Considered a major leap forward in housekeeping, porcelain stoves made it much easier to keep the kitchen clean and helped brighten the room.
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.
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.
Those stoves were merely an interlude between what came before and the stoves that eventually did away with all wood/coal kitchen ranges. After World War II, gas and electric stoves came into vogue, and in less than a decade they had become the standard. Where gas and/or electricity were not available, the porcelain cookstove remained the stove of choice and black-and-nickel models were replaced over time. Thus today, porcelain wood/coal kitchen ranges are still found fairly regularly. Black-and-nickel stoves are quite rare. And since rarity determines value in our current society, nice black-and-nickel stoves are quite expensive. Porcelain stoves are much less so, even though they are, in some ways, superior.
My experience as an adult has been with black-and-nickel cookstoves. There is no question that nice ones are impressive visually. An entire industry has grown up around them, providing many restoration opportunities. Until recently, I had no experience with porcelain kitchen ranges for the simple reason that most had been unceremoniously scrapped when gas and electric stoves became popular a half century ago. In spite of the stoves’ clean modern appearance, nobody wanted old-fashioned things that burned wood and coal. As a young man, I remember seeing porcelain stoves discarded in landfills.
Then something I consider amazing happened. At the request of an aged relative, I spent some time walking around the living area of his rather large farmstead as he was unable to do so. I was asked to check things out to determine if vandalism had taken place anywhere in an area of about 4 acres bordered on three sides by trees. I was able to report things were just as they were supposed to be.
What I wasn’t prepared for was my discovery, in the farthest reaches of the property, of the farm’s scrapyard. For most of our nation’s history, there were no centralized junkyards (the nicer, more modern term is landfill) in rural areas, so it was common for farmers to dump their unwanted “stuff” in some ditch or defile on their property as far as possible from the living area. Amazing things accumulated there over the decades.
Although I was careful as I walked through chest-high weeds, I tripped over something unseen. When I stopped to examine it, I had to remove a rusty item or two as well as a bunch of small, dead branches. I got down on my hands and knees and brushed away a major accumulation of leaves. Amazingly, I had discovered a disassembled porcelain cookstove partially buried in the ground. In our dry climate, the exposed metal parts had only surface rust. The porcelain parts that were visible looked almost like new. After getting the owner’s permission, I pried the three major parts and a few minor ones out of the soil and put them in my pickup. The main part took two strong people to pick it up: It is made of heavy cast iron.
After many hours’ work over three days, I got everything cleaned and reassembled. That labor resulted in what I consider an impressive porcelain kitchen range. It has a few flaws, but they are what could be expected on a stove that was subjected to regular use over a long period of time.
The stove is a Kalamazoo Mayflower model that my relative told me was purchased in the early 1930s. It was used continually until the firebox burned out in about 1970, and the entire thing was discarded in the dump. It had been out in the weather for 45 years, but because most of its surfaces were protected by porcelain, it still looks great. Yes, the firebox is burned out. Kalamazoo Stove Works went out of business in 1952, but some parts are still available so maybe it can be put back into working order. Even if it can’t be, it is a beautiful item that will look great wherever a modern homeowner chooses to display it.
Many porcelain kitchen ranges that were at one time considered worthless junk are today visual treasures. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.