Monday, November 14, 2016

A Tragic History of Tiny Stoves

by Erin Doane, curator

Children love to pretend to cook. That’s not surprising as food is such a huge part of our lives. I remember making mud “pies,” milk weed pod “pickles,” and “pizza” out of a piece of wood covered in sawdust “cheese” (I grew up at a lumber mill). Some of my luckier friends actually had Easy-Bake Ovens so they could really bake. Kitchen toys have been around for longer than some of us may imagine. In the 19th century, girls played with toy stoves to help them learn their duties as a housewife.
Miniature cast iron stove, late 19th-early 20th century
Miniature cast iron stoves, which very closely resembled the real thing, were very popular by the 1890s. No child’s playroom was complete without a real little kitchen including a toy stove. Some were just toys that children could pretend to cook on while others were functional. In 1892, the Marshal Field & Co. catalog had a listing for a toy stove that could actually be used for cooking. Small hot coals could be put inside to heat it up. The miniature stove pictured below from the museum’s collection has some sooty residue inside which means it was probably used like that at one time or another.

Miniature cast iron stove, late 19th-early 20th century
You might think that giving a child a working stove may be a bad idea and you would be correct. My research into toy stoves took a dark turn when I found a story in the April 23, 1890 Rome Daily Sentinel reporting on how some children in Utica tipped over a toy stove and set their 2-story frame house ablaze. That made me wonder if it was common for children’s toy stoves to set things on fire. Unfortunately, it appears that it was.

I did not find any stories of accidental toy stove fires in Chemung County but there were many more from around the state and region. In 1897 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, a 2-year-old left alone at home was playing with matches and a toy stove. She set her clothes on fire and burned to death. In 1909, a 6-year-old in St. Louis, Missouri lit a fire in her toy stove with coal oil. The stove exploded, setting her dress on fire. Both her mother and father were injured trying to extinguish the flames and the child died of her burns. There were two reported cases of toy stove fires in New York just days apart in 1915. A 2-month-old burned to death in her a crib after her 3-year-old sister started a fire with her toy stove. Another 5-year-old girl, Edna May Frost, died when she tried to heat up some milk on her toy stove to feed her new baby doll. You can read all the sad, terrible details of both incidents in the article below.

Article from the New York Herald, June 12, 1915
These kinds of accidents kept appearing in newspapers through the 1920s. In 1921, three little girls are playing with a new toy stove and iron they had just received for Christmas. The youngest, 3-year-old Lillian, tried to put some paper into the stove and her cloths caught on fire. Marion, who was 5 years old, and Gertrude, 7, tried to put out the flames but also caught fire. An older sister came to their rescue but Lillian died from her burns. An opinion article that appeared in the Watertown Daily Times in 1923 called for the manufacture and sale of toys stoves to be prohibited because of all these fires. The writer argued that children naturally wanted to emulate the adults around them. They would find ways to start fires in their stoves as they saw their mothers do in their real kitchens no matter how careful the parents were. A ban on the toys could be the only solution.

The instances of fires and deaths caused by toy stoves decrease through early 20th century. That could have been because of some sort of crackdown on the sales of the toys. It could have also been because of the introduction of electric toy stoves around 1915. Girls no longer needed fire to heat their stoves. They simply plugged them in and the tiny ovens and range tops would come up to temperature. By the late 1930s, parents were adding electrical outlets to their children’s play rooms so they could plug in their new toy stoves.

Electric toy stove, early-mid-20th century
Electric toy stove, mid-20th century


  1. I've seen several of those types of stoves but mostly in the context of them being salesman samples. Interesting....

  2. I have the same model, except the oven door says "American". It's got a seal/shield underneath. Is this unique?

    1. I have the same stove. I can't find anything on the "American" logo/brand. I thought it must be a bit more unique. Have you found anything on them?

  3. It's worth noting that when you come across those toy stoves at antique malls, flea markets, and other place, they're almost always labeled as "salesman sample." It's amazing how they made thousands of those tiny stoves as toys, while actual scale model stoves for marketing and demonstration purposes were extremely rare...yet, you always see them being sold as "salesman samples."