The Stove and Its Effects on Society

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1700s society was very different from society in the 1900s and society today, and most of that difference owes itself to technological advances. One advance in particular that changed everything for colonists was the iron stove. This invention paved the way for countless innovations in home heating, but more importantly, these resulting innovations paved the way for major societal change, especially for women. In the early 1700s, a woman’s place was at the hearth. Most people think of women’s duties as being cooking, cleaning, and child-rearing, but that was hardly the extent of their work. Perhaps the most important task a woman had was to keep the fire going in the hearth.

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The fire was the center of the household; not only was it used to prepare food, but also to keep the house heated. Aside from these two major functions, the fire was also used in laundry, from heating wash water to heating irons after the clothes were washed. Another part of the woman’s job was to make sure fires for different purposes remained at different sizes and temperatures. This required extensive time and skill, leaving little time for other tasks. Women were also expected to complete many other tasks, such as sewing, spinning, and food preservation.

They were considered subservient to their husbands, and most women spent so much time tending to their household duties that they were too busy to question the idea. Many women were taught to read so that they could read the Bible, but not taught to write because the skill seemed unnecessary for their expected contribution to the household. Heating technology in the colonies was still fairly primitive in the early 1700s. Tasks were performed exclusively using fireplaces, which were much larger in the colonies than in England. This is because there was a larger wood supply in the colonies, therefore making it possible to build very large chimneys and burn large amounts of wood. These large fireplaces were convenient because several fires of different sizes and temperatures could be used at the same time for different purposes, such as cooking different types of foods. However, large fireplaces were also very inefficient. It was difficult to keep the fires burning and dangerous for women to stand so close to the flames in order to do so, but the most profound inefficiency was the amount of fuel the fires required. According to Technology and American Society by Gary Cross and Richard Szostak, heating the house alone could require twenty cords of wood a year.

There was enough wood in the colonies to meet this need, but obtaining the wood was time-consuming. Cross and Szostak note that “tending the fire prevailed over housecleaning and decorating” (Cross and Szostak 42) for women and that “cutting and hauling [wood] ate up much of the man’s time when he was not in the fields” (Cross and Szostak 42). The task of tending the fire was arguably the second most important and time-consuming task for both men and women (second only to tending crops). Thus, improvements in heating technology would likely cause drastic change in the amount of free time colonists had for leisure, secondary tasks, and innovation. In early 1700s England, combustion air from an outside duct was being used to circulate heat, but this technology was not commonly used in the colonies. Also around this time, Peter the Great of Russia outfitted his Summer Palace with a hot water heating system. The first major advance in home heating technology in the colonies was the Franklin stove, invented in 1742 by Benjamin Franklin.

The Franklin stove provided more heat than a fireplace, but it produced less smoke and, most importantly, used less wood. It was also designed to keep rooms warm long after the fire went out. The Franklin stove, according to Benjamin Franklin himself, was “for the better warming of Rooms and at the same time-saving Fuel, as the fresh Air admitted was warmed. ” Thus, the intended societal effects were mostly environmental and labor-saving. The Franklin stove was simply meant to decrease wood use and decrease the amount of time and energy the task of home heating consumed. The simple fact that the stove required less wood than a fireplace completely transformed home heating. First, men spent less time collecting firewood, which freed a good portion of their time for larger-scale farming operations and, eventually, industrialization. Less time spent heating the home also meant more time could be spent on leisure and innovation in other sectors.

The effects on women were even more profound. The main task performed by women was now much easier and less time-consuming, although some other tasks were still performed using fireplaces. A woman’s work was never finished, so the time effect was less pronounced among women, but eventually, home heating technology progressed more and more, and these advances coupled with advances in other household tasks transformed the way women worked in the home. More women were beginning to work outside the home as nurses, teachers, or seamstresses. Thus, women were becoming more educated. As time went on, women who had more free time from household chores and more education began to think more seriously about equality and women’s suffrage. As for the other intended effect of the Franklin stove, the consumption of the natural resource of wood also decreased. Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “The Use of these Fireplaces in very many Houses both of this and the neighbouring Colonies, has been and is a great Saving of Wood to the Inhabitants. ” By 1900, wood was completely out of the picture when it came to home heating; however, the intended conservation of wood was not completely achieved.

