In the 1800s, the Capital Region was a worldwide leader in cast iron stove production.
Humans have been using fire to cook food and stay warm for a million years or so, but we didn’t learn to contain it in a metal box until the 18th century. That took some time to perfect as well, and it may surprise you to learn that stove-making reached its apotheosis, in the mid-1800s, in Albany and Troy.
By 1833, according to the Albany Daily Advertiser, the “manufacture of iron castings was brought to a greater perfection in Albany than any other place in the country or even Europe.” So vast was the market that Albany-based Perry Stove Company printed its 1876 catalogue in English, French, and German to reach its overseas customers.
And Europe was small (roasted) potatoes: “Llamas have carried [stoves] across the Andes to the farthest coasts of South America…Camels to the shores of the Black Sea and ships to Turkey, Japan, China and Australia,” according to an 1860 story about Troy stoves.
What made these stoves so special? See for yourself at the Albany Institute of History and Art’s current exhibition, Heavy Metal: Cast Iron Stoves of the Capital Region, which runs through August. The exhibit features more than 20 stoves from the museum’s collection, along with early patent models, trade catalogues, and other materials. “We have one of the largest collections of these stoves made in Albany and Troy,” says Tammis K. Groft, executive director of the Albany Institute.
“When people think of cast iron stoves, they think of large cook stoves,” Groft says. Cook stoves could have special reservoirs for boiling water — as many as eight -— and many could heat up to 400 degrees. Troy’s own William T. James made cook stoves as early as 1815, and during the early 1830s Joel Rathbone of Albany made them as well. In 1838, Philo Penfield Stewart of Troy patented the first of a long line of successful cook stoves, called the Stewart Cook Stove.
However, cook stoves are only part of the story; box and parlor stoves were popular heating apparatuses in the 19th century, essentially functioning like radiators.
Heating stoves were designed for easy assembly, since they were temporary fixtures for winter, and many were crafted with elegant patterns to serve as sources of beauty and warmth. Stove designers copied architectural and cabinet-maker patterns popular at that time and incorporated Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Rococo revival motifs, along with patriotic symbols and ornate floral designs. Indeed, stoves were given names like “Venetian Parlor,” “Gothic Parlor,” and “The Temple” to market their allure.
The factors that merged to make our region the world’s stove-making leader were its location on the Hudson River and the building of the Erie and Champlain canals to facilitate transportation to international markets, the abundance of iron ore in the mountains of New York State and, most important, sand. Molding sand made it possible to produce high-quality castings, and the finest such sand in the world came from Albany, Columbia, and Rensselaer counties. “I’ve talked to old-timers, and they will say [the secret is] the molding sand,” says Groft. “The sand was very fine and contained a certain amount of clay, which helped create the wonderfully detailed patterns.”
By 1875, there were 15 stove foundries in Albany that made over $3 million worth of cast iron products, and 17 foundries in Troy grossed $2.8 million. The two cities produced 450,000 stoves that year. In Albany, most stove dealers had shops on Green Street off of State Street. In Troy, the nexus was River Street. Only the choosiest shoppers could not be satisfied, as the New York Times reported in 1872: “A Man that cannot suit himself with a stove in walking along River Street, Troy must be one of those creatures — too
often to be met — impossible to please.”
Sadly, this bounty was also partly to blame for the industry’s downfall. After the Civil War, these companies oversaturated the market. Additionally, the formation of unions increased the cost of labor, new iron ore deposits were discovered in the Midwest, and as people moved westward, so did the businesses, with new foundries built in Detroit and Chicago. And, as the century closed, iron was swiftly replaced by steel.
Gone but not forgotten, these stoves brought comfort and beauty to homes across America and the world, thanks to creative and ingenious Capital Region manufacturers.