Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Deconstructing Grandma’s Cookstove

By Matt Cantor
Friday June 15, 2007

The kitchens of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s had terrific old stoves. They were simple, heavy, and used lots more gas because they lacked insulation. They had built-in lamps, clocks and spring timers, but other than that they were technologically very simple. Nothing fancy. That means that, if you are lucky enough to own one, they’re repairable, and if you are of a mind to, they can be disassembled, cleaned and repaired without a lot of technical skill. The pilots for both oven and top burner have a small screw that can be adjusted to elevate or reduce the flame, but many ovens did not have pilots (except for the one that ran during operation). They needed to be lit with a match.  

A professional can install a pilot for you on that old stove and this is a very worthwhile modification, because many a housewife has had her eyelashes singed by delaying the application of the match to the burner. This is really quite dangerous and the upgrade is a darned good idea. Also, some early stoves had gas heaters in them. These are, for the most part, unvented in any practical way and are, therefore, quite dangerous as well. The best thing to do with these is to disconnect the gas to the heater inside. But if you simply resolve to never use these heaters you’ll still be better off. 

The burners in nearly all older stoves can be removed with very little effort. Most of them simply lift up a bit and then slide off the nipple of the burner near the front face. They can then be soaked in a degreaser such as Simple Green (I like those orange peel degreasers). After a day or two, you can brush them out with bottle brushes (I like to get several sizes including a big one that will go all the way through), let them dry and slide them back in place. One thing you’ll want to do at the same time is to take a tiny rod (a paperclip works pretty well) and clear the petite vent holes located near the pilot tube. If you start taking things apart, you’ll quickly find one or two pilots that have several small aluminum tubes mounted around them on wires that carry the flame to the burners. Where each one meets the big cast-iron burner assembly, there is a tiny tile (or several). These often become quite clogged with grease and this is one of the main causes of burners that don’t ignite. By cleaning the tiny orifice on the burner, you’ll allow the flame to be captured by the burner. While you’re at it, check these aluminum tubes and make sure they’re all sitting in their little seats and hanging properly. When you remove burners, you’ll have to unhook them and then reseat them. It’s not complex. Just take a minute and you’ll see where they go. 

Spraying down the inside of the entire burner cavity with a degreaser and cleaning this area (with the burners and flames off, of course) is a great thing to do for both hygiene and fire safety. Eventually, the whole enclosure becomes quite flammable. There may be little trays that run below the burners that you can slide out for cleaning. These are the main repositories for grease and dead matches and they should be cleaned often. 

Many of these stoves have tube-shaped bulbs hiding up under the back cover that have simply died and can be revived with nothing more than a new bulb. If a switch or cord needs replacement, it’s a simple job for someone handy. 

You may have a stove with a cover that folds up to become a shelf. Many folks have never played with these to see that by pushing a button on either side, you can fold the legs up or down. Sadly, many of these have died and won’t do their business any longer. Also, the matching salt and pepper shakers are frequently missing, but take heart, mighty homeowner. There’s always eBay and a potentially successful season-long search for the right ones (they’ll only be 75 bucks!).  

There are a few websites out there on which you can salivate over the $5,000 red Wedgewood. Many offer replacement valves, thermostats and other parts for reviving Grandma O’Keefe. 

If you have a stove that’s old enough, you may have a “kindler.” These are easily distinguished at first by the set of nested iron plates on top of one side of the stove that may remind you of an early Franklin stove. If you lift one of the plates, you’ll see a firebox suitable for building a wooden fire (how do you spell carbon monoxide poisoning?) and at the bottom of it, a triangular reticulated bar for dropping ash while keeping the fire rolling. By turning a detachable crank, ash drops into a metal drawer in the bottom of the stove. Open the front, pull the drawer and you may get lucky and find the crank for the kindler and a little handle for picking up the hot metal cooking plates on top. I see them all the time. While these should not be used, they are antiques that we get to live with and remind us daily of a time when gas was distrusted and the utility company might be closed for the weekend. I like to imagine Grandma coming to visit the young marrieds and refusing to use that newfangled fuel gas. Perhaps this was Spark or Wedgewood’s solution to the technical generation gap of 1925. 

These stoves, like their Franklin predecessors, had stove pipes (that bluish metal piping is for these...and not for your water heater). These would attach to the back or top of the oven flue built into the unit and were intended to attach to a stove pipe in the house. Many of the houses of the East Bay still have either a Patent Flue (a huge ceramic lined, steel jacketed flue that takes up a foot-and-a-half square space in the wall next to the stove) or a brick flue (about the same size and location). The stove was intended to pipe into this to take away the grease and smoke from the all-day baking that characterized women’s lives in the early 20th century. Today, the need for oven ventilation is decreased by the design of equipment but most folks still don’t use a stove vent on their antique. I think venting for an old stove is a good idea but in its absence be sure you have plenty of window ventilation. 

There’s more evidence of the all-day bake that took place in this most important room in the house and that’s in the cabinetry. Many of the kitchens of this era will feature three (or sometimes only two) Baker’s drawers. See if you have three identical squarish drawers with metal liners. The liners slope the corners making it easier to scoop out and, of course, these were for flour, sugar and (if you have three) salt (or baking powder). This architectural institutionalization of women’s work tell us much of life in these days. If you were a worthy wife, you would bake bread (none of that store bought cardboard), cakes and cookies as well as roasts, potatoes and casseroles all day long (during which you washed, ironed and swept). 

Here are a few other kitchen features to look for in your early kitchen. The California Cooler was a vented cabinet that had a top and bottom vent through which air would “convect” or flow as a function of natural heating. Refrigeration didn’t become common until around 1930 and even those early fridges were very small and too cold for veggies (no salad crispers yet) so the cooler was used for root veggies and lot of other things that just needed a little change of air and a slightly cooler space (perfect for a cooking pie). 

Note the counters that are about four inches narrower than today. No Cuisinarts or all those other things to demand wider counters. They also had nice tiled borders and sloped, built-in dish drainers (that’s right, the counter was meant to slope like that). Some had double sinks with a drainer that covered the deep soaker sink that doubled up for clothes washing. Be sure and keep an “eye” “peeled” for the potato-bin found in many old kitchen cabinets. It was quite deep and tipped out for easy loading from the big sack. 

Life is very different today. In many ways much better and certainly more egalitarian (at least between the sexes) but there is something sweet and homey and romantic about this room full of wonderful smells, diapered children, crayons and cakes. Occasionally, while I’m probing the cabinets looking for leaks I can get just a small sense of the love and comfort that once filled these old kitchens.