The dreaded parlor stove makes its return again

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Folks in the latter half of the 19th century went through an unpleasant ritual along about this time of year, or probably a little earlier in Northern climes, called “putting up the parlor stove.” In those long ago days, in the homes of those who could afford them, was a room called the “parlor,” that was tastefully furnished with overstuffed horsehair divans, settees, Dad’s rocking chair, and maybe even a “fainting couch.” Paintings of stiff and stern ancestors glowered from the walls, and light was excluded by heavy drapes at the windows.

The parlor

The man of the house would retire to the parlor after dinner to read the paper, smoke a cigar, and enjoy a snifter of brandy. Company was ushered into the parlor and served tea and cakes while conversing with the host and/or hostess. Young men were permitted to court the daughter of the house in the parlor, although a chaperon was always present.

Cast iron stoves

Very few houses had central heating and although many rooms were heated by open fireplaces, cast iron stoves were popular as well. Since the housewife saw no sense in keeping the stove clean during the six or so months it wasn’t in use, the stove was usually taken down in the spring and reassembled in the fall. This had to be a hard and dirty job and is captured in his inimitable way by Mark Twain in the following essay.

PUTTING UP STOVES BY MARK TWAIN

We do not remember the exact date of the invention of stoves, but it was some years ago. Since then mankind have been tormented once a year, by the difficulties that beset the task of putting them up, and getting the pipes fixed. With all our Yankee ingenuity no American has ever invented any method by which the labor of putting up stoves can be lessened. The job is as severe and vexatious as humanity can possibly endure, and gets more so every year.

The rainy day

Men always put their stoves up on a rainy day. Why, we know not; but we never heard of any exception to this rule. The first step to be taken is to put on a very old and ragged coat, under the impression that when he gets his mouth full of plaster it will keep the shirt bosom clean.

Next, the operator gets his hand inside the place where the pipe ought to go, and blacks his fingers, and then he carefully makes a black mark down the side of his nose. It is impossible to make any headway, in doing this work, until this mark is made down the side of the nose. Having got his face properly marked, the victim is ready to begin the ceremony.

The ceremony

The head of the family–who is the big goose of the sacrifice–grasps one side of the bottom of the stove, and his wife and the hired girl take hold of the other side. In this way the load is started from the woodshed toward the parlor. Going through the door, the head of the family will carefully swing his side of the stove around and jam his thumb nail against the door post. This part of the ceremony is never omitted. Having got the family comfort in place, the next thing is to find the legs. Two of these are left inside the stove since the spring before. The other two must be hunted after, for twenty-five minutes. They are usually found under the coal. Then the head of the family holds up one side of the stove while his wife puts two of the legs in place, and next he holds up the other while the other two are fixed, and one of the first two falls out. By the time the stove is on its legs he gets reckless, and takes off his old coat, regardless of his linen.

The pipe

Then he goes for the pipe and gets two cinders in his eye. It don’t make any difference how well the pipe was put up last year it will always be found a little too short or a little too long. The head of the family jams his hat over his eyes and taking a pipe under each arm goes to the tin shop to have it fixed. When he gets back, he steps upon one of the best parlor chairs to see if the pipe fits, and his wife makes him get down for fear he will scratch the varnish off from the chair with the nails in his boot heel. In getting down he will surely step on the cat, and may thank his stars that it is not the baby. Then he gets an old chair and climbs up to the chimney again, to find that in cutting the pipe off, the end has been left too big for the hole in the chimney. So he goes to the woodshed and splits one side of the end of the pipe with an old axe, and squeezes it in his hands to make it smaller.

More pipe issues

Finally he gets the pipe in shape, and finds the stove does not stand true. Then himself and wife and the hired girl move the stove to the left, and the legs fall out again. Next it is to move to the right. More difficulty now with the legs. Move to the front a little. Elbow not even with the hole in the chimney, and the head of the family goes again to the woodshed after some little blocks. While putting the blocks under the legs, the pipe comes out of the chimney. That remedied, the elbow keeps tipping over, to the great alarm of the wife.

Good old days

Head of the family gets the dinner table out, puts the old chair on it, gets his wife to hold the chair, and balances himself on it to drive some nails into the ceiling. Drops the hammer on wife’s head. At last he gets the nails driven, makes a wire sling to hold the pipe, hammers a little here, pulls a little there, takes a long breath, and announces the ceremony concluded.

Job never put up any stoves. It would have ruined his reputation if he had. The above programme, with unimportant variations, will be carried out in many respectable families during the next six weeks.

The next time you wish for the “good old days,” remember this story.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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