Monday, March 5, 2012

What's Cookin'?

QUESTION: My great-grandmother died recently and my husband and I now have the task of disposing of her monstrous, cast-iron kitchen stove, which we understand belonged to her mother. Is it worth moving the stove to our place or should we just call a junk dealer to remove it?

ANSWER: Depending on the ultimate condition of your great-grandmother’s stove, you may find that it’s worth far more than you imagine. You have two options: Clean it up, restore it, and use it in some way in your house or sell it. Either way, there are a few things you need to know about old kitchen stoves before you decide.

Colonial life centered around giant smoking, inefficient fireplaces. The walk-in Colonial hearth dominated the most important room in the house—the kitchen. Housewives or their servants continually added fuel to the cooking fires throughout the day. After supper, cooks kept the fading embers alive until the following morning, when they began the daily routine of stoking, feeding, and cooking once again.

During the 1790s, a Massachusetts-born physicist named Benjamin Thompson (aka Count Rumford) discovered how inefficient these fireplaces were and set out to invent a better solution. The Rumford stove had shallower fireplaces and a more streamlined chimney that forced out smoke but not heat. It featured one fire source that could heat several cooking pots and enabled the cook to regulate the heat individually for each pot. It was more of a fireplace insert than a stove and required modification of the huge hearths. These became  status symbol among the wealthy. Even Thomas Jefferson had several installed at Monticello.The downside about the Rumford stove was that it was meant for large kitchens.

Foundries began producing small wood-burning kitchen stoves, complete with ovens, in the early 19th century. Forty years later, makers produced full-sized kitchen stoves by the thousands. The size of kitchen stoves increased the manufacturers offered such options as warming ovens, extra surface burners, shelves, water reservoirs, and decorative panels of enamel or porcelain.

Historians refer to this style of six-and ten-plate wood-burning, box stove as a laundry stove because housewives or servants could place wash kettles on the flat, top surface. Some laundry stoves, such as the one invented by J.T. Davy, featured hooks for six flat irons around the belly of the stove. These, plus a putting one on the loading plate, enabled the laundress to heat seven irons at once.

British inventor, James Sharp patented the first successful gas stove in 1826. During the 1910s, gas stoves appeared with enamel coatings that made the stoves easier to clean. Most households had gas stoves with enclosed ovens by the 1920s. However, the slow installation of gas lines to most households delayed the progress of gas stoves. By World War I, the new gas stoves permanently replaced fireplaces for cooking.

If you’re planning on selling your great-grandmother’s stove, check the porcelain areas carefully. While you can easily clean it with a strong kitchen degreaser, you cannot replace any part that is badly cracked or missing. The only thing you can do in that case is to paint the damaged area with white or colored porcelain repair paint. But this only works on small areas.

Monumental monstrosities like your great-grandmother’s kitchen stove, are some of the most sought-after antiques. They helped raise and bake bread and simmered soup for hours on cold winter days. Today, the old time kitchen stove has come to symbolize the concept of "home."   

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