The Historian: The evolution of the cooke stove, Part I

This reproduced five plate stove has been installed at the Mhulenberg House in Trappe.
This reproduced five plate stove has been installed at the Mhulenberg House in Trappe.

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 reshape living patterns. Stove pipe changed the shape of houses, changed methods of cooking and, most importantly, changed the whole pattern of domestic life.

First a little back-story.

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.

From the start, most German houses and some English houses in this area had iron stoves, but they were stoves without pipe used for heating.

In the stove room

During the first three-quarters of the 18th century most every house built in the German area had the same 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.

Pennsylvania German immigrants considered the iron stove a necessity for life. Recently arrived David Seibt wrote from Germantown December 20, 1734, to his brother in Europe who was contemplating coming to America, If you should come, bring with you an iron stove too. They are dear here, are better than the earthern ones that do not last so long, and are very high priced. A whole stove consists of five plates.

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: All statements to the contrary, 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 Buckwheat 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.

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.

Next week, part 2