The Historian: From fireplace to cookstove

This early ten plate stove is located in the Goschenhoppen Historians' Museum.
This early ten plate stove is located in the Goschenhoppen Historians' Museum.

Things often have unexpected consequences. Who would have thought that the English invention about 1750 of a process for rolling iron into sheets thin enough and large enough to produce stove pipe would alter the shape of American houses and re-shape living patterns. Stove pipe changed the shape of houses, changed methods of cooking and, most importantly, changed the pattern of domestic life.

In the beginning, which is to say during the Colonial era, cooking in this region was done in the fireplace. No matter if it was an iron masters grand house like the Popodickon Mansion with the kitchen in a separate building or the humblest log hut with a corner fireplace, food was prepared on the open hearth. Cooking at floor level meant an aching back for the cook as heavy cast iron pots, frying pans, dutch ovens and such were manipulated over hot embers.

In the stove room

During the first three-quarters of the 18th century most houses built in the Goschenhoppen Region had a similar foot-print. The houses were small, usually log, and a chimney built of local stone went up through the center of the house. At the base of the chimney was the cooking fireplace. The narrow kitchen, little more than a hallway, was situated on the cold northern and western side of the house. Cooking was done with cast iron vessels on the open fire.

About knee-high in the back wall of most every kitchen fireplace was a small arched opening about eighteen inches wide and as high. Called an Offenloch, (in English, stove-hole), it opened into the Schtube or stove room. This was the good room on the warm southern and eastern side of the house, and it was warmed by a particular kind of stove: the five plate.


Five plate stoves were indeed made of five heavy iron plates, each one about two feet by two feet square. The plates were thick and weighed in excess of fifty pounds each. The bottom plate was situated flush with the bottom of the stove-hole and so formed the floor of the stove upon which the wood fire burned. The fire wood was inserted into the stove from the kitchen. Smoke went back out through the stove-hole and up the central chimney. Since the stove was fueled from the kitchen, there was no stove door or smoke pipe.

Not a cook stove

The five plate stove was not a cook stove. However the top plate of the stove was plain and smooth and was, contrary to most articles written on the topic, occasionally used as a cooking surface as some families cooked certain foods in the Schtubb on top of the jamb stove.

Two people recalled three different types of cakes that were made on the stove. The earliest reference to cooking directly on the stove comes from George La Bars recollection of life in the 1770s. In his family Buck-wheat cakes were baked on this iron box in the opposite room from the kitchen. The La Bars used the top plate of the jamb stove as their cake plate. But cooking was, at most, minimal on the five plate stove top.

There is little doubt that the stoves heated the room well. One traveler during the winter of 1819 experienced, with some frequency among the Germans in Pennsylvania, the felicity of being nearly stifled with the heat of their stove rooms and the fumes of tobacco.

Stove Pipe When stoves began to have smoke pipes and no longer needed to be built into the backs of fireplaces, another change came to the Pennsylvania German house, the relocation of the fireplace from the middle of the house to a gable end and the enlargement of the kitchen.

The invention of stove pipe changed domestic life. Now the stoves could be free standing and placed anywhere in the room. Free standing stoves made of six cast iron plates instead of five were first produced in Pennsylvania in 1761 with the last known dated five plate cast in 1768. Its safe to say that few central chimney houses were built after this date.

Ten Plate stoves Most readers of this paper are sufficiently familiar with ten plate stoves as to need no lengthy description. But, in brief, first cast in 1765, ten plates are the likely genesis of all later cook stoves. Having a firebox on the bottom, a flat cooking surface on top, and a small oven with hinged doors in the middle this stove gradually accustomed house wives to stove cooking.

However: It must not be supposed that immediately every house had a ten plate stove! There were households in the Goschenhoppen where hearth cooking was still practiced into the twentieth century. Also, it seems the ten plate stove was more enthusiastically adopted in the German areas than in the more urban Anglo. Perhaps this was because of the Anglos predilection for the sight of the fire, and perhaps a bit of lingering anti-German sentiment as the closed stove was associated with the Germans.

Less clear is how the ten plate stove may have been adopted in the Pennsylvania Dutch living room (The English name for the Stube).

Despite the new chores of daily removing ashes and carrying wood into the living room, we find the old five plate stoves to have apparently fallen from fash-ion. There is no evidence to show that they were cast after the war. German houses built toward the end of the 18th century continued with a two or three room first floor plan; so the question is, how was the living room heated if not by a ten plate stove?

Where else were ten plates used? In short, everywhere. We find them pictured in workshops, public buildings such as taverns, and churches (with consid-erable controversy), in household kitchens as aux-iliary or seasonal cooking aides, and as noted, the heating source in the good room.

Fashion Rules:

Part of the appeal of the ten plate stove may have been aesthetic. The side plates and doors were not only ornately decorated, but curved and not flat as were the old five and six plates. These plates were cast in flask molds, a more difficult process that open casting, but one that yielded a thinner and more detailed casting. The ten plate stove seems to have had a dual function: it was more graceful and visually ap-pealing than the old five plate box stove, and the house wife could also do some small cooking and baking with it. Its quite limited capacity, though, made it no re-placement for the cooking hearth in a large family.

In the early 19th century the dual nature of the ten plate seems to have morphed into two branches. One branch evolved into the very ornate parlor stove for which literally hundreds of patents were subsequently issued, and the other branch moved to the kitchen and grew into the kitchen cooking stove. The first cook stoves were small and quite low, but importantly the firebox moved out from under the oven to the side of the oven. Between 1815 and 1829, 329 different patents were issued for stove designs and modifications.

As the century progressed, cook stoves (first called step stoves for the three ascending planes of their tops) became ever larger. Importantly, the fireboxes started to have grates for burning coal as well as wood. Coal became available with the development of canals (locally about 1830) and railroads. The transition from coal to wood was not always easy as cooks had to learn to manipulate handles and levers to control draft and dampers to burn the hard anthracite coal.

Despite the cost of coal, burning coal produced a more even, steady heat, all but eliminated the threat of chimney fires, and the fire could be held over night. Also, with coal, the endless chore of felling and splitting stove wood was all but gone.

A great variety of cook stoves became available, and its safe to say that most every house had one by the end of the 19th century. Stoves found on the grounds today were manufactured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Stop and chat with the cooks and ask them about using their kitchen cook stoves.