Aged, but elegant: Old stoves are still going strong
March 27, 2001
BY SYLVIA RECTOR
When Margit Ervin's gas range was built at the Detroit Jewel stove works in the early 1930s, Herbert Hoover was president, milk was delivered to homes in glass bottles and no one had dreamed of TV -- much less TV dinners.
The world has changed, but not that stove. Ervin cooks on it every day, baking cookies, making soups and even roasting 22-pound Thanksgiving turkeys with ease. "I raised my kids with the stove," says Ervin, 62, who bought the house in the University District of northwest Detroit in 1971.
Unlike the lumpish cubes that sat in '60s kitchens, her stove has a refined, elegant look. It stands on slender legs and has a sleek backsplash that ingeniously folds forward to cover the burners when they aren't in use. Its porcelain finish is the color of creamy mushroom bisque, with a feathery pattern decorating its control panel, oven door and drawer fronts. The dials look like old ivory but are Bakelite, an early form of plastic.
"People come in the kitchen and they say, 'You cook on this?' It has always been a conversation piece," says Ervin. It works so well, she has never considered selling it; she's the kind of person who'd rather repair than replace. And besides, she shrugs, "How many people would truly be interested?"
She -- and many other old-appliance owners -- might be amazed.
Thousands upon thousands of people own, use, restore and generally adore old stoves, and now, with the Internet, pursuing their love affair is easier than ever. Enthusiasts belong to old stove clubs, subscribe to old stove newsletters and attend old stove conventions.
Some have even turned their hobby into a business, restoring and selling stoves to customers ranging from bed-and-breakfast owners to culinary instructors. Top-of-the-line pieces sell for thousands of dollars, but to admirers, they're worth it.
"They're built like tanks, and they look really nice when they're done," says restorer Edward Semmelroth of Tekonsha. "They're real jaw-droppers."
Built to last
People who tend to believe that newer is better -- in other words, most Americans -- might be dubious that cookstoves built 60 or 70 years ago could compare to modern ones. But materials then were made to last, says Jack Santoro, founder and president of the 5,000-member Old Appliance Club, based in Ventura, Calif.
He got involved with old stoves in 1971, almost by accident, after repairing one as a favor. "The stuff made in the early '70s was junk," he says. His well-heeled customers wanted refurbished appliances because they held up so well, he says.
"The old equipment was built much sturdier -- cast iron and sheet steel, made with really perfect-grade iron ores. It was virgin stock they were using. Later on they started cutting corners," he says.
Santoro says there's no way to know how many people are fanciers or owners of old stoves; even the definition of "old stove" is a matter of opinion. He met a Gen-X-er recently who thought ones from the '60s were antiques, he says.
Semmelroth, whose restoration business, called Antique Stoves, is about 15 minutes south of Marshall, deals mostly in older, higher-end stove models.
"I do stuff from 1750 forward," he says. He counts among his clients several state historical societies and museums, including Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village; a popular television show about home restorations; cooking instructors, antique collectors and inn owners.
Chambers and Magic Chef were nationally distributed brands, but dozens of regional companies -- like Detroit Jewel -- operated in the Midwest and Northeast. As a result, a mind-boggling array of colors, styles
and features were available long before World War II.
"They were beautiful. I've had stoves with multiple flower designs right in the porcelain -- color schemes that were unbelievable compared to now," he says. Modern appliances are simply painted, but real porcelain is basically ground glass baked onto a metal surface.
"It was hand work. They had to put a little effort into it back then," Semmelroth says.
"I had a green-and-cream piece with marbleized swirly designs -- six burners and two ovens, and a bread warmer with a roll-top. It was a real go-getter piece" that he sold for about $4,000 after putting it in top working order. The most expensive piece he's ever restored and sold brought more than $20,000, he says.
But it's possible to buy an old stove for much less.
"Color makes a difference, and it depends on the brand, but more generally, people can spend between $500 and $1,000 and get a decent piece. You can't get that 'Omigod' look for less than $800, though -- it just doesn't happen. Porcelain work is horribly expensive; it's art-grade work. It's like restoring a nice car."
Stoves on the Web
People who own old stoves hear price tags in the thousands and imagine dollar bills floating in the air above their old white Kenmore from the '50s, Semmelroth says, but it doesn't work that way.
Even the lovely, early-'30s Detroit Jewel in Magrit Ervin's kitchen probably wouldn't bring more than $800 to $1,200, he guesses. Accurate appraisals can't be done without detailed information and photographs, and he can't -- and won't -- do them over the telephone.
His Web site -- www.antiquestoves.com -- has appraisal forms that can be printed and mailed in with the required $25 fee. Semmelroth is not the only dealer and appraiser in the country, of course, and he doesn't do repairs or sell parts.
However, the Old Appliance Club, also accessible through Semmelroth's site, can help vintage stove owners find those services. For a $30 annual membership fee, members receive and can place ads in a magazine that covers all kinds of vintage appliances, from toasters to refrigerators and stoves. They also get help finding information, parts and services ranging from re-enameling, re-plating and chrome work to thermostat adjustments, parts repair and parts replacement.
Other help and networking opportunities are available through the Texas-based Antique Stove Association, on the Web at www.antiquestoveassoc.org. It's an organization for restorers, dealers and owners; membership fees are $25 per year.
Preparing lunch for a guest recently in her cheerful, orderly, vintage kitchen with its original sink, original faucets and original yellow and black tile, Ervin considered the idea that her stove might be worth close to $1,000.
She's never had much trouble with it; even the oven thermostat still works well. The burners are much larger than modern ones, but there is no pilot light. To turn on the stove, she simply turns one of the controls on its front and holds a wand-shaped lighter near the burner she wants to use. The oven and the broiler work the same way.
The simple, direct ritual seems to suit her. A native of Germany, she didn't like the construction of new houses being built in the suburbs when she and her then-husband moved to metro Detroit in 1969.
But she immediately fell in love with the architecture and detail of the '30s house in Detroit. It had been built well, and over the years no one had made any real structural changes.
Neither has Ervin. She loves the old features and even laments that she had to replace the original refrigerator a few years ago.
"As long as I live here, I don't want to part with it," she says of her stove. "The only way I would sell it, I think, is to someone who would love it and use it like I do."
Contact SYLVIA RECTOR at 313-222-5026 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Partial listing of other publications, TV, and radio website interviews:
Wall Street Journal-1995, Natural Gas Dailies, LA Times, Antique Trader, BrandWise, Good Housekeeping magazine, Independent Business magazine, Business '99, Renovation Style, The New Yorker, Frontier House PBS series, The Old House Journal magazine, syndicated columnists, Ann and Nan, Mr. Handyperson - Mark Hett, This Old House, Collectors Magazine and Price Guide, Cabin Life, libraries and museums throughout the country including The Smithsonian Library.
For stove and appliance parts, information, free consultation, estimates, thermostats, electrical elements, safeties... see The Old Appliance Club Shop