I come from a place where the weather is warm nearly all year round. When it gets “cold” in the desert, meaning it drops into the 40’s for an hour or two at night, my mother would always turn on the heat.  Our heat came out of vents in the wall near the ceiling, which pushed warm air into each room.  Boy was I confused when I moved to a place with really cold weather.

Here in central New York there are so many ways to heat your house from radiant floor heating, to baseboard, to radiator, to wood or pellet stoves. The baseboard heaters in my first house were possibly the loudest thing I’d ever experienced as they boomed and clanged and made dripping water sounds at inopportune times of the night. Heaters, a new experience.

How one heats the house is a strong vein of conversation among homeowners around here. People compare cost effectiveness, upgrades, sustainability, and environmental impact and also just how well they heat.

What I have come to realize through the study of local material culture is that this obsession with warmth is not a new thing. In fact the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) and The Farmers’ Museum can attest to this obsession through their rather large collection of heating stoves from the nineteenth century. This concern for heating makes sense here because in the past and today the average winter temperature is in the teens or twenties.

Looking at NYSHA’s collection of nineteenth-century stoves I was struck by how beautiful many of the them were.  Instead of being made plainly of cast iron plates, many of the stoves had floral, geometric, or neoclassical motifs cast into the  iron plates. It became clear that these stoves were meant to be seen. Frequently occupying central positions in parlors and bedrooms these cast iron stoves were not hidden like todays heat sources. Perhaps for this very reason by the mid to late 1800s stove making had taken on a high level of artistry. As the book Cast with Style notes, stove manufactures in the Albany, NY area were concerned with following Victorian tastes by incorporating popular styles such as motifs from nature, Italian and Greek architecture, and Gothic cathedrals and castles.

There is a particularly good example of the Gothic Revival Style in The Farmers’ Museum collection. The Gothic Revival Style was most popular in the United States from 1825 to 1880 and was marked by a revival of architectural and artistic elements popular originally during the medieval period in Europe.  Characterized by pointed arches, rose window motifs, and dramatic carving, the Gothic Revival style attempted to mimic and appropriate the elements found on Gothic cathedrals in Europe. This style was not limited to architecture as evidenced by the “Castle” parlor stove in The Farmers’ Museum Collection in Cooperstown, NY.

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“Castle” Parlor Stove, Manufactured: Troy, NY, G.W. Eddy, Patented 1853, The Farmers Museum, Cooperstown, NY, F0533.1945

The “Castle” stove model was patented in 1853 by the stove manufacturer G.W. Eddy of Troy, N.Y. This stove embodies the Gothic revival style with a geometric star design on all four sides hearkening back to stained glass windows of Gothic cathedrals. Several pointed arches and the central tower give it a Gothic “castle” or “cathedral” feel. This stove is rather large and, to my modern taste, a bit imposing.  Can you imagine having something so large as a permanent feature somewhere in your living room today? It just does not fit with our modern aesthetic, but during the Victorian era stoves like these were at the height of popularity.

The mid to late 1800s were a boom time for heating and cooking stoves with hundreds of thousands being produced yearly in the Albany area alone! With so many stove designers and manufactures competing for business it is understandable that they would attempt to produce eye catching models in popular styles to gain the business of a populace with so many choices available.

Today when heating our homes we look for options that are the least obtrusive and as invisible as possible. During the Victorian era it was impossible to hide one’s stove–the technology had just not reached that level yet. It seems to counter this lack of invisibility Victorians decided to treat the stove like any other piece of furniture preferring over the top, highly ornate styles.

-Mary Bryn  Alexander, CGP 2014

Further Reading:

Groft, Tammis Kane. Cast with style: nineteenth century cast-iron stoves from the Albany area. Albany, N.Y.: Albany Institute of History and Art, 1981.

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.

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