Although heating technology cut down on the use of trees, many other innovations and practices made up the difference. However, the intended consequence of saving time and labor was definitely achieved. One of the key innovations in home heating included James Watt’s steam-based heating system in the late 1700s in Scotland, which utilized a boiler and pipe system, taking wood out of the equation entirely. Rather, the Watt system used steam power, which relied on coal and was used in many other innovations. In the early nineteenth century, William Strutt invented a warm-air furnace, which heated cold air that then traveled through ducts, much like modern central heating. In 1855, Franz San Galli of Russia invented the first radiator, which was a major step toward modern central home heating systems. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas Edison invented the electric heater, which signaled the shift from steam power to electricity in home heating. All of these inventions completely eradicated the need to collect wood, and also lessened the time it took for heat to travel through a whole house. At the end of the 19th century, stoves were largely powered by natural gas, which became common after 1860 for lighting and cooking as well as home heating. Most of the unintended consequences of home heating came to light in the late nineteenth century. Gas heating, along with other innovations in lighting, water, and sewer technology, contributed to a very rapid transformation of cities.

Comfort was becoming more widely available, which resulted in the growth of suburban, working-class neighborhoods. However, this made living conditions in urban areas worse. People who could not afford to relocate to the suburbs mostly lived in unfit and crowded housing, and since heat could now be distributed to any number of rooms, a large number of people could live in one building, even if that was not conducive to health and sanitation. Another more positive unintended effect of home heating was that it became a lot safer to heat one’s home. The open fireplaces of the early eighteenth century were extremely dangerous, especially to children, who would often be around open fires because of their mothers’ household duties. Wood burning stoves kept fires and sparks contained, and furnaces and electric heaters did not require fire at all. It is hard to imagine life without modern home heating, but if there had been no advances in this technology, our society would be much different. If we still relied on fireplaces for heat, women would probably not have gotten as far as they have in their pursuit of equality, and their tasks would still revolve solely around the hearth and home.

The number of women who have careers outside the home would most likely be dramatically decreased, and the social status of women would be very different than it is. Advanced home heating would still be only available to the very wealthy, but the split between the working class and poorer people would be less pronounced, which is not necessarily negative. Housing in cities would probably have been required to be more spread out and therefore sanitation would have been improved, but the risk of large urban fires would have been greatly increased. This probably would have slowed industrialization, which means that today’s society would probably be less “modern” than it is. Lastly, the society would probably not have been able to sustain the use of wood in such large amounts, and wood would either be used up or in very short supply.

Of course, factors like this drive innovation itself, so none of these effects are realistic. Home heating seems like a minor issue when compared with activities like food production and preservation, industry, and agriculture, but advances in home heating had much more far-reaching consequences than one might expect. Most importantly, innovation in this field allowed more time for other activities, especially for women. Wood was mostly eradicated as fuel, and therefore conserved as far as heating was concerned. Further advances in heating made comfort more widely available to the working class. However, this resulted in more separation between classes and helped lead to the unfortunate housing situation for many people in late nineteenth-century urban areas.

Also, early twentieth-century heating technology was much safer than the fireplaces of the early eighteenth century. All of these factors together contribute to our modern society, and the effects can be seen today. The innovations that came forth from an increase of free time now drive our society. Women are able to work outside the home environment, and their place in society has changed from subordinate to basically equal to men. Basic comforts are available to most people because they are now so affordable. An invention as simple as a stove that heated a home more efficiently than a fireplace completely transformed society from 1700 to 1900, and the effects are still resonant today.

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