The Cast-iron Stove
If there were ever an appliance that seemed irreplaceable, it was the cast-iron stove. Invented in the late 1700s, it replaced the open hearth as the center of washing, cooking and gathering in American households.
The stove started as a fire box, then evolved into a complicated appliance with different shelves for cooking, baking and warming. Though traditionalists decried the loss of the comforts of the open hearth, the stove improved control of heat. The variety of temperatures allowed the American diet to expand. Before the iron stove, only the very rich could eat cake. Only a kitchen with more than one hearth could produce the conditions in which a cake could be baked while the normal cooking of the day progressed.
That's not to say that the iron stove was a clean and easy convenience. While it used less fuel than the hearth, it still consumed an average of 50 pounds (22.7 kilograms) of wood per day [source: National Academy of Engineering]. Unlike the hearth, it had to be cleaned and polished. The heat was hard to control. Burns and accidents were common.
While wood-burning stoves are no longer the center of cooking, washing and cleaning, the much-loved appliances have not retreated behind the ropes of museum displays. Thousands of dealers sell them, antique and new, and real estate listings boast about the houses that have them.