Tiled stoves were a wonderful way of heating homes in Northern Europe. I’ve often wondered why the British never used them. The settlers in North America hardly used them either, even in regions with bitter cold winters. At first they seem to have followed the British idea of having a fire to warm yourself by, rather than trying to keep a whole room warm. In English-speaking countries the open hearth reigned supreme long after other nations had taken to stoves, although there were some iron stoves in the early USA and colonial New England…. but I’ll write about them another day. This is more about ceramic glazed tile stoves, sometimes known by their German name of Kachelofen.
Stoves warm rooms more efficiently and cleanly than open fires. Heat doesn’t escape up the chimney, it’s safer and easier to keep them going overnight, and you don’t have to chop down so many trees to fuel them. (The Green movement has rediscovered wood-burning stoves.)
What explanations could there be for the traditional British resistance to stoves for heating? Some I’ve considered are discussed in Priscilla Brewer’s From Fireplace to Cookstove: Technology and the Domestic Ideal in America – essential reading if you’re interested in the history of heating and cooking stoves in the US. Can you think of any apart from these three?
- Milder winters than the rest of northern Continental Europe
- Distaste for the “unhealthy” idea of an enclosed warm room with “no” fresh air, no open chimney
- Feeling that open fires are part of the British way of life – supported by Lawrence Wright in the 1960s in Home Fires Burning
The stoves pictured here are not from mansions. There certainly are many fine stoves in palaces and grand houses, but these are the kind you can see in simple or middling houses.
Green seems to be a popular tile colour for rustic German stove rooms, with their characteristic benches and drying racks. In Sweden there are lots of tall, white stoves. If anyone knows more about regional styles of ceramic stove I’d love to hear from you.
A stove-room for the stove?
A stove used to mean a heated room, and not the thing heating it. In the 15th century the idea of keeping a living room warm, with heat radiating out through glazed tiles or iron panels, started to spread in German-speaking parts of Europe. There was still an open fire in the kitchen for cooking. This could be connected to an enclosed oven-box in the next room to create a warm space called the “stove” (German “Stube“). There might be enough heat to warm an adjacent bedroom too. It was a big step forward in comfort for people living in ordinary homes. A French traveller reported:
For the cold …. [German people] have stoves that heat in such a way that they are warm in their rooms, and in winter craftsmen do their work and keep their wives and children there and it takes very little wood to heat them.
Gilles le Bouvier, Livre de la description des pays, mid-15th century
In many countries the heating “box” is still called an oven (German Ofen), but English speakers have got used to calling it a stove, and have forgotten that stove used to mean a room. In the 17th century illustration above the oven is in the back right corner, numbered 5. Here’s a list of the things pictured: from the 1659 English edition of Comenius‘ school book Orbis Pictus, with the original punctuation.
The Stove 1. is beautified with an Arched-Roof 2. & wainscotted walls, 3 It is enlighted with Windows; It is heated with an Oven.
Its Utensils are, Benches, Stools, 7, Tables, 8, with Tressels, 9, Footstools, 10. and Cushions, 11.
There are also Tapestry hanged. 12. for soft lodging, in a sleeping-room, 13. there is a Bed 14. spread on a Bed-stead, 15. upon a Straw-pad, 16. with Sheets, 17. and Cover lids, 18. The Bolster 19. is under ones head. The Bed is covered with a Canopy 20. A Chamber-Pot 21 is for making water in.