History of the Kitchen Range

The open range 

The history of the cooking fire is hundreds of thousands year old and is common to every country and civilization on earth.  Since ancient times fires were made on the ground with wood as a fuel and this tradition continued in an almost unchanged form up until the 18th century. 

The kitchen range put an end to this tradition and at least in this country its origins can be practically pin pointed to a patent taken out by a London based Ironmonger called Thomas Robinson.  There is little question that contrivances we could recognise as ranges were in existence in the decades preceding 1780 but nonetheless on the 21st October of that year patent number 1267 was taken out and details;

“By His Majesty’s royal letters patent. Perpetual ovens in kitchen ranges, upon an entire new construction, heated without the assistance of any flew, or additional fire…”

The ‘Range’ itself consisted of a grate set into the brickwork of a chimney with an iron oven set to one side.  Just two years later Robinson was trumped by Joseph Langmead who took out a patent that set an iron boiler at the opposing side to the oven and so the basic format of the kitchen range was cast for the next 200+ years.

Neither of these inventions sound particularly revolutionary by today’s standards but in order to understand the relevance of their effect one must understand a little of what came before.  I will keep the explanation limited to the use of coal as a fuel and therefore appliances that had grates.

In a large household there would have been up to and exceeding, four fires in the kitchens.  A Perpetual Oven, named such because it would have burned day and night and a hot plate that would have provided boiling, stewing and frying duties.  The copper that would have provided hot water for cooking and cleaning and finally the kitchen grate or roasting grate.  This consisted of heavy wrought iron bars supported on either end by cast iron plates or brick work and often fitted with adjustable fire cheeks so that the size of the fire could be altered depending on what was being cooked at the time.  Most meat would have been cooked in front of the grate on spits that would have been driven from a variety of different methods.  Spit jacks used weights to drive the rotary motion of the spit and had to be continuously rewound.  Smoke jacks had a propeller-like device installed in the chimney gather that was acted upon by the rising heat from the grate and drove the spit via a shaft and belt.  A now extinct breed of dog called a ‘turnspit dog’ was also used that would have walked in wheel mounted on the wall called a dog wheel.  This was like a large hamster wheel and would have in turn driven the spit.  Spits were also driven by hand.

A Turnspit dog driving a spit for a roasting grate

One can imagine the scene in the smelly, smokey kitchens of the 18th century with four fires raging, spits turning, cooks chopping and scullery maids and porters constantly ferrying back and forth clearing ashes, shoveling coal, preparing meat and veg whilst the servants of the house darted in and out taking the dishes upstairs to the waiting household to the chime of the ‘sprung bells’ mounted on wall above.

Robinson’s and Langmead’s inventions in some sense calmed this scene of bedlam by reducing the amount of fires that were required to achieve the same tasks.  By having an oven, boiler (copper) and grate in the same fireplace only one fire was needed in a kitchen and the use of coals could theoretically be quartered.  For the time being the ancient cooking paraphernalia like salamanders, gridirons, trivets, idle backs, chimney cranes, spits, girdles and trammels would remain but traditions had begun to change.

Another prominent early figure in attempting to tackle the problem of hungry kitchen fires was the American Physicist and inventor, Count Rumford.  He designed a range (or stove) whereby each cooking pot/ pan etc was set within its own closed fireplace with a corresponding flue, damper, grate, ash pit etc.  Each of the pots and pans would have insulated lids and be of double tin plate construction so as to ensure any heat produced by the fire was conducted into the pot and not lost up the chimney.  The result meant that much smaller fires could be kept in and only as many fires needed lightning for the amount of work that was required.  The downside of this arrangement was that the operator may have up to 14 separate fires to stoke, fourteen flues to regulate and clean and fourteen ash pits to clear.  In effect this was the first attempt at what would later become known as the ‘Closed range’.

The first closed range? Count Rumfords design

During the first half of the 19th century still the most predominant design of range was the ‘Open range’ almost unchanged from the previous century in design though refined in its form.  This was an entirely cast iron construction, that was ‘brick set’ meaning the oven and boiler were made of iron but the flues that evenly heated them were made from brick.  These were mass produced and became more and more accessible to the working classes as the decades past.  Older households with large fireplaces originally designed for downhearth cooking would be retrofitted with ranges by reducing the chimney opening.  Whilst houses contemporary to the time started to be built with smaller and smaller chimney openings as the kitchen range was rolled out across the country as the standard fair. 

An open range installed in an older fireplace used for downhearth cooking

 

Closed Ranges

There remained some fundamental problems with the new kitchen range.  Although fuel consumption was dramatically reduced it was still excessive, there was a great amount of reflected heat from the large fires having to be kept in and anything cooked in the oven had to be continuously turned as it always was prone to burning on the side closest to the fire.

In 1802 another patent was taken out this time by an Exeter based iron founder called George Bodley.  Bodley had invented a kitchen range that completely enclosed the fire and the hot gases the fire emitted were forced to traveled around the oven and boiler internally through specially constructed iron flues before exiting into the chimney.  George Bodleys design of ‘Closed range’ was able to evenly heat the oven on all sides, still provide a fire for roasting, had a lift up firebox cover so that it could be used as an open grate if required and had a sliding flue damper to meter the draft and so reduce fuel consumption.  Again, the uptake of this new technology took a long time to filter down into common society and it was not until the last decades of the 19th century that this design started to become a common sight at the local ironmongers. 

