Keeping Warm: Wood Stoves and a Short History

Margaret Boyles

Keeping warm? Here's a short essay on the short history of the wood stove.

In 18th-centry Europe, a shortage of wood led Germany's Frederick the Great to sponsor a contest to find an efficient domestic stove.

A similar wood shortage in Philadelphia about 1744 inspired Ben Franklin to improve on the open hearth. His three-sided iron box used only one-quarter as much fuel as did a fireplace and could raise the room temperature higher and faster.

But the truth is people resisted the switch from the inefficient, wood gobbling, smoky open hearth to the hotter, more efficient fire contained by a wood stove. (Were those rock ribbed early settlers really romantics who preferred the dreamy glow of a crackling fire?)

Robert Bailey Thomas, founder of The Old Farmer's Almanac, wrote in 1823, “So then, you have a cooking stove! This is economical, saving much wood and labour. I know it by experience. But many people are so prejudiced against them that they will scarcely look at one. Wood has become a cash article nowadays in my neighborhood. I have procured me one of Rich's cooking stoves and think I save half my wood by it nearly.”

Practicality won out in the end, and by the beginning of the 20th century, 40 million American homes were heated with wood stoves, often a behemoth, nickel-plated Home Comfort or Queen Atlantic.

But as people found other ways to heat their houses, the popularity of wood stoves waned, only to come around again in the 1970s.

Then a new generation realized the truth behind the country saying, “Wood warms you thrice—when you chop it, when you stack it, when you burn it.”

Which wood is best? See our list of best-burning firewood to use.

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