Friday, September 23, 2022

Hearths, Stoves and Warm Fires

It’s that time of year again when we pull out our favorite cozy sweaters, eat and drink a lot of pumpkin spice, and snuggle up in front of the fireplace; autumn is here. Just as we do now, people throughout time have used fires to warm themselves and their homes. Evidence of this human behavior is found in both Precontact and historic archaeological sites. On Precontact sites archaeologists find dark stains in the soil filled with charcoal and fire cracked rock remains in the ground. These stains, called features, are the remains of the cooking and heating fires left by Precontact peoples. On historic sites the artifacts that indicate the use of fire tend to be more substantial, including the remnants of the cast-iron wood-burning stoves, which have been a popular form of heating since the mid-1600’s (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia 2021).

Image of hearth feature exposing fire cracked rock and charcoal at Ft Hunter (36DA0159), note the charcoal deposit inside red circle. Image from the collection of the State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Cast iron stoves were made from pouring molten cast iron into molds to make plates, which were then bolted together to form a box. In 1642, the first cast iron stove was produced in America, in Lynn Massachusetts (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia 2021). These stoves were improved upon over time. By the 1740’s, multi-plated stoves were in production, six plate stoves were the beginning of developing a more efficient stove design. In 1744, Benjamin Franklin created the “Pennsylvania stove”, also known as the Franklin stove, a more efficient stove than the earlier forms. This stove allowed for more heat production in the home with less heat escaping with the smoke (Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia 2021; Harris, 2013). Following the Pennsylvania stove, the ten-plate stove was yet again more efficient and could burn both wood and coal (Harris 213). Stove plates were often highly decorated and provided information about the furnace where they were produced. Often, when stove remnants are found on an archaeological site it is the fragments of one of the plates, and with luck some of the decorations or text cast into the piece remain. One such stove plate can be found in The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology’s collections. 

Ten-plate cast iron stoves. Image from the collections of the Hopewell Furnace.  

Excavated by The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission under the direction of the Section of Archaeology from Washington Crossing Historic Park at the Thompson Neely Grist mill site, 36Bu18.  This stove plate was recovered in seven pieces from the stone foundation scattered inside and against the wall of the foundation, portions of it were missing. When placed together the sections of stove plate have an embossed design and text which reads, “DALE-FU and OTTS-1770.” As with many types of artifacts even the smallest bit of detail or information can help tell a story of that artifact and its creators’ history. In the case of these stove plate fragments the text present provides just enough information to deduce that this stove was produced at the Colebrookdale Furnace in 1770, during which time Thomas Potts Jr. was managing and proprietor of the furnace (Gemmell 1949; The Committee for Historical Research 1914).  

Stove plate fragments found at the Thompson Neely Sawmill site, 36Bu18. Image from the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Additional research of the furnace provided further insight into the significance of these fragments. In 1716, Thomas Rutter a blacksmith from England, built Rutter’s Forge, a bloomery forge, which made crude wrought iron from local ore. A few years later, around 1720, Thomas Rutter together with Thomas Potts and investors from Philadelphia built the first blast furnace in Pennsylvania, Colebrookdale Furnace. Located on Iron Stone Creek in Berks County, it was purportedly named after the famous Coalbrookdale works in England.  Historic records indicate that from the beginning Potts was the managing force of the Colebrookdale Furnace (Gemmell 1949; The Committee for Historical Research 1914). Colebrookdale Furnace was a typical pyramid shaped charcoal furnace with water powered bellows, which is why it and other furnaces of the era were located on creeks and rivers (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission 2019).

Earlier Colebrookdale Furnace stove plate with furnace name and Thomas Rutter on the plate. Image from the collection of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Community & Domestic Life. 

Together the Rutter and Potts families owned several furnace and forge facilities including Colebrookdale Furnace and Forge, Mount Pleasant Furnace and Forge, as well as Spring, Amity, Rutter’s, Pool, Pine, Little Pine and McCall’s Forges. Rutter died in March of 1730 making Potts the principal owner and manager of these businesses. Between 1729 through the mid-1760s Colebrookdale Furnace provided the pig iron to several other furnaces in the area and was a very active furnace from its start until the beginning of the American Revolution. Account ledgers for the furnace recorded the years of production and the number of pots and kettles produced there with many of the vessels going to the Quaker community in Berks County.  The historic mill property from which this artifact was recovered served the surrounding communities and Philadelphia merchants. This trade allowed for the growth and expansion of the Thompson Neely House and family. Historic records indicate that William Neely had married Robert Thompson’s daughter in 1766 and was likely the proprietor at the time the stove plate was created.

Thomas Potts died in 1752, leaving the Colebrookdale Furnace to his son Thomas Potts Jr. Eventually the furnace was no longer in use or in the Potts family as none of Thomas Potts Jr.’s children wanted it (Gemmell 1949; The Committee for Historical Research 1914). The Colebrookdale furnace was a highly successful iron furnace while in operation, especially during the time it was managed by the Potts and Rutter families. As the first blast furnace in Pennsylvania the, Colebrookdale Furnace made a significant contribution to the spread of the iron industry in central and eastern Pennsylvania.  By 1775, the southeastern region of Pennsylvania contained the highest concentration of forges and furnaces in the country, contributing to our nation’s ability to gain independence from Britain since we were no longer dependent on English supply. 

We hope you have enjoyed this post in This Week in Pennsylvania Archaeology (TWIPA) as we examine how archaeologists can use limited details to uncover the history of an artifact and our archaeological heritage. Pennsylvania’s rich industrial heritage contributed to our growth as a Commonwealth. The workers who labored in these furnaces were skilled tradesmen from diverse backgrounds and are to be recognized for their contributions to the growth of our industrial record. You may have the chance to enjoy a nice warm fire this chilly autumn and if so, think about the long history of cast iron stoves and the prevalence of the Rutter and Potts families in Pennsylvania’s 18th-century iron industry. Broken stove plate fragments are a tool for archaeologists to examine the past and connect to the families who operated the furnace that produced this product and the families who purchased it.  Pathways to the Past is the theme for this year’s Workshops in Archaeology scheduled for October 29th, 2022 at The State Museum of Pennsylvania we hope you will join us as we explore the trails, pathways and stories that connect us to our archaeological past. 


Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia 

2021 stove. Electronic Document. Accessed September 9, 2022.

Gemmell, Alfred

1949 The Charcoal Iron Industry in the Perkiomen Valley. Hartenstine Printing House, Norristown, Pennsylvania. 

Harris, Howell

2013       A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, I: Plate Stoves. A Stove Less Ordinary (blog). October 22. Accessed September 9, 2022.

National Park Service

2020      Cast Iron Stove Production at Hopewell Furnace. Electronic Document. Accessed September 9, 2022.

 Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

2019       Colebrookdale Furnace Historical Marker. Electronic Document. Accessed September 9, 2022.

 The Committee on Historical Research

1914     Forges and Furnaces in the Province of Pennsylvania, Prepared by the Committee on Historical Research.  Prepared for The Pennsylvania Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Philadelphia, Pa.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .