Living with Antique Wood Stoves - Living History with modern fuel alternatives
Updated: Jan 21, 2022
Since my childhood in England, every home I have had has had at least one original live flame fireplace burning wood or coal - it provides a whole lifestyle vibe beyond just heat and the ability to cook. Amongst these are the act of setting, cleaning and maintaining a fire, the light cast into the room and smells (fragrant or otherwise).
So here we combine stove history in the US with the options to love the fire for living history or home life.
1700's The first Iron fire places that were introduced from Europe were simple boxes on legs - the 6 plate stoves (six plates making a box) - these were originally imported along with the settlers and later as iron was created in the colonies, US made versions were wrought.
This simple design was small, comparatively light and utilitarian - ideal for the frontier and to heat a small single room house and cook a pot / boil a kettle. The new world would be built and fueled with wood - a never ending sea of hardwood species. This remained unchanged for almost 200 years. When the need for a dedicated oven was an advantage (to separate the smoke away from the food to be heated (bread by the loaf etc). To do this extra plates were added to form the oven - so the 8 plate stove was born. Soon after the recognition that recirculating the heated air and smoke around the oven surfaces added 2 more plates - giving way to the 10 plate stove which prevailed into the 1820's In PA there were various iron works, forges and their supporting trades during colonial times and into the post-colonial prosperity and expansion. There were several local makers of 10 plate stoves and they came in a range of sizes. These were installed in the kitchen under the great hearth, alongside the and irons and pot hangers for more discrete heat and cooking than running the great fire.
Finding a 6, 8 or 10 plate stove is a challenge due to them being used until failure and later cast off as relics. The Mercer museum has a few examples and I have been able to gather up a couple of equivalents for my home - these really work well as side tables and will not take fire as intended. When found they can have lights added or as I prefer - use an ethanol burner to get all the iron to a similar temperature as a water or steam radiator.
As the industrial age dawned, it brought leaps in iron and steel working technology - this then manifest in iron products for the home and hearth - stoves were to get some spectacular adaptation and decoration.
1810 Pot belly stoves appear to fill the entry level options for heat and cooking - these remain popular in all sizes to this day. Base burners are related to these, but have more heat transfer chambers above the firebox and more decorative form and features - they will often hide a cooking ring under a large removable finial.
Formal houses still had open fire places - often requiring "Andirons" which could hold logs above the ash pile. These were becoming lined with decorative iron plates to store and radiate the heat further into the rooms. This started as a simple back plate on legs, then some became combination hearth / backplates.
Here are the two original fireplaces at Camelot - built in the 1830s. Unusually they were built in the corner of the rooms with a triangular footprint - supposed to be better at sending heat to the center of the rooms. The one on the right was blocked off when boiler heat was added and the furnace in the basement needed a dedicated chimney. The left hand fireplace has worked well since the removal of a 1980's baffel. It has also enjoyed simple hearths, Andirions and now has a integral backplate / hearth basket.
Other fireplace formats became fully enclosed in iron as free-standings fire places. Benjamin Franklin and his associates realized that these would allow most of the heat from the flames escape up the chimney, so they devised a series of tubes over the flames that used convection to capture the heat and "blow" it out into the room space without the smoke and smells. These were originally known as "Franklyn" fireplaces and were put on legs to be more free standing into the room.
Left is an 1860 dated "Franklin" fire place - with integral ornate grate. It free stands in front of the closed fireplace and has a 5" circular flue pipe. This one has an rectangular ethanol burner standing in the hearth for occasional heat and flame effect - these hold about a liter of fuel and burn for up to 3 hours - after the first 20 minutes the whole thing is as hot as a water radiator.
For the grander house installation "Cottage Parlour / Casket" style fire places were developed - which were square in form and had decorative features - including doors with mica windows. One of the more popular version of the casket were the "mansion" style that looked like houses - with emphasized door and window features.
Note the large perforated two piece finial on top - this covers a stove ring for cooking.
Around 1860 the use of patents was being proliferated and the casting techniques advanced to use script to add the patent number and pattern dates - typically undated models could be from before this 1860 period - otherwise look for date, model and size more extensive scripts as the 19th century progressed!
As the iron age boomed the decoration and intricacy of the iron decorations could change the shape of the piece completely, enamel coatings were appearing to change the finish and color and mica - a miracle mineral was making "windows" where glass was not yet thin enough or able to take the bump shocks or heat. Features that were developed in the high age of iron include grates that were perfected for coal or wood burning, these then incorporated shakers for ash and a lower ash catch / clean chmber and access. More efficient burns were achieved by having near air tight construction and having air vents below the fire - some were grills that are opened wide for starting and then closed - others, most notable "bell" valves would allow metered air to enter and cause the wood load to enter charcoal burn for best heat. The more of these features present, the later the stove design and build.
Here we see an "Iris" from 1860 of the "Base Burner Globe Type" - with around 30 internal and external sand cast iron pieces and two levels of "windows" - cast iron hinged frames with two mica windows each. This one now runs in my lounge with a 0.5L ethanol round burner inside for about 2 hours of flickering flame and heat.
1850 and Back to fireplaces and stoves that were purely for cooking - around mid 19th century the iron box stoves gave way to shapes and formats that we would recognize as a "kitchen stove" - with a firebox, oven and several cooking rings - often with a warming box above for plates / food.
Here we have a more modern "Elmira Oval" model - built in the 1990s and based on a 1910 design. These were made to be run on wood or gas - later ones are only gas / electric. They feature well cast iron, chrome trim and enamel panels. This model has the warming box above, tool racks in the side panel and a water caboose, that can keep hot water on hand en-masse - the faucet is on the right hand side. These were popular with cabins and off-grid homes - the firebox had changeable plates to suit wood or coal burning and has the ability to house a hot water coil that can heat a secondary room radiator. All of the parts are still available from the manufacturer / owner. This design features 2 cold start opening devices, 3 fire bell vents, oven temperature through stove pipe baffling, caboose water temperature baffle and a chimney clean out plate - not bad for 300 years of post colonial stove development!
Local forges kept on producing high quality and quantity wood stoves for homes well into the 1930s - where the great depression caused a relapse of older styles and technologies. Buckwalter Forge Works was active in Collegeville PA and are famous for their enameled iron.
Here we have a "Mountain Oak" double base burner with second floor heat by Buckwalter. - inside is a pot belly stove on steroids, with a secondary burn area above and a heat transfer chamber that leads to the chimney and heats the top ring - in which there is a flap and an oval outlet to pipe heat to a second floor register. Also note the two bell valves - one above the fire grate for starting and the one below for charcoal burn. The finial still covers a cook ring but is now of plated brass decorative construction. I have this in my lounge and it should be able to take a full wood fire again once a firebase and chimney are built. The second floor heat will warm my bathroom.