appreciated that his innovation was really just a development from or variation of the flat-top stove, with an oven behind the firebox "constructed ... in the common way."  It responded to the same implicit design brief -- the low, crank-operated revolving top made it easier for the cook to take full advantage of the four boiler holes (two large, two smaller) without too much lifting.  And it had the standard shape -- the wide firebox and narrow back part, with just three legs, hence the "Jews Harp" name.

After Stanley's there were many other improvements and variations, in both the step stove proper and its rotary offspring.  Some of the former were very idiosyncratic and probably nothing more than "paper patents" (i.e. not practicable or saleable designs), so I will only include the more obviously relevant here.

Town, Elisha. Montpelier, VT. Stove, Cooking. 7871X. 1833. 

"Elisha Town's Improved Crane Stove."  The drawings are of the revised (1836) version of his patent including a removable furnace (for charcoal or, more probably, anthracite) fitting underneath the oven.  This was designed, though the patent was silent about its purpose, to enable the oven and large rear boiler hole to be used in summer, with less fuel consumption and a correspondingly reduced amount of heat in the kitchen than if the main fire had to be lit -- as in the original Conant stove.  

The distinctive features of the original and improved versions of the Crane Stove were the swinging covers, or "cranes," for the front two boiler holes.  They served a similar purpose to the turntable top on Stanley's stove, allowing the cook to regulate the heat applied to a vessel by moving it closer to or further away from the fire.  Apart from these, Town's was a pretty standard step-stove, apart perhaps from the double plates, with an air gap between them, at the front of the oven.  The intention of these was to prevent a hot spot within the oven, and reduce the problem of burning out of the oven plate immediately behind the fire, a weak spot in any stove design.  Other step-stove designers in the 1830s attempted to achieve the same object with slightly different means of reinforcing and/or insulating the vulnerable plates.  Stanley used firebrick in his rotaries designed for anthracite fuel, and also made the back plate in two parts so that the section that burnt out more often could be easily replaced; others generally used variations on Town's air gap. 

Stewart, Philo Penfield.  Elyria, OH.  Cooking Stove. 8275X.  1834.

The text of the patent survives, but not the drawing.  For Stewart and the context for this invention, see this post -- he was a native of Vermont, and evidently very familiar with the newest designs reaching the Ohio lakeshore from Albany and Troy along the Erie Canal.  His "Oberlin Stove" had all of the expected features, and some that were Stewart's original ideas -- "a fire chest, a grate [in Stewart's case probably for the more efficient combustion of wood rather than for burning coal], an ash pit, a hearth with an indenture [for broiling], five appertures (sic) for boilers &c, a warming arch, an oven, two flues and a funnel [smoke pipe]."  

Stewart's stove was a sort of extreme step stove -- the bottom of the oven was elevated 10" above the bottom plate of the fire box, much more than in Town's the previous year or in any subsequent patented or marketed design, which was probably his simple solution to the problem of burning out the back plate of one and the front plate of the other, by separating them much more than usual. Stewart did not let the heat radiated from the back of the firebox go to waste -- the space behind it and below the bottom of the oven was his "warming arch," a sort of secondary oven.  He also included many other characteristically smart ideas, as well as two more boiler holes than the standard step stove, and an easy way of turning the front three holes into a single larger one; a single damper to control oven heat; wrought-iron handles for the boiler hole covers, attached near the edge, so leaving the flat surfaces free to use for cooking using any flat-bottomed vessel that did not need to sit in the hole for direct contact with the heat of the fire.  

Parker, Sylvester.  Troy, NY.  Three-Boiler Flat Cooking Stove.  8602X. 1835.

What was most distinctive about Parker's patent was the detailed explanation he gave about how step stoves were usually constructed, what was wrong with them (the vulnerability of the front oven plate to the heat and flames of the fire), and how he intended to remedy the problem.  

Parker's answer to this common problem involved the kink A in the bottom plate of his stove, which meant that the hottest spot at the back of the firebox was able to radiate heat down towards the floor.  This was the same idea as Stewart had patented the previous year, but implemented in a less radical fashion: the base plate of Parker's stove was still flat, as in earlier, more fallible [and now lost] unpatented versions of the three-boiler stove.  There was also a ventilated, insulating air chamber [not shown in his drawings, which could be fuller and clearer] in the space a.a.a. between the back of the firebox and the front of the oven, to serve the same purpose as Town's. 

Parker's design innovations seem to have served their purpose; at least, the inventor had confidence in them.  When his stoves were offered for sale in 1834, i.e. before the patent was issued, as with Stanley -- he offered a $500 reward, an enormous sum at the time, to "any person who can make a better stove."  His was "Warranted superior to any stove before in use, in point of utility, simplicity, durability, and economy."  If it did not live up to this recommendation, "no sale," i.e. a money-back guarantee, probably not worth much at law, but a good selling-point regardlesss in the booming, increasingly competitive Hudson Valley stove market.  Parker's was "superior to any thing ever offered to the public."  [Newburgh Telegraph, 2 Oct. 1834 -- the claims his dealer made on his behalf were quickly answered by the agent for one of his rivals, who offered $2,000 for "the invention of a stove equal or superior to the rotary stove."  Parker's "later patent" was the only one of "all previous patents" that was explicitly invited to enter the competition, though it was open to all comers.]


