In the world of antiques, few pieces of furniture can match the investmentvalue of, say, a Glenwood Parlor Stove made in 1900, says Richard
``Stove Black`` Richardson, owner of the Good Time Stove Co., in the rural Massachusetts hill town of Goshen. These babies, he will tell you, were built to last. And they haven`t been built as good since.
`They`re a form of functional art,`` he says. ``An old stove will keep you warmer, more efficiently, through the coldest of winters, and they seem to escalate in value $50 to $100 a year.``
Richardson restores and sells about 200 old stoves, cookstoves and kitchen ranges each year for buyers all over the country. But old stoves are more than a stock-in-trade for him. They are an obsession, and Richardson`s mission is to educate the public about what was once a thriving industry and to save the hundreds of old stoves that are languishing unused in attics and garages across the country.
Richardson has used a number of methods to spread the gospel of antique stoves. A few years ago, he teamed up with a local author and photographer to produce a calendar, and they have written a coffeetable book on the history, lure and lore of old stoves.
Now he has turned to videos, which he uses as ``catalogs`` to show his inventory to faraway customers, an effort that, he says, has tripled his sales in the last two years.
Low oil prices and the high cost of new stoves have changed the market, Richardson says. Buyers used to look for something that would heat their home cheaply; today, buyers of old stoves are more likely to be upscale professionals or artists who are more interested in the beauty of a stove or the time period it was built.
A changing market
``The market used to be energy-driven; now it has become collectible driven,`` Richardson says. ``We sell a lot to people who are restoring old homes. They`re trying to keep something alive, not just a consumer trying to keep up with the latest trend.``
In the dingy back room of his shop, surrounded by dozens of stoves in varying degrees of disarray, Richardson explains the value of old stoves.
``Stoves were better built then,`` he says. ``They had to be efficient, because they were being used everywhere by everyone: On farms, in restaurants, in railroad cars, the stove was by far America`s most-needed product. And for that reason, if it wasn`t convenient, if it wasn`t easy to load, if it smoked or made dust, it wouldn`t sell.``
``If you were going to put it in your living room, it had to be beautiful,`` he says.
His stove shop is testimony to that fact. Nearly 40 antique stoves of different ages line the walls, from a demure black parlor stove with ornate scrolling and nickel plating to a ``modern`` 1930s gas cooking stove complete with Art Deco salt and pepper shakers in their holders. Richardson scours the Northeast, looking for stoves to recondition and, in his journeys, has learned about their history.
The years between 1880 and 1905 were the heyday of the stove industry, and because of the high cost of shipping, each region had its own foundry and factory.
In the Albany, N.Y., area alone, 79 companies manufactured stoves, taking advantage of the cheap labor provided by a nearby state prison. In Boston, Walker and Pratt Manufacturing Co. had its central office, with a foundry in nearby Watertown. Taunton, Mass., was the home of the Ware Stove Co., which later became the Glenwood Stove Co., one of the leaders in the industry. In Providence, R.I., Boston and New York, there was the Barstow Stove Co. The Richmond Stove Co. built its wares in Norwich, Conn.
Vying for buyers
With 2,000 companies nationwide competing for the consumer`s dollar, marketing techniques took on a new importance, and stove advertising came into a genre all its own. Richardson`s manuscript recounts the story of the Home Comfort Man, who sold stoves for the Wrought Iron Range Co. of St. Louis.
Selling to rural and farming families, the Home Comfort Man would travel the Midwest door to door with a replica of his stove in tow. Arriving at the farmhouse kitchen door around 7 or 8 a.m., when he knew the farmer would be taking his first break of the day, the Home Comfort Man would volunteer to help with chores around the farm. Later in the evening, when he had earned his dinner and a place to sleep, he would make his pitch to the farm family and their friends, delivering a spiel that was nearly as airtight as his stove.
``Often, the last act, the final moment, the crescendo and sales closing would come when the Home Comfort Man would again tell of the strength and durability of the Home Comfort Range and its components,`` Richardson recounts. `` `Take your heaviest hammer and your brightest blows on this stove lid,` the Home Comfort Man would exhort. `Break the lid and the stove will be yours!` The farmer would bring down his hammer time after time only to make the lid dance like a flipped quarter.``
The wood and coal stove`s popularity waned with the rise in the use of kerosene, oil and gas, and the dawn of the electric age dealt it a final blow. Many stoves and even their castings were melted down in the early `40s to build tanks for the war effort.
Though Richardson is 40, he sounds like an old-timer as he espouses the utilitarian virtues of the old stoves. He says much of the technology that made those old woodstoves so good was virtually ignored by the woodstove makers during the rebirth of the industry in the early `70s.
``I got into the business in the mid-`70s, and it didn`t take me long to realize that the newer stoves were off the wall,`` he says. ``Tons of technology slipped by us in the 1970s. It was like selling a Pinto versus a Rolls-Royce.``
A slow burn
Downdrafters, indirect flues and baseburners were all used in the old stoves to make for a more thorough combustion and longer burning time, Richardson explains.
``And nobody looked back to consider that these stoves were furniture. They took up less floor space and they were more convenient to use,`` he says. Richardson says there are still plenty of values in old stoves for those who know what to look for. Buyers of old stoves should check for the number and severity of cracks and warps, especially in the firebox. Check to make sure the stove has all its parts and if the missing parts can be replaced. Is the firebox set up for wood or coal? For maximum efficiency and performance, be sure the stove you`re buying meets your heating needs, and find out how to use it. Finally, if you are going to have the stove restored, get an estimate on the work before you buy. A $400 stove that costs $800 to restore may not be a good value.
``It`s always worth calling someone in the business to find out what to do,`` Richardson says. ``Very few people can turn to their grandfathers and say, `What`s the story on this stove?` ``