Affairs of the Hearth

History of Glenwood Stoves manufactured by Weir Stove & Range Co.

by Richard Conniff

Photographs by Clint Clemens

On the old route from Amherst to Albany, in the hilly western part of Massachusetts, there is a former stagecoach stop, post office and general store that somehow survived intact as if the horses just pulled away from the door.

In a second-floor bedroom, a “four o’clock” stove – stoke it before bed and it will keep you warm till four o’clock – stands ready to provide heat for overnight guests, as it has since 1848. There is also a wood-and-coal fired range in the main kitchen. In the parlor, the present owner of the house, a great- great- great- great- great- granddaughter of the original builder, still warms herself beside a Glenwood parlor stove, with a nickel-plated footrest on the front and a baroque urn on top. Is it a good stove, she says, aside from being handsome. “We use it for real,” she adds, “not for fun.”

There was a time, from about 1850 to 1930, when almost everyone used such stoves seldom just for fun. The black cast iron range was a cherished fixture of every modern kitchen. Stoves also made the other rooms of the house comfortable in winter for the for the first time, replacing open fires that threw of more light than heat. In general stores and on steamboats, where stoves often burned tobacco juice as well as wood, the seduced strangers into putting up their feet and sharing a story. In schools and churches, to which children had learned to walk to on frozen toes, they were a sure cure for chills.

The cast-iron stove was not just an appliance, or even a mere necessity, it was one of the glories of civilization. In 1886, when the demand for stoves was approaching its peak, one high-minded company traced the origins of the trade back to portable blaziers at Pompeii, and even by Bezaleel for the alter of the temple. The American stove was “unquestionably one of our crowing triumphs,” in a class with the steamboat and the telephone.

It may be that you need to have suffered the itching and inflammation of chilblain, or survived a New England winter watching your breath turn to ice by the open hearth. Early stoves, including the open-fronted model developed by Benjamin Franklin, tended to be effective. A Philadelphia man who used such stoves wrote in 1749, “How warm our stove rooms seem in winter! And yet the highest they ever raised my thermometer was to 56 degrees!”

The triumphant advance in stoves began with the invention of the first airtight model in 1836. It caught on so well that Oliver Wendell Holmes thought the old patriot watchword “Strike for your altars and your airtights.” A succession of other improvements, including the first cook tops, followed rapidly, and mass production techniques made the new stoves widely available. At one point or another over the next three quarters of a century, more than 2,000 American companies competed in the manufacture of this remarkable product. The Glenwood Range Company, then of Taunton, Mass., was considered by many to be the best of the lot.

Thomas Slattery, who started working for Glenwood as a clerk to the purchasing agent in 1919, recalls the way they made stoves then. For a typical day’s production of, say, 500 oven doors, a crew of “moulders” worked all morning and into the afternoon preparing the “flasks” into which molten iron would be poured. Each flask was a wooden box which opened like a suitcase. The moulders filled both halves with a fine sand, the bedding in which they set the pattern for the oven door. They packed the tight with rammers, which looked like potato mashers. Then they took out the pattern, leaving its impression in the sand.

Huge furnaces called cupolas meanwhile smelted pig iron at temperatures of 2,600 degrees. At 2:30 each afternoon, the molten liquid was poured into the flasks, and left to cool for an hour or two. The resulting oven door came out somewhat rough, even with moulding sands that Slatterly says, “were like silk between your fingers.” Then, a crew of so-called “rattlers” ground off burrs and polished the door smooth before sending it to be fitted with hardware and built into a stove.

The old stoves, and especially Glenwoods, were assembled with extraordinary precision. Richard “Stove Black” Richardson, who has made a business of finding and restoring them at the Good Time Stove Company in Goshen, Mass., says modern wood stoves just can’t compare. “It’s like matching a Rolls Royce against a Cadillac,” he explains. :they are both good cars, but the craftsmanship that goes into the Rolls is a world apart. Same with the stoves. They just did things better in those days. They didn’t have fireproof rope for caulking joints then; everything had to fit precisely. If it didn’t, it didn’t get out of the factory. You can close a 100-year-old oven door on a piece of paper even now and not be able to pull it out.

According to Richardson, the old manufacturers also had the technology – down drafting systems, baseburners, indirect flues, smoke doors, baffles, warming ovens build in around the flue pipe. Even the broad skirts and heavy rings on a potbellies stoves were functional. They blocked the upward flow of heat, casting it down and out.

The stove manufacturers did just make stoves that worked well, they also made them pretty, decorate with acorns, oak leaves, cherubs, sunbursts, and grapevines. Sometimes they made them grandiose in keeping with names like The Splendid, The Progress, The Triumph. The finial for the Art Garland stove of the 1880s was a miniature Roman Centurion with shield upraised. ON a range manufactured in 1870 by the J. L. Mott Ironworks. St. George slew dragons while apple pies baked within. But the ornate urns that topped so many stoves actually has a function. They were kept filled with water to counter the dehumidifying effects of the fire, and also the water could be laced with aromatics if the smell of hot iron was overwhelming.

The world was clearly delighted with all of this. In Taunton where Glenwood was based, the local newspaper reported that “The Taunton globe-trotter will find no warmer friend in Manitoba or in Russia, or in the uppermost parts of the earth, than the stove made in Taunton – and he will find that homemade product there, you may be sure.” Indeed one of the company’s testimonials came from a man who carried his range 380 miles by ox team across South Africa, using various fuels en route. Small ranges also accompanied pioneers heading west, where buffalo ships were said to produce a “satisfactory” fire.

