A Stove Story

13 May

I recently became enamored of a stove. (And of Google Books, too. You’ll see why below).

On Saturday night after a dinner featuring our first salad taken entirely from the garden, I settled down on the couch to do a little light Web surfing.  It started innocently enough. A little Facebook, a little New York Times, a little Twitter.

My Twitter feed is a little chaotic.  I tried for awhile to keep two Twitter accounts, one for work and one for me.  I spend my days as an editor at the business magazine Forbes and I spend the rest of my time gardening, cooking and being silly. So for awhile I had one for Serious Ann and another for Real Ann. But I couldn’t keep up with both and so now my Twitter feed is a motley collection of musings on Dow plunges, cooking artichokes and Scottie puppiesFollow with care.

But back to the stove.  On Saturday I noticed a bunch of tweets from a woman I follow about a really cool sounding not-for-profit salvage store in Astoria. In addition to sinks and diner signs and chairs, she also tweeted about coffins and topiary and heart-shaped hot tubs.  So I clicked over and started poking around Build It Green! NYC’s Featured Items.

I immediately fell in love with the historic terracotta tiles from the amazing Sun Building in downtown Manhattan (I would love to redo our kitchen with these). And for some reason, I really like these metal and wood Police desks from the ’80s.  But it’s this 19th century stove that really caught my attention.

First there’s the name: George Starrett.  It reminds you of things that have to do with New York: Starrett City, the Starrett-Lehigh building.  But what really got me was that someone had taken the time to engrave not only their name but also their address on the stove.  You’ve got to really love a stove to do that.  So I did the next logical thing and Googled the name and address.  And here’s where we go down the rabbit hole ….

There, in Google Books was George Starrett and his address and a bunch of stoves in a book entitled “Annual Report of The American Institute of The City of New York for the Years 1871-1872“.  Allow me to explain.  The American Institute of the City of New York was a civic organization that lasted into the 1930s at which time it combined with the New York Academy of Sciences (for a bit more, see its wikipedia entry).  The main purpose of the AICNY, as near as I can figure, was to provide support to scientists and inventors and to stage massive annual expositions.

I think a great way to understand what the AICNY was about is to take a look at the men that served as the Institute’s Regents at the time that Mr. Starrett was inventing his stoves: Cornelius Vanderbilt, Ezra Cornell, Samuel F. B. Morse, Hamilton Fish and Henry Ward Beecher (last seen on this site, here).  The other men on the Regents board were all relatively fascinating as well, but not quite as famous as those guys.  In fact, those guys were all so famous, I couldn’t believe they were all alive at the same time.  But they were, as was the Institute’s president, a personal favorite of mine, the suffragist, educationalist and namesake of one of the Seven Sisters, F.A.P. Barnard.

Okay, enough 19th century stargazing!  Back to the annual report and Mr. Starrett’s stove.  After a series of platitudes and some number crunching (the institute owned $75,000 in U.S. bonds in February 1872, that’s $1,327,326.90 in 2009 dollars(currency calculations via this site)) and a brief discussion of real estate (the institute owned a building, which I’m pretty sure still stands at the corner of Broadway and Leonard) we get to an analysis of the Institute’s 40th annual Industrial Exhibition at The Empire Rink which according to this 1870 article from the Times was at the corner of Third Avenue and E. 64th Street.

The Rink initially comprised of 61,250 square feet, which was inadequate, so in the years 1869 and 1870 the Institute added an additional 18,970 square feet, which still wasn’t enough, so in 1871 they added another 13,00o square feet, raised the entry fee for inventors and sadly limited “bulky articles of great merit.”  The fair was opened with a prayer from the Rev. Dr. Deems and a specially commissioned poem written and read by Walt Whitman (for which he was paid $181.69, or $3,215.49 in 2009 dollars).

The fair was deemed by its visitors “far superior to any preceding exhibitions … whether in the number, the beauty, the utility, or the novelty of its exhibits, the roominess and convenience of the circling avenues and approaches, or the fine effect of the decorations, the great fountain and other artistic embellishments. To add to the attractions a large orchestra discoursed excellent music.”  How civilized.

Among the exhibits worthy of special note (and special reward) was the Sand Blaster, an invention that will become so important “in architecture, in mining, in wood, and stone and glass cutting, and in the iron and other trades, it is impossible, at present, to estimate,” an electromagnet, a giant electrical coil, a machine for setting brush bristles, a machine for compressing and molding wood and an improved printing press.

The fair was open 51 days and seen by approximately 600,000 people, including “Mr. Hosokarroo Jungero, the Japanese commissioner of agriculture” who will “no doubt” use his “intelligent observation of the industries of America” to “benefit and develop his own interesting country.”  It took in $87,380.85 ($1,546,439.37 in 2009 dollars), but donated one days receipts ($2,127.75) to the “sufferers” of the Chicago Fire.

And so what does this have to do with George Starrett’s stove?  Not much really, other than it is likely one of the eight that it looks like he exhibited at the 1871 Fair and can be owned by you for $200 (that’s $11.30 in 1871 dollars).  It also has almost nothing to do with gardening, cooking or eating.  But, I felt it was a rollicking good tale, an interesting chain of events and a tale of technology that the Regents of the American Institute of The City of New York would appreciate.  What would Mr. Starrett think of Twitter?  My guess is he’d probably love it. I know Mr. Morse definitely would.


5 Responses to “A Stove Story”

  1. Marisa May 13, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    What a neat story! I do love how the internet enables the easy piecing of information together like that!

  2. Christine May 13, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    You just have to get the stove now. I’m sorry, but if you have the space for it, you just have to. What a great story!

  3. Christina May 15, 2010 at 8:22 am #

    The new format looks good. It’s easier to read when the posts are listed one at a time.

    Reason number 1 for internet loving: it appeals to my insatiable curiosity. You’ve got a case of the same disease, it appears.

  4. Lucy May 17, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Oh man, you have really got to get that stove. What a great story. When you put it in 1871 dollars it’s just too good to pass up. From the looks of the photo, it will be really easy to restore and get in working condition. That little chamber will give off a good amount of heat, too.

  5. ann May 18, 2010 at 6:00 am #

    Marisa — I know. The Internet really indulges my need to know *everything* I can about a given topic. It was obviously invented by a quality herd of nerds.

    Christine — I know. I know. I just have no idea how we would transport it and what we would do with it! The wheels keep turning …

    Christina — Thanks, and yeah, insatiable curiosity. I once won a ribbon for it at Horse Camp. I don’t think it was a compliment ;-)

    Lucy — Thanks! I’ve got to figure this out, obviously!

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