In the colonial period and early nineteenth century, cooking in homes was done over fires in hearths. In the winter, the hearth may have been the only source of heat, and, in the summer, it produced too much heat in the house. Large homes had separate kitchens or even separate kitchen buildings to reduce heat in the summer and the risk of burning down homes (Strasser, 1983, p. 33).
Cooking technology changed in the early nineteenth century. “By the 1830s, the cookstove had come into its own.” Stovemaking began to flourish because of changes in the iron and steel industry. Stoves were used by households because they required less fuel and were more economical to install than hearths. The cast iron cookstove may be viewed as a critical domestic technology of the nineteenth century (Cowan, 1983, pp. 54-56; Strasser, 1983, p. 33)..
The evolution of stoves is hard to trace because the technology was modified in many ways in a short time by hundreds of different manufacturers across the country. For example, the decision to build a door in one side of a heating stove and insert a box for a warming or baking oven is anonymous. Cookstoves grew in size (Cowan, 1983, pp. 54-55), and some stoves had reservoirs for heating water. Stoves were designed to burn wood or coal (Cohen, 1983, p. 53; Strasser, 1983, p. 39). The poor tended to use stoves that could serve as both heaters and cookstoves, while the middle and upper classes used separate stoves for heating and cooking (Cowan, 1983, p. 55).
By the mid-1800s, many small businesses manufactured stoves, and cookbooks offered recipes with instructions for both cooking over fires or on stoves (Strasser, 1983, p. 36). In 1869, the stove revolution had been under way for almost 40 years (Cowan, 1983, p. 56). In their advice manual, Beecher and Beecher Stowe (1869), recommended a coal-burning stove design, as shown in the photo above (p. 74) and drawing below (p. 70).
The typical cookstove in the 1880s was cast iron or steel and “was a wood- or coal-burning monstrosity” (Cohen, 1982, p. 19). The typical urban house in the 1880s used a coal-burning stove, although it might have had a gas range if it was very modern (Cohen, 1982, p. 5). In the 1890s, housewives across America most likely continued to cook on a coal or wood-burning stove (Cowan, 1983, p. 155). Cooks brought in wood or coal, fed the fuel into the stove by hand, and had to carry ashes away, which made it hard to keep the kitchen clean. Temperatures were hard to regulate (Cohen, 1982, pp. 19-21). During the nineteenth century, coal became more popular than wood because of availability and price, and the fact that coal was a more concentrated fuel that burned longer (Strasser, 1983, pp. 40-41).
To operate a stove, stove lids needed to be removed, old ashes had to be disposed of, drafts closed, a new fire set, drafts reopened, the fire lit, wood or coal added, and dampers closed. A fire could last 4 hours, but a fire had to be tended to prevent it from going out. In an experiment, it required about an hour a day to care for a coal stove, with 292 pounds of coal and 14 pounds of kindling put in the stove over 6 days. Stove temperature could change with the outside wind, and stoves had to be polished with blacking to prevent them from rusting (Strasser, 1983, pp. 40-41).
By the end of the 19th century, most families had acquired an iron stove (Strasser, 1983, p. 33).