The first cook stoves were in the form of a box stove, a plain box with cookiing holes and a fire box. There were later improvements, but some emigrants found it difficult to use with buffalo chips as fuel.
One pioneer woman noted that she had expectd to see the trail covered with a variety of goods, “but we saw but little that was of any good excepting stoves and there were plenty of them.”
Many pioneer families were lured by advertising into buying them, then dumped them along the way and returned to the open fire. They preferred open fires, discovering that they could excavate a narrow trench in the ground, a foot deep and three feet long, in which they built a fire. The cooking vessels were set over this.
But starting a fire? Not so easy. Because of shipping and manufacturing problems, a plentiful supply of matches was not available. Borrowing fire from a neighbor was common practice. If there were no matches and no fire to borrow, then one method involved rubbing a cotton rag in powder and shoot out of a musket, or put it in the pan of a flintlock gun and explode the powder in the pan. Still another method was to use a burning glass, a small round piece of glass. The heat from the sun would shine through the glass, eventually starting a fire.
The first friction matches, according to “Wagon Wheel Kitchen” by Jacqueline Williams, were jokingly called Lucifers and had to be drawn through folded sandpaper before they would ignite. Unfortunately they were not trouble-free and so were slow to be taken up by the emigrants. They had a tendency to explode when jostled, gave off a disagreeable odor (the composition was phosphorous, chalk, glue, and sulpher) and would not strike when damp.
The earliest matches were hand-cut and hand-dipped and match manufacturing did not become big business until after the Civil War. Safety matches, (matches that ignite only on the box they come in and are made without phosphorous), did not begin appearing until the 1860’s.
Once the fire was started, the serious work began. Cooking was time consuming and lasted far into the night. Women often baked bread, sometimes without eggs or milk, til midnight or later and rose before dawn to start breakfast. They baked over buffalo dung with the wind blowing smoke in their faces.
Ingenuity ruled. In their own quiet way, women ruled. There would have been no westward trek without them.
Some a few interesting details about cooking.
Pioneer discovered that a day of wagon motion would turn milk to butter. They would pour some milk in large jars and the jostling of the wagons bouncing along a road pockmarked with ruts and grooves transformed the while liquid into butter the size of a hickory nut.
Canned goods, including deviled ham, first came on the market in 1825. By 1853 a Missouri grocery advertised canned oysters, lobsters and sardines. But the cans were heavy and there was usually only room on a wagon for a few tins. Canned peaches was a coveted delicacy.
Okay, off to get my pre-prepared, pop-in-the-microwave breakfast. I think I’ll enjoy it now after writing this blog.