Whilst kitchen grates and ranges prior to the ‘Bodley range’ were largely constructed of wrought iron that would have been individually created by blacksmiths the ‘Bodley Range’ was almost entirely cast iron.  This meant that from a single set of patterns multiple identical castings could be made on an almost infinite scale.  This was not new technology at the time but it represented a landmark in the way in which kitchen ranges in particular were manufactured.

The 1860 ad 70s brought with them the refinements in manufacture and technology that led to the fairly standardized designs of 1880 through to the 1920/30s.  The castings themselves became finer and more complex and many of the components that had previously been hand beaten from  wrought became cast iron.  This meant door landers, strap hinges, latches, ties, brackets, lugs, firebars, fallbars, trivets etc all started to become the domain of the pattern maker and foundrymen rather than the blacksmiths.  This of course represented a step forward in mass production as rather than items being made one at a time by craftsmen the pattern maker could make a single master pattern that could then be used time and again to create identical components by their thousands.  Since the ovens were now typically heated via conducted hot gases passing around them rather than directly by contact with the fire, sheet iron rather than cast iron become the material of choice for their construction.

The “Zeus” Kitchener. A typical closed range of the late 19th century.

By the late 19th century the ideas patented in 1802 by George Bodley had become almost standardized across all manufactures.  This new wave of ‘closed’ ranges had multiple flues that in some cases heated two ovens, a boiler and the firebox but were all served by the same small fire and chimney.  Sliding dampers metered the individual flues and this led to the possibility of still greater economy in fuel and finer control over the cooking temperature of the various parts of the range.  Multiple ovens could be employed with either roasting (Top heat) or baking (Bottom heat) functions whilst also heating a water tank and cooking meat in front of the fire on a dangle spit suspended in a ‘Hastener’.  The paraphernalia associated with downhearth and open range cooking was now all but gone as food was cooked in flat bottomed pots and pans on the evenly heated and temperature controlled hotplate.  Even the cooking smells and steam could be carried away up the chimney by opening a register.   Gradually the kitchen began to evolve into a more refined place of work.  Iron panels enclosed the previously exposed brick work and their surface was worked to a deep sheen using ‘black lead’ polish by the tireless maids.  A fashion for polished iron had also taken hold and mouldings, banjo latchs and strap hinges were all rubbed with emery or carborundum powder to make them sparkle.  Tiles too had become popular and so by the mid/late 19th century there was options to have the range coving tiled and so slowly the smoke and dust of the kitchen had begun to transform into a scene of cleanliness and order.

Portable Ranges

It is worth mentioning that in the 1850s the first ‘Portable’ ranges began to appear.  These models stood on four feet and were completely enclosed connecting to the chimney via an iron pipe.  They were available in a variety of sizes and were available with boilers for heating water.  It would be another forty years before they were manufactured en masse but they were no doubt popular with those that could afford them.  Such design were to be found in a great many specialist applications where weight, size and self contained portability were crucial.  Ships and boats of all shapes and sizes, trains, living vans, military camps etc all would have likely used some form of portable range as soon as the technology had become available to them.

Portable ranges became very popular in the early 20th century with the majority of their manufacture focused in the area in and around Falkirk.

Examples of Portable Ranges were exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Prince Albert’s Model Houses erected outside crystal palace for display by the ‘Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes’ (SICLC) of which he was president. 

 

The high water mark

Closed ranges still required significant building work in their installation and were still based on the ‘brick set’ design.  This meant their efficiency, function and economy was only as good as the builder who installed them and the slowly deteriorating condition of the masonry itself.  Flues were usually created of brick on three sides and closed over with iron plates relied on a mortar gasket the two materials to provide a gas tight seal. The heating and cooling of the iron could quickly break this seal and the performance would be adversely affected.  By the 1870/80s some manufactures attempted to address this problem, most notably the Eagle Range & Grate Co, Birmingham.

The New Gold Medal Eagle Range dating from circa 1920

The ‘Eagle Range’ was manufactured with iron flues and required very little masonry work to install.  These were truly the Rolls Royce of kitchen ranges at the time and they were durable, easy to use economical on coals and cheap to install.  They were substantially more expensive than ordinary brick set ranges so were only found in the more well-to-do households.  Like many other British brands however they were shipped out to the Colonies and many existing examples can still be found in various countries around the world.

Detail of a restored New Gold Medal Eagle Range

By the turn of the advent of the 20th century range technology and manufacture was at its peak.  A range could be kept in 24hrs a day all year round providing all cooking duties for the household, water for cleaning and heating the entire home via a back boiler- all from one small fire.  These ranges were easily convertible between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ fire utilizing the open grate roasting features of the early tradition with the fully enclosed fire now commonly associated with storage cookers like Rayburn.  Kitchens in the larger households had become sanitary places, sparkling clean and managed by cooks of military like discipline.  The ranges reflected this new paradigm shift and were scrubbed and polished to be shinning examples of order and efficiency. 

Late 1920s ‘Wellstood Sidelight’ closed fire range

By the onset of the second world war manufactured of kitchen ranges had dwindled though solid fuel was still by far the most common means of heating and cooking in the uk.  Many of the factories were turned over to the government for the war effort and when manufactured recommenced in the year after the war very few of the big manufactures returned to range production.  Storage cooker like the Esse, AGA and Rayburn however continued to be produced and are still manufactured to this day.

Advertisment for the Esse President circa 1950