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Keeping Things Hot With Victorian Stoves

Before the switch to electricity, cooking and keeping warm created hardships for many Victorian Era Americans. Imagine sitting in a one-room schoolhouse heated by a stove without proper insulation and techniques for spreading heat evenly. In a small booklet entitled the “Sullivan School Souvenir” dated 1894, a concerned teacher writes to the editor, giving us a glimpse of what it was like:

Mr. Editor: I teach in one of the outlying districts in Podunk, Maine (it really DID read "Podunk!"), in a little, old, red schoolhouse. You can look down through the cracks of the floor and see the sunshine, which is, of course, cheerful. The only way of heating the room is by an airtight stove. In the coldest days I have to let my scholars sit on settees near the fire, and even then they are not wholly comfortable. The other day one of my smallest scholars was crying, and on asking him the reason he said, “My face is blistered, boo hoo, and cold shivers is running up and down my back, too.” Now, what I want to know is, whether we are using direct or indirect heat, for whichever it is, I am going to petition the school board to put in the other kind. A speedy reply will oblige.

Mary Ann Green was referred to “Dr. H. V. Noyes of the building committee, Berwick, Maine.” Hopefully Mr. Noyes rectified the situation, although the students would have graduated by the time electric appliances were introduced.

Runny nosed children would probably come home hungry wanting a snack. Home cooked biscuits, breads and other treats may have been available, but usually mother would have worked quite hard to bake them, probably using a stove fueled by coal. According to a nifty book entitled Wonders of the Nineteenth Century published in 1900, people started using coal-fired stoves in 1830. The author estimated that there were between 80,000 and 90,000 different kinds of stoves for cooking and warming by 1900. (This created an interesting problem-what to do with the coal ashes? Mrs. Julia McNair Wright advises in her 1879 book The Complete Home, “the best purpose to which coal ashes can be applied, in town or country, is in making garden walks. If well laid down, no weed or grass will grow, and by use they become more as solid and more durable than bricks.”)

Housework was harder back then, but industry in the home was generally considered a virtue and a method to stay mentally well. One 19th Century Doctor recorded: “I have had more patients sent to me by idleness than by hard labor-of these, girls especially…the young girl with nothing to do begins to dwell upon herself in nervous introspection; she becomes hysterical…by degrees passes into mania, and she is fit only for an asylum.”



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