Visit Our Newest Exhibit: The Stove Plates of Rock Hill Farm

The Stove Plates of Rock Hill Farm are currently on exhibit in the Davis-Chambers House. The house is open for visitors on Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or by appointment at other times.

In the 18th century, some of the German immigrants arriving in the Pennsylvania colony brought cast iron stoves with them from Europe. They did not use these stoves for baking; rather, they heated their homes with the stoves. This type of stove – referred to, in turn, as a “jamb stove,” “wall stove,” “5-plated stove,” and “German stove” – had been used for radiant heat in northern European homes since the mid-1500’s.

The stoves were made of five or six rectangular cast iron plates that were bolted together and held up on legs 13” to 15” from the floor. The 5-plate stoves had an open back that was mortared into the wall behind a fireplace. A vent from the fireplace allowed hot air to travel into the stove and heat the plates. The stove then radiated heat into the room. A typical stove weighed between 320 and 450 pounds.

An example of a 5-plate German stove, from Mercer

After arriving in Pennsylvania, the Germans who owned the stoves sometimes had to find replacement plates to repair damaged or worn stoves. Records at some of Pennsylvania’s oldest blast furnaces show that the earliest stove plates were made regionally in 1726. In 1738, the first whole 5-plate American stove was manufactured in Pennsylvania.

Stoveplate diagram from Mercer

The cast iron stove plates were decorated in low relief and traditionally favored intricate details that included architectural canopies, human figures, pictorial designs, and secular and religious inscriptions. Beginning in 1750, American-made stove plates primarily depicted floral designs: tulips (also known as “Ephrata lilies”), flowerpots, sheaves of wheat, as well as hearts, stars, medallions, and architectural elements common to the European designs.

Colonists favored other methods of heating their homes, and the use of the German stove fell out of fashion. The last cast iron stove plates were manufactured in Pennsylvania’s furnaces in 1794. By then, many stoves had been disassembled and their individual stove plates had been recycled for other purposes. Dr. Henry Mercer launched a study of the stove plates in the early 20th century, at which time he found stove plates on old farmsteads throughout Pennsylvania being used as cistern caps, stepping stones, patches, and, most commonly, as firebacks.

A fireback is a piece of cast iron that is affixed to a fireplace behind the fire to protect the bricks and mortar from heat damage, and also to radiate heat from the fireplace into the room.

In 1958, Sue Craig Stauffer discovered a re-purposed stove plate that had been used for generations as a fireback in the large parlor’s fireplace in The Davis Chambers House here at Rock Hill Farm. The low relief design of the stove plate had been turned inward so that only the smooth metal back was visible.

1752 stove plate found in the fireplace of the large parlor, Davis-Chambers House

After further observation, Mrs. Stauffer found another re-purposed fireback partially buried in the dirt floor of the smokehouse on this property. She made note of these finds, and, in the early 1980s, Mrs. Stauffer had rubbings made of the intricate designs on each stove plate before the stove plates were returned to the places they had occupied for centuries.

1759 stove plate found partially buried in the Smokehouse at Rock Hill Farm

Today, the 1752 stove plate is still located in the parlor fireplace. The 1759 stove plate was unearthed from the smokehouse floor in the fall of 2012 by Dr. John Stauffer. It had deteriorated significantly since its re-burial in the 1980s. A third stove plate was also discovered facedown in the floor of the smokehouse in the fall of 2012. Staff at C.I. is currently researching this new find.

Display of stove plates and rubbings at the Davis-Chambers House

If the story behind the Stove Plates of Rock Hill Farm interests you, the following resources are available in The Conococheague Institute’s Library:

· Walker, James E. “The End of Colonialism in the Middle Atlantic Iron Industry.” Pennsylvania History: Quarterly Journal of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, XLI:1 (January 1974), pages 5-26.

· Bining, Arthur Cecil. Pennsylvania Iron Manufacture in the Eighteenth Century. Harrisburg: PA Historical Commission, 1938.

· Mercer, Henry C. The Bible in Iron. Doylestown, PA: Bucks County Historical Society, 1961.