May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
In people of a certain age, the sight of a gas cookstove like the threeburner Glenwood at right evokes the same nostalgia as a 1940s radio or an automobile with running boards. On such stoves the pot roasts of our childhood simmered; in their ovens baked the pumpkin pies of Thanksgiving and the peanut-butter cookies that cooled on racks as we came in from school. The gas stove was indestructible, and nothing ever went wrong with it. But its appeal goes beyond the practical. These stoves are “more than metal objects,” according to one dealer in vintage ranges, which have come back into vogue in decorator kitchens. “They are really pieces of art.”
How the march of civilization culminated in the kitchen range is not a long story. Until recent times meals for the rich as well as the poor were cooked on open fires. In any season cooking was a hellish business, not merely uncomfortable but dangerous for housewives in long skirts. How to improve on the open hearth was a problem that occupied many inventive minds, including Benjamin Franklin’s, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (Franklin’s famous stove was not a range but an iron box with flues that improved the fireplace’s efficiency.)
The first breakthrough was the cast-iron range fired by coal or wood—essentially a furnace under a cooking surface. These monsters dominated American kitchens for most of the last century. In open-hearth cookery all ingredients went into one caldron. With a stove the cook could simmer, braise, and bake all at once. Though the heat source was erratic, needing to be watched and stirred as carefully as the food, a dexterous cook could create such delicacies as puddings and angel food cakes even as her vegetables stewed separately from the meat. Still, as with open-hearth cooking, trees had to be felled and the wood chopped, or the hopper filled with expensive coal. Ashes had to be lugged away. And the stove was black and dirty. In well-off households it was often banished to the basement or to the back of the house, where it was tended by servants.
Finally, about mid-century, the gas burner appeared, harnessing the heat for cooking within a small, almost magical ring of iron. In 1859, when the first commercial petroleum wells were dug in Pennsylvania, the natural gas they produced, having no known use, was allowed to escape into the air. But before long it was being piped to households in cities across America.
For the average householder, switching from open-hearth to gas cooking meant plumbing or replumbing, buying the stove, paying for the hookup, and then—for all eternity—paying a monthly utility bill. However, the hard-pressed husband and provider might economize by dismissing the servants, who were becoming scarce anyway. Increasingly, middle-class and even wealthy wives took over their kitchens. By 1915 the first thermostatically controlled ovens had appeared, ushering in the day when food could be cooked unattended. Housekeeping manuals for women that had once begun, tactfully, “Instruct your maid …” now told them housework was a labor of love. Advertisements for stoves promised “new freedom for women” and pictured freshly coiffed housewives setting timers and departing in their coats and hats. The phrase gas-stove wife came to mean a clubwoman and gadder-about-town.
Gradually the cookstove became a piece of furniture—a tabletop with work surfaces, drawers, and cabinets for storing utensils. A whole new battery of utensils made of lightweight aluminum, tempered glass, and ceramic replaced the heavy cast iron and galvanized tin of earlier times. Recipes underwent fundamental changes, and the cookbook business boomed. By the 1920s most ranges were clad in white porcelain enamel; by the 1930s they were designed in pastel shades to merge with cabinets and match refrigerators. The look of the American kitchen was thus set for the rest of the century: light, spotless, efficient.
The benefits of all this reverberated beyond kitchen walls. No longer did meals have to be cooked in bulk and served up endlessly as leftovers, with their tendency to go bad. Coupled with the mechanical refrigerator, gas ranges (and, of course, the later-arriving electrics) gradually made dyspepsia obsolete. As the national larder became stocked with vegetables and fruits year round, the modern range was there for easy cooking.
Thus the range not only lightened women’s work but played its role in lengthening American life expectancy and improving health. For many people the trusty gas stove has never been improved on. Refurbished, refitted gas stoves sell for little more than their modern counterparts and stand as symbols of everything that’s durable, believable, homemade.