Modern gas or electric kitchen stoves and ranges are simple, clean and easy to use. They represent a significant advance over earlier models, which needed constant tending and burnt inefficiently. Using a stove from the beginning of the 20th century was difficult and time consuming. Most stoves of this period burnt wood or coal, with only a few electric and gas models on the market. All required much more attention than a modern range.
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Wood stoves were less common around the turn of the century than they had been in the preceding hundred years, since coal burnt hotter and more efficiently. However, many wood-burning ranges still existed. Made of heavy cast iron, these stoves had a firebox for wood. The fire heated the oven and four to six burners. Many stoves had a separate oven, called a "white oven," but in some, the oven and the firebox shared the same chamber. Warming ovens, placed off to the side, could be used to heat up leftovers and warm breads. The fire in a wood-burning kitchen stove could be started before every meal or allowed to burn all day. Antique wood-burning stoves usually have a long firebox to allow for big pieces of firewood.
Coal gradually superseded wood as a kitchen stove fuel because it burnt longer and hotter. Most coal kitchen stoves had a thick lining of fireclay inside and a smaller firebox than found in wood stoves. Also, the grates on a coal-burning stoves are set wider apart to allow more air flow. Otherwise, the stove closely resembles a wood-burner. Like wood-burning kitchen stoves, coal stoves were made of cast iron and required regular application of a substance called stove polish or stoveblack. This kept the surfaces evenly black and shiny, but it was messy and smelly to apply. Coal fires burn hotter than wood fires and were not usually allowed to go out through the day. A kitchen with a coal stove was usually very hot. Despite the increased heating power of coal, it was not a very efficient stove fuel; around 7/8 of the fuel's heating power went up the chimney, according to PBS.org.
The first gas kitchen stoves were developed in the early 19th century, but didn't begin to challenge wood and coal for cooking until the latter part of that century, when piped coal and coke gas was common for household lighting. These early stoves were low and boxy, with a shape similar to that of coal or woodburners, but without the large firebox. Gas stoves were usually smaller than more conventional stoves, and more of their surface stayed cool. They also reduced the labour of tending the fire and carrying fuel. However, gas service wasn't available in all places, and coal gas was toxic and cost more than wood or ordinary coal. According to the National Academy of Engineering, gas stoves didn't become common until the advent of natural gas, which was both safer and less costly. By 1930, US kitchens contained about twice as many gas ranges as wood or coal burning stoves, according to the NAE. Some people used combination gas and coal burners to keep kitchens cooler in summer.
While it took a long time for the electric stove to become popular, it did exist in the early 20th century. In addition to lighting and other electric appliances, the 1893 World's Fair included an electric cooktop exhibition. However, less than 10 per cent of homes were actually wired for electricity, and power was expensive. This made inefficient early electric stoves a viable option only for the very wealthy. Electric stoves were mostly a curiosity in the first part of the century, until functional oven thermostats and the spread of household wiring made them viable for middle class kitchens.
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- National Academy of Engineering: Great Achievements: Household Appliances History Part 1 - Cooking
- PBS.org: The 1900 House: Cooking and the Stove
- Join Me in the 1900s; The Cooking Range in a Working Class London Household in the Early 1900s; Pat Cryer
- "Popular Mechanics"; Antique Kitchen Stoves; Bob Vila; February 1990
- "Popular Science"; Electricity at the World's Fair; Charles M. Lungren; October 1893