Of course, most stoves poured out by American companies ended up in ordinary home, warming parlors and cooking sunday roasts. To get them there, the manufacturers typically relied on department store, general stores, mail-order catalogs, and conventional advertising. A notable exception was the Wrought Iron Range Company of St. Louis, whose door-to-door representative was known in farm areas around the country as the “Home Comfort Man.” According to Richard Richardson, who once met a retired Home Comfort Man, the idea was to bring “a small stove-selling circus” to the prospective buyer.

The Home Comfort Man showed up on the farm at 7 or 8 am, when the farmer would be taking his first break, then worked with him in the field all day, and finally provided the evening’s entertainment for the host family and their neighbors. After various flamboyant demonstrations on the virtues of his product, he would invite his listeners to “take your heaviest hammer and your brightest blows on this stove lid. break the lid and the stove will be yours.”

If he made a sale, the Home Comfort Man then spent the next day setting up the stove and cooking the first meal as a demonstration for the local housewives. Clearly, these salesman were heroic, and their product was also evidently satisfactory, as hundreds of thousands of stoves were sold.

The stoves and ranges became symbols of domestic harmony. One author wrote fondly of days where she “sat on a cricket in front of a Franklin-type stove, while my grandfather read Shakespeare aloud, and poked the fire when necessary for dramatic emphasis.” Old recipes and handbooks of kitchen hints shed light on that era – “If one insists on using kerosene as a fire kindler,” an early Heloise advised, “better pour a pint or so into an old tin pail and stand overnight as many corncobs in it as a pail will hold. The cobs will be thoroughly saturated by morning and are not so dangerous to use.” A recipe for blackbird pie begins, “Dress and cleanse well, a dozen blackbirds as you would pigeons…”

The cast iron stove passed into history, finally, on the issue of convenience. Gas and kerosene ranges were cleaner and less cumbersome. Some people simply converted their stoves and ranges to the new fuels, and the merchants who did the work made a point of removing firebrick and grates so there could be no turning back.

Many of the old stoves lingered on until World War II, when they served as scrap for munitions. Some still survive in barns and garages, where Richardson and other aficionados ferret them out. Sometimes, he says, an old timer will bring in a stove, not to sell, but to have restored and set up in a place of honor at home. It is not strictly a matter of sentimental value. Says Richardson: “They knew how to build stoves the. And they built them right.”

Richard Conniff lives with his family in Southeastern Connecticut, and seems to know more about chilblains than any living human. Maybe we should send him a stove?

The kitchen stove was the country’s first real appliance, and with it came an entire new industry of accessory items including the ubiquitous stove polish.

Taunton had already been dubbed the “Stove City” because of its many foundries, when the first Glenwood range was built in 1879, but the brand quickly became the city’s most famous.

It took more than 260 separate pieces to make a Glenwood stove, and every oven including the oven grill, proudly displayed the flourish of the craftsman.

Although small cooking stoves were in use as early as the 1840s, the full-size kitchen range wasn’t developed until the 1880s. By the turn of the century, they were being built by the thousands. One of the best was the Modern Glenwood Home Grand, which boasted features as a thermometer in the oven door, six removable cooklids, a shelf on the right for keeping pots warm, two back warming shelves, and a firebox large enough to take 20-inch logs. The cast-iron range was used not only for cooking and baking but also to supply hot water for the home and heat for the adjoining rooms.

When three friends pooled $100 each back in 1879 to buy an old barn in Taunton, Mass., and set up an iron foundry, they really had little idea of how their business would develop. At first the plant was devoted solely to turning out iron castings, but before the end of the first year, the three had decided to venture into the stove business. To George Wilbur, a skilled patternmaker, went the task of designing the first Glenwood stove. His partners, William Walker and Charles Baker, took up the challenge of assembling the parts into finished stoves at the rate of four a day. Later, when increased demand called for more foundry help, Baker took up the job of foundry foreman, and Walker went on the road visiting customers in all parts of New England and spreading the Glenwood name far and wide. The Glenwood stove was at first, a small plain, simply made cook stove that worked itself into the market quickly, and with its slogan “Make Cooking Easy.” Gradually, more models were added, and the company prospered as the nation’s premier stove maker. After World War I, the need for cooking ranges made from cast iron declined as sheet steel became popular. Then, in 1948, the company shut down the Taunton foundry and consolidated operations at its plant in Delaware, Ohio, near Columbus. In 1978 Glenwood Range Company was acquired by Raytheon, and operates today as a part of the company’s Caloric subsidiary.

The Glenwood furnace catalog listed coal and wood-burning models, yet the company never entered the specialty-stove market to compete with such items as the seven-iron tailor stove.

Most give credit for the first cast iron stove to Ben Franklin in the 1770s, but it wasn’t until a hundred years later that the home-heating stoves reached their peak – the point, according to “Stove Black” Richardson, where “form and function were so beautifully integrated.” The Glenwood parlor stove and the larger Glenwood Oak are two of the most popular examples of the stove as art in the late 19th century. “It’s hard to describe just how beautifully designed these impressive heaters were,” Richardson says, “except today that the new stoves on the market today seem crude by comparison.”