Cooking with a Cast Iron Stove

The cast iron coal stove changed everything for the 19th-century cook.

Steps for operating a cast iron coal stove:

Step 1: Dump the ashes—Close the doors supplying draft to the stove and remove the range top. Brush the ashes onto the grate at the bottom of the stove. Replace the range top and dump the grate (wait for the dust to settle before proceeding to Step 2)

Step 2: Stoke the stove—Remove the range top again and put some crumpled up newspaper and kindling onto the grate. Reopen the draft doors and stoke the fire. Replace the range top.

Step 3: Keep the fire going—Monitor the fire and add more coal as needed. (This might need to be done every ten minutes or so.)

The cook had to heat up the whole stovetop/oven compartment apparatus even if she just wanted to make coffee. If she wanted to use the oven, she monitored the temperature by sticking her hand inside. She counted how long it took before her hand got unbearably hot. To cook a roast, she waited for the temperature to reach “20.”

On the plus side, the cast iron stove meant that the cook could get closer to the action with much less chance of getting burned, which also made it easier to monitor the food. Short-handled pans replaced the unwieldy long-handled utensils of the past.

Waffle iron

Three-piece cast iron waffle iron, ca. 1880-1930. MCHS object 1990-061-0006. At top left, marked “Shapleigh,” is the top paddle, which fits on the bottom paddle (adjacent image). Both paddles have tempered steel coil handles. The assembled paddles fit on the base (lower image). The low rise of the base indicates it is made for use on a coal stove; cast iron waffle iron assemblies made for use on gas stoves have taller bases. Compare this waffle iron to the long-handled version for hearth cooking featured on the previous page.

Cast iron frying pan

Cast iron “fancy handle” frying pan, ca. 1850-1900. MCHS object 1990-061-0013. The horizontal line on the bottom is a “gate mark,” indicating an earlier casting method. The pan lacks manufacturing marks, which is usual for gate-marked pieces made by small foundries.

Stamped steel frying pans

Stamped steel frying pans by three different manufacturers, ca. mid-1800s. Top to bottom: MCHS objects 1990-061-0014, 0015, and 0016. Each pan is fitted with a crimped-on tin grip to keep the handle cool. The small size and light weight of these pans suggest they were used as camping cookware on the American frontier.

All of the cookware items featured on this page belonged to Mary (Smola) Sliva of Collinsville. She married schoolteacher William in 1904. Both of them were children of Bohemian immigrants.

At age 30 with two toddlers at home, Mary earned a diploma from the American College of Dressmaking. The program qualified her to “practice and teach the art and science of fashionable dressmaking.”

Mary and William raised five children in Collinsville. The Slivas used the meat grinder and sausage stuffer below to make homemade sausage. Mary probably fried it up in her cast iron skillet and served it with waffles hot from her waffle iron.

Breakfast at the Sliva house must have been amazing.

Meat grinder and sausage stuffer

Left: Meat grinder, ca. 1906-1930. MCHS object 1990-061-0004. Right: Combination sausage stuffer and lard and fruit press, ca. 1920-1930. MCHS object 1990-061-0003.

Sausage recipe

“Receipt” for sausage. 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.