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Hearth to Hearth: The Stove

Hearth to Hearth: The Stove – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – May 2001

Today the word stove conjures up the large blocky industrially-made appliance that sits in the kitchen and produces heat fairly automatically. It cooks and bakes with an increasingly interesting array of fuels. It is almost universally owned and found in just about every American kitchen, is a nuisance to keep clean, and is sometimes a great source of pride and status.

In earlier times the word stove referred to a number of different utensils, considerably smaller and more modest in size and scope, and usually portable. It was not found in every home, and did not bear the responsibility for daily meal preparation. It was, instead, a rather luxurious tool associated with more privileged cookery.

In fact the word was applied to a number of different cooking tools.

First there was the stove that suggested a small chamber which held glowing coals and served as a low temperature drying oven. Candied fruits and vegetables (comfits, suckets, and sweetmeats) were sometimes set inside this chamber to complete their drying off. Illustration: E. Smith [London, 1758] offered instructions “To Candy Orange Flowers,” in which the flowers are boiled, candied in syrup, and then “set in a stove [italics mine], or in the sun, and when they begin to candy take them out, and lay them on glasses to dry.” The stove heat, apparently comparable to England’s sunshine, was not easily sustained on the hearth.

Mrs. Smith was not the first: Predating her cookbook by some hundred years, a private recipe collection included directions for preserving algelica stalks, describing its use: “Lay them on plates, & set them in a stove, in which put a chafing dish of coles [coals] twice a day, till they be dry.” This kind of stove sounds more like an oven. It must have been large enough to contain both the heat source and the angelica stalks with enough distance between them so as not to overheat or burn the food. Seventeenth-century candying recipes often suggested that the final drying be done in a warm oven “after the bread is drawn, till they be dry and well candied.” The “stove” had several advantages, among them that one did not have to work around the bread-baking schedule, but one did have to own the thing. The status of candied foods was based not only on the high cost of the sugar but also its requisite equipment. Incidentally, this stove had the added advantage of being used at waist height on a tabletop or special stand, was convenient and easily supervised.

And then there was the small portable stove often associated with the military of the American War of Independence. It was basically a hinged grate suspended over a rack for coals, sitting on penny feet, an open footed cube with a wooden handle and only about 8 inches in each dimension. Such stoves were hand-forged, and probably not limited to the battlefield. Nor were they enclosed chambers, but rather portable burners, very likely adapted from the built-in stew stoves long-since known and used both in Europe and the colonies. They had the advantage of portability, as well as small, relatively cook fires so valuable in candying.

The word stove then had a variable history complete with confusing and flexible applications to a number of kinds of cooking apparatus that were sometimes tabletop and other times oven. And, apart from the subject of cooking stoves, the word came to signify the heating stove, the precursor to central heating. That’s another story.

The fantastic large cook stoves were not new to the nineteenth century, despite their great development and general use in that period. The early Puritans had known bank or box stoves in Holland, where they had already been in use for over one hundred years. Illustrations in early European cookbooks suggest that they were in use far longer. At first of masonry construction, they were like table-tops, the fire below feeding individual grated openings upon which one set the pots or a small spitted roast. Needless to say these were not to be found in ordinary homes, but rather in the kitchens of those with means, and were often presided over by professional cooks. Sometimes these evolved into what became known as stew stoves of various sizes, sometimes so large that the large open cauldron was built into a masonry base and heated by its own firebox below. Such stew stoves were common in the almost-institutional kitchens that fed large numbers daily, as in the courts of Europe or the communal kitchens of the American Shakers, where they produced mammoth stews and soups.

The growing production of smelted and cast iron in Europe encouraged the evolution of stew stoves into cast-iron plate stoves. The first foundry in the American colonies, the Saugus blast furnace (1645) smelted bog iron with charcoal and cast “pots…, mortars, stoves, and skillets,” although it is unclear whether they were for heating or cooking.

However, before 1750 box stoves were made and used. In the colonies they were expensive compared with those of Europe. German immigrants were sometimes advised to bring their own stoves with them, an easy enough thing to do as they were made of interlocking plates, sometimes bolted, and easily broken down and reassembled. At first simple five-plate ovens with adjacent fire boxes, they were expanded inventively to become the dominating centerpiece of the Victorian kitchen. Often constructed with two or more ovens and six or eight removable lids, it was possible to set one’s pots anywhere on the stove top, to slide them from one end to the other to achieve the necessary temperature. A system of dampers and flues controlled the fire in the firebox and consequently the stove top and oven—the successful cook trained herself to a constant routine of heat checks and fuel and air flow adjustments.

By the turn of the century electricity and soon gas were to supplant wood and coal, eliminating the need for chimneys and stove pipes. Modern stoves are available in choices that seem unrelated to the early cooking devices of the same name. Yet one sometimes finds an old-fashioned bank stove used in a fine restaurant, or an Aga cooker that uses the same principle; and more than nostalgic cook dreams of the kitchen that will hold a working Victorian cookstove.

The following two recipes are taken from W.M., The Compleat Cook And A Queen’s Delight (London, 1655), facsimile edition by Prospect Books, London: 1984. They are offered with reenactors in mind, or perhaps those interested in period banquets. They are simple enough to adapt to a modern stove, and the results are worth it.

Recipe: To dry any Fruits after they are preserved, or to Candy them

The preserving referred to requires that the fruit be pared, cored, and sliced (not too small) and simmered slowly in a syrup made of 2 parts sugar and 1 part water. Some early recipes suggest, instead, that you mix the prepared fruit with equal weight of sugar, let it sit overnight in a cool place, and then (adding no additional liquid) bring the fruit and its sugary liquid to a boil and simmer until the fruit is translucent. This usually takes an hour or two, depending on the fruit.

Take Pippins, Pears or Plums, and wash them out in warm water from the syrup they are preserved in, strew them over with searsed (strained) Sugar, as you would do flower [flour] upon fish to fry them; set them in a broad earthen Pan, that they may lie one by one; then set them in a warm Oven or Stove to dry. If you will candy them withall, you must strew on Sugar three or four times in the drying.

Recipe: To Make clear Cakes of Plums

The following kind of sweetmeat is far more demanding, but enticing nevertheless. With a kitchen stove that can maintain low temperatures (150 –175 degrees), the work is considerably simplified.

Take Plums of any sorts, Raspiss are the best, put them in a stone Jug (stoneware crock), into a pot of seething [boiling]water, and when they are dissolved, strain them together through a fair cloth, and take to a pint of that a pound of sugar, put to as much color [heat?] as will melt it, and boil to a Candy height [220 degrees], boil the liquor likewise in another Posnet, then put them seething hot together, and so boil a little while stirring them together, then put them in glasses, and set them in an Oven or Stove in a drying heat, let them stand so two or three weeks, and never be cold, removing them from one warm place to another, they will turn in a week; beware you set them not too hot, for they will be tough; so every day turn them till they be dry; they will be very clear.

Recipe: To Candy Angelico Stalks

The following recipe is taken from Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, [ca. 1625] edited by Karen Hess, New York: Columbia University, 1981. If you are one of the few lucky ones with access to angelica or have it in your garden, here’s the way to make it usable.

About a weeke in aprill [in England, remember], take of ye [off the]stalks of angelico, & boyle them in faire water till they be tender. then pill ye thin scin off them [pull the thin skin off them] & squees them betwixt 2 plates till all ye water be out. then brayd them If you like it, & boyle them to A candy [height, 220 degrees] in sugar as other roots be done. then dry them in a stove.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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