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From the Stove to the Electric Range

Fuel Choices

In the nineteenth century, kitchen stoves were generally fuelled by wood, especially in rural areas with abundant woodlands. Most large cities initially used coal and coal gas, which became available in the 1830s, for lighting and household activities, and after 1900, benefited from the infrastructure established to ensure distribution. This facilitated the use of coal gas stoves, particularly in upper-class households.

Efficient wood or coal stove cooking required tree species and carboniferous material that provided good combustion, as well as continual feeding of the oven to avoid temperature fluctuations. In addition to spreading dust and debris, stoves of the era were difficult to maintain because they became very hot, and, they required that the kitchen be arranged around the chimney. Even though the coal gas stove controlled heat better, it released smoke that would spread throughout the house, through gaslights affixed to ceilings or walls.

Around the 1920s, advertising for electric stoves showed how easy they were to maintain: they did not give off smoke or foul odours and prevented food from sticking to pots and pans. Deemed more economical and reliable than servants, these stoves enabled the hostess to spend more time in the company of her family or guests. Preventing illness from food-borne bacteria and conserving the nutritional value of food were also among the virtues of cooking with electricity. Undoubtedly, concerns about cleanliness and hygiene resulted from the unsanitary state of homes following mass industrialization, and were perhaps inspired by the architect Le Corbusier, who recommended to “put the kitchen at the top of the house to avoid smells.”