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A garden in the machine:Reading a mid-19th-century, two-cylinder parlor stove as cultural text

Technology in Society
Publication Date
DOI: 10.1016/0160-791x(91)90008-k
  • Design
  • Ecology
  • Literature


Abstract This essay reads a mid-19th-century, two-cylinder parlor stove as a polyvalent cultural text that expresses American ambivalence about industrialization and technology as powerful forces of social transformation (forces even capable of reorganizing relations within the middle-class home). The first half of the essay offers a close, formal reading of the stove's design, iconography, and probable use. Pastoral ornamentation on the stove, read historically, exhibits concerns about the effects of industrialization on the dream of an agrarian republic. The funeral aspect of the stove also suggests anxiety about a bucolic “world we have lost.” At the same time the stove, whose two cylinders are topped with crowns, seems to celebrate a technological triumph over nature. The latter half of the paper establishes a dialogue between the results of this formal reading and historical research on midcentury parlor stoves, stove advertising, criticisms of coal burning stoves by writers on heat and ventilation, and literary responses to the domestic presence of stoves. Advertisers faced the cultural challenge of portraying the stove as a safe object (rather than a smoldering destroyer), as well as a machine that could fan the flames of romance (as opposed to an unsatisfying industrial substitute for the sentimentalized hearth). Authors lamented that the stove “de-centered” affective relations within the home, but recognized that the midcentury “progress” of deforestation in New England made the “progress” of stove technology a necessity.

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