Porcelain Stoves

Considered a major leap forward in housekeeping, porcelain stoves made it much easier to keep the kitchen clean and helped brighten the room.

| August 2015

My article on kitchen cookstoves in the March 2012 issue of Farm Collector, What Goes Around, Comes Around: Wood-Burning Cook Stoves Enjoy Resurgence, resulted in dozens of responses. Several people who live in our little town even sought me out because they Googled wood- and coal-burning cookstoves and came across my name. Maybe the reason for the surprising interest in those old stoves is that everyone who is older experienced them when growing up. Before electric and gas stoves became commonplace, the wood-burning kitchen range was the heart of every home.

As can be expected, some people wanted to know the value of a given stove. Often they’d inherited a kitchen range from a deceased relative. When email was used, pictures of the stove in question were sometimes included. What has become obvious is the vast majority of wood- and coal-burning kitchen cookstoves that still exist are the modern ones with porcelain (the industry called it “enamel”) surfaces.

I grew up in a home that had a cream-colored porcelain cookstove with red trim. One of my jobs as a child was to carry wood in every evening to keep the wood box full. Not only were all of our meals cooked on that stove, it also heated water stored in a tank that stood behind it. It was purchased new in the mid-1930s, long before I arrived on the scene, as one of the few new items my parents were able to buy during the Great Depression. They were proud of the stove. I don’t remember much about it other than it just had a shelf on top instead of warming ovens. It was obviously one of the cheaper models. They were so poor when starting out in married life, if anyone came to visit and wanted to sit, they had to bring their own chairs.

Revolutionizing the kitchen

Black-and-nickel kitchen ranges were the standard for decades. However, when stoves with porcelain surfaces were developed, it was considered a major leap forward in housekeeping. Wood and coal are by nature dirty items that had to be carried daily into a kitchen. Keeping the stove that burned them clean was a chore. The many nooks and crannies where the shiny nickel trim pieces were attached caught all kinds of dirt and soot. One doesn’t just take a rag and wipe the surfaces of that type of stove. They were charming in appearance and an efficient source of heat, but they made keeping a clean home difficult.

I have been unable to find historical accounts describing the development of the process of applying porcelain to stove surfaces. Photographic evidence suggests that the process began with the smaller parts of the stove. In those models, the main stove was still black and nickel, but features like the oven door and warming oven lids were covered with porcelain. It is safe to assume that manufacturing facilities where porcelain could be applied to large objects did not exist. By the 1930s, however, it was possible to have porcelain covering all surfaces except the actual cooking surface.

That revolutionized the kitchen. Suddenly it was possible to buy beautiful kitchen ranges in many colors. Most were light colored; cream was the most popular. Some even had a contrasting color for visual effect. For the first time, the major object in the kitchen helped brighten the room. If and when a complete history of the cookstove in America is written, it will reveal the dramatic shift that took place in only a few years from the traditional black-and-nickel stoves to porcelain models.