Cooking over a Hearth

Bohm kitchen

The kitchen in the Bohm house on Poag Road in 1999. MCHS photograph 2002-021-0017. One hundred years before this picture was taken, Emma Bohm used the kettle shown below to cook dinner in this fireplace.

Cast iron stoves didn’t become standard fixtures in the American kitchen until the 1840s. Before that, and in some cases even decades later, people cooked their meals in the fireplace.

The cook of the house started the fire first thing in the morning. The goal was to burn down hardwood logs to get some red hot coals going (versus leaping flames).

Emma Bohm used this kettle on her kitchen hearth. The kettle had three legs. Kettles like this could be set directly on the hearth, because the legs created space under the kettle for air flow to the fire. Alternatively, a handled kettle like this could be hung over the fire.


Kettle, ca. 1880-1910. MCHS object 1981-030-0001.

There were two ways to hang a kettle over a fire. The inside of an early nineteenth-century kitchen fireplace had ledges projecting out from the wall about six feet above the hearth. The cook would hang her pots on a (green) wooden lugpole resting on the ledges. She had to monitor the lugpole and replace it before it dried out and caught fire. A better option for hanging pots was a crane: a large iron bracket attached to the fireplace jamb and cantilevering over the hearth. The crane was hinged at the jamb so the cook could swing the pot forward off the fire to take it down.

Bohm family

The Bohm family in front of their house on Poag Road near Edwardsville in 1892 or 1893. MCHS photograph 1984-158-0012. Emma is holding daughter Bertha. Her husband William is the tall man beside her, and the little boy pulling the wagon is their son Wilbur. The woman standing next to Emma is Birdie Martin, who worked for the Bohms. The other two adults are William’s Prussian-born parents Sophia and Frederick. The group photo includes the family dog, Shep. Little Bertha died within a year after this photograph was taken.

Early 19th-century cooks used long-handled cookware to try to keep from burning themselves. The toasting fork below was used to toast slices of bread over the fire, much like campers today roast marshmallows over a campfire. The long handles of the cast iron waffle iron below served the same function of keeping the cook as far as possible from the fire.

Toasting form

Toasting fork, pre-1850. MCHS object 2014-057-0008.

Rectangular waffle iron

Plier-form rectangular waffle iron, ca. 1790-1840. MCHS object 2014-300-0010-FIC. How heavy do you think this waffle iron is?

Waffle recipe

“Receipt” for risen waffles. Source: Harland, Marion. Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1871. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.