Rathbone, Joel.  Albany, NY.  Jews Harp or Flat Cook Stove.  8677X.  1835.

Rathbone was the largest stove trader in Albany and, reputedly, the entire United States, who was becoming increasingly involved in manufacturing his own stoves rather than buying in the unassembled plates from the stove furnaces of southwestern New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, which was still the normal business model.  His patent included the curving back plate for the bottom of the firebox from Parker, and the bottom step already seen in Town's and Stewart's rather than the old flat bottom plate.  He dispensed with the problematic back plate of the firebox altogether, and substituted a ventilated, insulating air chamber like Town's at the front of the oven, i.e. his stove was a combination of other people's good ideas, which he had the resources enabling him to turn into a product that he could manufacture and sell cheaply and on a large scale.  It would, he claimed, answer all of the "inconvenience" that had "arisen in the use of said Stoves on account of the waste of heat the burning out of the guard or front oven plate and the unequal distribution of heat through the oven."

Arnold, Willard A. Northampton, MA.  Stove, Cooking.  9722X. 1836.

"Arnold's Yankee" had all of the standard features of the type -- three or more legs; four or five boilers; a large sunk hearth; a ventilated, insulating double front plate to the oven; dampers in the oven flues, to enable the user to direct the fire under the boilers or under the oven.  Its one peculiarity was the provision of two or three rear boiler holes, of different sizes, raised above the top plate of the stove as in rotaries, with flue channels to ensure the rear boiler was adequately heated.  According to William Keep, Arnold's key innovation was the way he had arranged the oven dampers -- he had worked out the ideal, lasting arrangement, "the dampers of the step stove of today," and brought the type "to its perfected state," still sold by the thousand in the early twentieth-century South, where consumers still appreciated its simplicity.  [Keep, "History," p. 105.]

Spaulding, Samuel Brown. Brandon, VT. Stove, Cooking. No. 83. 1836.

Spaulding's was another modified step-stove with a few distinctive features:

(a) the four boiler holes were made from concentric rings of cast iron so that they could take pots of different sizes -- a common and very useful feature at the time, when households had a mixture of new and old utensils which had not yet been sized uniformly to fit in e.g. 7" or 9" holes; 

(b) the drawing does not show this, but between each pair of holes there was a removable cross-piece, enabling a large oval water boiler to be inserted with both covers removed too (this may have been a case of independent invention, or at least innovation, of a design idea also seen in Stewart's stove, and which became a common feature of stove-top layout); 

(c) Spaulding had his own solution to the "burning out of the front oven plate" problem, a removable heavy plate [in the top drawing]; 

(d) he made the front door of his firebox from sliding slats, EE and FF in their open and closed positions, to control the draft and also permit a "pleasant and cheerful" view of the fire if wanted.  This was a cheaper and more durable solution than the alternative adopted in late models of the Woolson stove, to have mica windows.  Finally, 

(e) he had his own mechanical answer to the problem of varying the amount of heat applied to cooking utensils in the front two boiler holes over the fire.  In Town's Crane Stove they could be swung away from the fire; in Spaulding's the fire itself could be raised or lowered by his rack-and-pinion mechanism.

Spaulding's stoves were made and sold, but, unlike Rathbone and Arnold, but like Town, he had added unnecessary mechanical complication to an appliance whose attraction was its simplicity and therefore comparative cheapness as a stove for wood-burning rural households.  

The same can be said for W. Parmalee of Watervliet, NY (just across the Hudson from Troy), whose "Cooking Stove" 9889X of 1836 was an otherwise-standard step stove with a curious arrangement (whose explanatory text does not survive) of a divided hearth with two sliding plates holding what look like small fire-pots.  My guess is that this was a "summer arrangement" for doing limited cooking in the hot months, rather than a permanent substitute for a proper firebox.  But it wasn't something that caught on.

After 1836, few inventors paid much attention to improving what was by then evidently recognized as a mature stove type, with a settled design.  In 1837 Samuel Utter, a New York stove dealer, patented one for anthracite, with an insulated bottom plate for the oven  (No. 349).  In 1839 Noble Peck, of Carmel, NY, patented an otherwise unremarkable step stove, "put together in the ordinary mode," with a couple of minor modifications to improve the usability of the front hearth for cooking (No. 1352).  The same year, Micah Ketcham and William Wheeler of Boston reinvented Spaulding's arrangement for raising and lowering the fire using a rack-and-pinion mechanism forcing them to increase the distance between the floor and the base plate, and thus the overall height of the stove (No. 1419).  They were no more capable than Spaulding had been two years earlier of persuading others that this was a necessary or useful innovation.  

TBA -- updated 27 April 2015.