CORNWALL, Pa. — Long before the days of central heating systems, stoves assembled from iron plates heated households during the 18th and 19th centuries. While such stoves did not convey large quantities of warmth beyond their immediate vicinities, they were safer and more versatile than open-flame hearths. These stoves also sported artistic designs, usually incorporating the name of the furnace where produced, the ironmaster’s identity, the year of manufacture and words of wisdom, as well.
Richard Martin, a historical researcher from Penryn, Lancaster County, presented a program on these iron stoves and stove plates on April 11 as part of the Cornwall Iron Furnace lecture series, at the state historic site in Lebanon County. Titled “Warm Your Hands Here,” Martin’s presentation described the various styles of early American iron stoves, stove plates and fire backs he encountered during his research.
Interestingly, he said that stove manufacturing was merely a sideline business to use up excess molten iron left over from the main business of iron furnaces — converting iron ore into “pig iron.” The pig iron, 120 pound, 3-foot-long “loaves,” would eventually be sent on to nearby forges to be hammered into 1-inch-by-2-inch-by-16-foot lengths of “bar iron.” A blacksmith could later heat and work the bar iron into necessities such as tools or household utensils.
During each 12-hour shift, iron furnace workers completed one pour of molten iron which would run out of the furnace through grooves in the floor leading to a trench where the iron “pigs” were formed. Any extra quantities of the molten metal would be directed into making items like flasks or the rectangular plates that were assembled into iron stoves, or used as the “fire backs” set at the rear of a fireplace to project heat into the room.
The “jamb stove” was one early iron stove style, Martin said. It was a five-sided box, with the back of the stove left open. This enabled it to be inserted through the rear wall of a kitchen fireplace, facing into the room adjoining the kitchen. Long tongs were then used from the kitchen side to put an already burning piece of wood inside the jamb stove to ignite it and heat the stove room. The side panels of these stoves included one longer rear edge known as the “wall margin,” which stuck through the back of the fireplace wall and held the jamb stove in place. While these stoves were quite primitive, many featured ornate artwork on their stove plates.
One such jamb stove made at the Cornwall Furnace was displayed as a conversation piece years later, set into the wall of the J.H. Steinman mansion in Lancaster. Steinman was a lawyer and newspaper publisher. The Steinman stove featured stove plates bearing designs with hearts, tulips, stars, wheat sheaves and twisted columns. It also displayed some of the “twisted” spellings found on such stove plates in the days when the artisans were often German speakers who spelled English words and names phonetically. For instance, Steinman’s jamb stove is inscribed “CORTUS GROB FOR,” with the intent of referencing Curtis Grubb’s Furnace; Grubb was the Cornwall Furnace’s ironmaster. A German phrase translated as “God is my salvation” was more accurately recorded on the stove plate: “Got ist mein Heil.”
The “draft stove” represented the next generation of iron plate stoves, according to Martin. It included technological improvements such as a draft wicket to allow air into the stove, a fuel door for adding wood and sometimes an exterior shelf designed to catch ashes. It was raised off the floor by legs, unlike the rock used to support a jamb stove. The draft stove’s greatest feature, however, was its stovepipe connection, so it no longer needed to be set into a chimney and could be more centrally located for better heat distribution.
The “10-plate stove” took the draft stove to a new level, according to Martin. The addition of plates inside this stove’s structure permitted it to house an oven, which replaced outdoor, brick, bake ovens. These stoves continued to have attractive designs in the iron, such as one produced in Brickerville at Henry Stiegel’s Elizabeth Furnace. In addition to handsome scrollwork and a farmhouse image incorporated into its iron plates, its side panel depicts a well-known Aesop’s fable about a dog with a bone who saw his reflection in a pond, then dropped his bone while attempting to get the one he saw in the reflection.
Ironically, while the names of the ironmaster and iron furnace were almost always included on the stove plates they produced, the identities of the talented craftsmen who designed the decorative components went unpublicized. They tended to be itinerant craftsmen of German descent who spent a few months at a furnace, carving their patterns into wood that was then pressed into dampened sand spread on the casting floor adjacent to the iron furnace. Ironworkers would ladle molten iron into these impressions in the sand. Eventually the patternmaker would move on to another furnace to ply his trade there.
Aside from the talent of the patternmakers, the quality of the iron stove plates depended on the binder used to hold the sand impressions together. In early times, manure was used, but did a poor job of binding the sand securely. Eventually, other binders would lead to better results, as evidenced by the crisper images found on iron plate stoves from later eras.
Other features and styles of iron stoves evolved over time, Martin said. Wooden or brass control knobs were cooler to the touch, while soot scrapers and ash pans added new levels of convenience. Ann Nutt, the widow of ironmaster Samuel Nutt, established Warwick Furnace in Chester County in 1737; she added the woman’s touch of a pot warmer to the top of the 10-plate stove, enabling it to be used for stove-top cooking, as well as for baking. Her Warwick Furnace is also credited with producing the first Franklin stove.
The Stiegel cannon stove was comprised of three barrel-like iron vessels set atop each other. It was 18-1/2 inches in diameter at its base and weighed 1,920 pounds. Weight was of significance, because iron stoves were sold by the pound in those days, so it would’ve cost a pretty penny.
Inscriptions on the iron plate stoves often had biblical themes. “God’s well has water in plenty” is the translation from German on a 1748 stove produced in Adamstown, Lancaster County. Another Biblically inspired stove plate subject from 1742 depicts Joseph being tempted by Potiphar’s wife, who is shown beckoning him from a canopy bed. The accompanying caption says, “The woman who seeks to corrupt Joseph” and cites the First Book of Moses, Chapter 13; however, Chapter 39 in Genesis is where that story is found.
Richard Martin, the descendent of a charcoal burner at the Mount Hope Furnace in Lancaster County and a tour guide at Cornwall Iron Furnace, is the author of “The Ironmasters of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.” Martin may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-665-3342.