Of Stoves and Fires

One of the great pleasures of being a Filly is my ongoing search for western tidbits I can share with you. As I mentioned before, I have an immense western library and every other weekend now, I dive into it to find those wonderful little known facts of pioneer life that hopefully will make the west come alive for you.As frequent readers know, I’m incurably fascinated with the westward trek and those brave people who faced danger, starvation, incredible hardship and disease to find that pot at the end of the rainbow.  
This weekend I found a chapter on fire and cooking in a book titled “Wagon Wheel Kitchens” that captured my attention.  It started with a notation in a book about stoves I hadn’t seen before.  
Journal entries indicate that many pioneers packed a stove in their wagon but soon discarded them.   Sounded real good, but stoves were made of cast iron. Kinda heavy.   Apparently they littered the trail west.

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.




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14 thoughts on “Of Stoves and Fires”

  1. Pat,

    How interesting! I didn’t know the emigrants tried to take their big cast iron stoves with them in the wagon. I’m sure that was quite a sight. I sure have a heap of respect for those women who went West. They had a hard life. I don’t think men realized how difficult it was to cook a meal.

  2. Hi Pat,

    Great post..another one to peek at later on for details! The info on matches was great.

    I agree, the West couldn’t have been “won” without the womenfolks. I just wish they hadn’t had to wear those long balloony dresses 🙂 Seems such a hassle.

  3. Can you imagine how much work cooking was? I often think that the reasons for marriage used to be far, far more basic and fundamental, that’s why so many marriages of convenience worked.
    A woman working hard in the kitchen and garden was necessary for survival while the man went hunting or worked the field or rode herd.
    It was a true necessary partnership. You didn’t divorce because you needed each other to survive. Now, we’ve got nothing but measely old LOVE holding marriages together. 🙂

  4. Fascinating, blog, Pat. My ancestors crossed the plains in covered wagons and handcarts, but if I’d been there I would’ve sat down and refused to go another step without Lean Cuisine and a microwave. The work must have been exhausting. Somewhere, in a book, I have a photograph of a woman standing on the prairie with a load of buffalo chips. Her face says it all!

  5. Pat, interesting stuff about matches. I had heard many a cook stove had to be abandoned on the trail–my heart would’ve broken. But the vision of milk turning into butter just from a jostling wagon had my head shaking in amazement. Can you imagine trying to get a baby to sleep–or worse, being really pregnant while riding in those things. Yeesh!

  6. These are the kind of posts that make you stop and think and really appreciate modern conveniences. I know my one grandmother always had homemade bread because my grandfather refused to eat that modern bread – I don’t blame him. Back then everyone was probably so darn tired they didn’t have time to fight over stupid stuff.

  7. Hi Pat, great post. I like your line, “In their own quiet way, women ruled.”

    I think I would’ve been exhausted on the trail. On the other hand, that’s all they had to concentrate on, the daily toil, no distractions like email, LOL, so maybe they had it easier in some ways than modern women. Harder physically, but less stress mentally. I’m not sure, it just makes me wonder.

  8. Pat very interesting to hear how things were years ago, some of it seems so much easier but I am sure it was not easy. I mean like they didn’t have all the electronics we have now to keep us sitting on our butts. I lived on a farm growing up and had to work really hard like you would just fall into the bed at night because of all the physical labor we did. Now it seems like we are lazy my hubby keeps saying don’t you ever sit down well if I do I don’t get it all done and there are always things to keep me from getting them done. I would love to live like that again but this time a bathroom is a must.

  9. The cast iron stove in my basement will probably just stay there as the house falls down around it as it is way to heavy to try to remove. I believe it was lowered into the basement before it was finished. Up until then (1950) my mother in law cooked on it! I can’t imagaine trying to haul one in a covered wagon.

  10. My mother in law baked bread twice a week, six loaves each time. She had seven sons.
    She said when bread became available in town it was a luxury but it saved so, so, so much time it was almost a miracle.
    Now home made bread is a luxury. 🙂 Up is officially DOWN.

  11. Very interesting!

    The part about sharing fire with neighbors made me think of my great-great grandmother (I believe it was) who had a neighbor lady(Late 1800’s-early 1900’s) they swore was a witch who once came to ask for some hot coals when her fire went out. She had nothing to put them in, but told my G-G grandma to just put the red hot coals in her apron. My G-G was shocked because, though she put them in there as the lady asked her to, the apron didn’t even burn.

    (This lady also supposedly cursed my G-G’s ducks. The woman wanted some of the ducklings and my G-G wouldn’t let her have any. The woman basically told her that if she couldn’t have any my G-G wouldn’t either. Not long after that the ducks were struck by lightning and were killed.)

    I read up some on what was used before matches and found a lot of interesting info on spills and tinder boxes.

    I just can’t imagine having to leave behind my stove on the trail. Makes you wonder though if they looked at it as a sacrifice or a relief to get rid of the heavy thing.

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