The idiom, “slaving over a hot stove,” conjures an image of a woman finishing dinner before the man returns from work. In the 19th century, during the advent of catalog shopping and door-to-door salesmen, retail stores and appliance companies certainly advertised household items toward women to create the ideal housewife. However, as much as stoves represented housewifery and ideas of servitude, it expanded women’s roles in society, consequently providing an opportunity for the growth of the New Woman, who became involved in the suffrage movement.

Eclipse Stove

Eclipse Cast-Iron Stove, 19th century, Eclipse Stove Company, iron, H: 21″ x W: 20″ x D: 9″. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Donation of Amelia D. Bielaski, Amelia D. Bielaski Estate Collection, N0162.1979. Photograph by Brielle Cameron. 

This miniature Eclipse cast-iron stove, perhaps a salesman’s model, offers a glimpse into how and why a simple stove design left such a lasting impact on women. This miniature includes a frying pan, coal bucket, teakettle, and kettle bucket, all in the hopes of selling a real one to a housewife. The sleek design and ornamentation contributed to its desirability as it conveyed wealth without the lofty price tag. [1]

With this new stove, a wife cooked more food in a shorter amount of time, much to the delight of her working husband. Appearing in catalogs, such as Sears Roebuck, stores marketed the stove toward housewives, giving them ownership over the domestic sphere with the time to complete other household tasks. [2] Efficient and economical, the cast-iron stove quickly replaced hearths in households. Unintended by the producers of the stove, those two characteristics made it possible for women to move away from domesticity and into expanded roles.

In the late 19th century, women began to break free of societal expectations and conventional roles. Often labeled as the New Woman by historians, these women received a higher education and realized they did not necessarily want the life of a wife and mother. Thus, the New Woman moved into settlement homes with others who shared the same values. [3] They entered the workforce either in factories, business or teaching professions. Their expanded role lead to an increased awareness of the pitfalls of American society against women. Correspondingly, the New Woman was often synonymous with the growing suffrage movement.

Though no longer confined to the home, cooking was still part of daily life. Herein lies the importance of the new cast-iron stoves and its influence on women maintaining their newfound freedom. As stated before, the cast-iron stove’s efficiency meant that people were not tied to the kitchen all day. Instead, the New Woman who chose to work, or wanted an expanded role in society, could return home to make their dinner. Cast-iron stoves sold at cheaper rates, making it easier to buy for people on a budget, and quickly became popular in the average home. [4]

With the advantage of increased flexibility, the New Woman took the opportunities to enter public society and fight for their rights, whether that be in the suffrage movement or challenging defined gender roles. They did not want to be confined or defined by domesticity. Who knew simple design changes to a regular household kitchen appliance could give the New Woman the freedom to sustain their ideas.

By: Alexa Wichowsky

Citations:

[1] Pauline K. Eversmann, The Winterthur Guide to Recognizing Styles. (Delaware: The Henry Francis Du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc., 2001), 90.

[2] Eclipse Stove Co. Eclipse Stoves, Catalog Number 26: Illustrating Cast and Steel Ranges, Cast Cook, Heating Stoves for Coal and Wood and School Heating Apparatus., 5.

[3] Susan M. Cruea, Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Women Movement. (Ohio: General Studies Writing Faculty Publications, 2005), 199.

[4] Schwartz Cowan, More Work for the Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983.), 61.

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