“an iron oven fix’d in the Jam of his Kitchin fire-place”

Most cooking in eighteenth century kitchens was done over a wood fire on the open hearth of a large fireplace. There was usually a crane or trammel to which a cast iron pot (or pots) was attached by a hook. The pot could be raised or lowered and swung out over the hearth to be emptied or added to.

Hearths were quite large and extended out into the room so that hot ashes could be shoveled out from the main fire to construct what in effect were small “burners” on the hearth apron over which pans on trivets could be placed. Long legged pan called spiders (on the right in the illustration) were also used, mainly for frying. Heat could be regulated by the size of the piles of ashes and kept up to temperature by the addition of more hot ashes from the main fire. There were other kinds of cookware in use like Dutch ovens, small three-sided ovens using reflected heat for baking biscuits, for example, as well as ingenious roasting devices including spits, and even toasters and waffle irons, several of which can be seen in the illustration.

There was usually a baking oven in the wall on one side of the fireplace, with a small flue to the chimney, called a beehive oven because of its domed shape. Heating it involved building a fire on the brick floor and, when the floor and sides were heated to the correct temperature, the fire was shoveled out and the items to be baked placed, using a peel, on the floor of the oven, avoiding the excessively hot spots. Then a metal door was inserted into the opening to contain the heat. Bread and pies were baked first as they required the highest temperatures. When they were finished other dishes and casseroles that cooked at lower temperatures could be added as the oven cooled. And when the oven was barely warm it could be used to dry herbs for example. I marvel at the efficiency which with these brick ovens were used.

In the late eighteenth century, however, improvements began to be introduced. Cast iron ovens fitted inside the fireplace itself were a new feature. Sarah Livingston Jay, recovering from an illness at her sister Caty Livingston’s home at Oak Hill on the Hudson River, wrote of such a one to her husband John who was in the process of building a home in Bedford in Westchester County, New York, to which the two hoped to retire.

June 27th 1801My dear Mr. Jay,
The tender interest you take in my health is most grateful to my feelings, & redoubles the satisfaction I have of assuring you that it still continues to mend. When Brockholst [Sarah’s brother] was here he mentioned to Mr. Livingston that he had had an iron oven fix’d in the Jam of his Kitchin fire-place so constructed as that the smoak & heat from the Kitchin Chimney kept it perpetually hot & that all the meet, puddings, Cakes & Custards used in his family were cooked in it, so that it had superseded the use of spits & tart pans &c. There is but one that fixes them & he has thirty dollars for the Oven & fixing it in the Jam. I thought best to mention it before you shd. have built yours. If you think it worthy yr. attention you can let Peter [their son] examine his Uncle’s, & inquire of him the person’s name who makes them. Brockholst says his Cook says it saves half the work of Cooking, a great deal of fuel & being in constant readiness is inconceivably convenient. Mr. L. says the person’s name is Batchelor, a white smith*. . . .

Mr. Livingston & Catharine give their love to both of you. If our son is with you when you receive this Give my love to him & accept my best beloved the assurances of gratitude & affection from
yours sincerely
Sa. Jay

* a worker in iron who finishes or polishes the work

Sarah Jay’s letter can be found on page 276 of Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay by two colleagues and myself; for details click on the image at the bottom of the column on the right. The illustration is of the KITCHEN c.1800 at Blennerhast Mansion on an island in the Ohio River. More information about housewives and cooking can be found HERE beginning on page 203.

posted September 18th, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Daily life, Food, Jay, Peter Augustus, Jay, Sarah Livingston, Livingston, Brockholst

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