The Heart of the Kitchen – 19th-Century Cooking Stoves

Stove Section, from the Sears Roebuck Catalog, 1897The central focus in the 19th-century American kitchen was the large black cast-iron cooking stove. The kitchen stove helped improve the American diet in properly cooking and baking foods from the family farm and local markets.  The big black stove also spread warmth from its heated surfaces on a cold winter morning in January, although not so welcomed on a hot afternoon in July.  It also provided convenient comfort and improved health conditions, in the form of access to hot water – for washing, cleaning, and bathing.

The industrialization and expanded commerce of the 19th century built the 100s of foundries and factories that churned out a variety of goods and products. One of these manufactured products was the cast-iron cooking stove, which was produced in the millions and affordable to nearly everyone. Practically every home in America by the late 19th-century had a stand-alone cooking stove in its kitchen. 

Kitchen cooking stoves came in all shapes and sizes.  They could be excessively ornate or plain in decoration.  Another important feature was they were fairly portable.  Shipped in pieces, the stoves were assembled in the home kitchen, much like IKEA furniture today.  There was also a variety of technologies of stoves that burned one of three then common fuel sources; wood, coal or gas. Each system had its benefits and detriments. Wood was plentiful in rural America, it was inexpensive but labor-intensive.  Coal was easier to use, less labor but produced coal dust.  Gas was the most expensive, but produced odors.  It wasn’t until the Federal “Rural Electrification Act” of 1936 did rural America finally switch over to mostly electric stoves in their homes.  Today all four systems are still in use in our kitchens – but with vast improvements over their 19th-century counterparts.

Cast-iron cooking stoves also created an entirely new system of cooking – which in turn provided healthier meals to families.  Cooking recipes soon appeared in newspapers, magazines and in published cookbooks to help American households cook on the new appliance in the kitchen.  We hope to do another chapter on the cultural popularity of cookbooks and how they helped to change the American diet.

Be sure to visit the Farm Manager’s House at the Billings Farm & Museum to see our wood-burning cast-iron cookstove.  We cook a variety of vintage recipes in the kitchen every Friday when we reopen to the public.