We live right next door to Hamilton Hall, an elegant Federal-era assembly hall attributed to Salem’s famous architect and woodcarver Samuel McIntire. I wake up every morning and look out my bedroom window at McIntire’s carved eagle and swags on the exterior, and I’ve posted about most of its interior spaces here as well. The Hall’s grand ballroom, with its spring dance floor, Palladian windows, gilt mirrors, and musician’s balcony, always gets a lot of attention, but today I want to feature a more utilitarian room below the stairs: the “brick hearth room” with its Rumford Roaster, the cutting-edge culinary technology of the early nineteenth century. Here it is, built into the large hearth that dominates the room, in my photographs and a doctored drawing from the very charming 1947 Hamilton Hall Cook Book (containing recipes for “Afternoon Tea Dainties”, “Shrimp Wiggle”, and many puddings).
The Rumford Roaster transferred cooking from the open fire to an enclosed oven (the round opening, lined with metal inside), which was heated by the small square firebox directly below. There are openings in the sides of the oven to control the temperature, and the entire device was vented through the central chimney. The Rumford Roaster at Hamilton Hall is characteristic of the earliest examples in that it was built into the hearth (also see the roasters at the Gardner-Pingree House here in Salem and the Rundlet-May House in Portsmouth, below) but freestanding models developed a bit later. Its evolution seems to run parallel to the evolution of the American kitchen.
Rumford Roasters in the kitchens of the Gardner-Pingree House, Salem (Peabody Essex Museum) and the Rundlet-May House, Portsmouth, New Hampshire (Historic New England).
The Roaster was invented and named after Count Rumford (1753-1814), an absolutely extraordinary man whose biography reads like a (really bad) dime novel. Born plain old Benjamin Thompson in what was then the small village of Woburn, twelve miles northwest of Boston, he transformed himself into quite the continental Count through a combination of scientific genius and what can euphemistically be called “adventuring”. His biographical details can be found elsewhere (this account was good yet succinct; I think his life, work and times demand a larger volume), so I’m going to summarize as much as I can: Thompson was apprenticed to merchants in both Salem and Boston in his adolescence, and then he obtained a position as a schoolmaster in Rumford (now Concord), New Hampshire. There he met and married a wealthy and well-connected widow about ten years his senior. Through her, he made all sorts of useful connections and became a commissioned officer in the New Hampshire militia by the mid-1770s, but it turns out that he was at best a Loyalist and at worst a spy: he fled to London in 1776, abandoning his wife and child, after accusations of “being unfriendly to the cause of liberty”.
From a British perspective, Thompson distinguished himself in both public service and scientific experimentation during the American Revolution, serving in the British Colonial Office while simultaneously conducting experiments in ballistics and munitions: these lessons in military combustion would later be applied to more domestic mechanisms. He was knighted by King George III in 1784, but somehow was at the same time under suspicion of spying for the French !!! and so made his way to the Continent and wound up in the service of one of the most powerful German princes, Karl Theodor, Prince–Elector, Count Palatine and Duke of Bavaria. He remained in Bavaria for over a decade, working on such diverse projects as poorhouse reform and urban planning (including the creation of the Englischer Garten in Munich) while continuing to conduct experiments on the nature and applications of heat. In 1791, Sir Benjamin Thompson was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, and he chose the title “Rumford”, in reference to his New England origins. This, and the fact that he left a good part of his fortune to Harvard University to establish a Rumford professorship, indicates that there were some misgivings about betraying his native country. During the last phase of the Count’s life, there is something of a “man without a country” air about him; despite his honors there were whispers of spying (AGAIN–this time for Britain), which forced him to leave Bavaria. His last decade was spent traveling back and forth between England and France, where he died in 1814, “the spy who conquered the cold”.
Count Rumford was certainly a household name by 1800, inspiring both portraits and caricatures. Above, a mezzotint portrait by John Raphael Smith (1801) and a caricature which is poking fun at Rumford’s fashionable Royal Society lectures: he is the man who is “producing” steam in James Gillray’s 1802 print, Scientific Researches! New Discoveries in Pneumaticks! Or, an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air, both British Museum. And look at these companion satires below!
James Gillray, The Comforts of a Rumford Stove, 1800; Charles Williams, Luxury, or the Comforts of a RUMPFORD, 1801, British Museum.
Well, back to the rather less racy Rumford stove at Hamilton Hall! A couple of more shots are below, including open views of the oven (with the arm of a helpful Hall trustee) and the ash box below. There are great records of the administration and maintenance of the Hall in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so we know that this Roaster was supplied by Elijah Fuller of Neptune Street in Salem; I searched through the Salem Register for references to Fuller’s shop and found the notice below, from July 1803. Rumford was clearly a recognizable name–and product–over on this side of the Atlantic as well.
Hamilton Hall has been the setting for countless “assemblies” over its two hundred + years, including large dinners for such dignitaries as the Marquis de Lafayette, Nathaniel Bowditch, and Martin Van Buren in the first phase of its history; I imagine that the catering of these events was greatly facilitated by the presence of Count Rumford’s Roaster.
In the Spotlight: a photograph of Hamilton Hall taken last week, during the dawn-to-dusk production of a music video.
February 1st, 2013 at 9:15 am
And we tend to think we invented efficiency technology. Wonderful to have a reminder that they knew what they were doing, way back when!
March 30th, 2023 at 12:43 am
I am sure it’s only non-engineers who think that way! As mechanical engineers, we teach thermal design to the students, and that often includes historical examples. Of course, now we are moving away from systems based on combustion altogether, not for efficiency but to avoid the CO2.
February 1st, 2013 at 9:20 am
That is very interesting. I always wondered how those old ovens worked. So much old technology is better and more advanced that today.
Another thing I think they should still make is the foot pedal sewing machines. Superior!
February 1st, 2013 at 12:05 pm
I have two that have been made into tables with the addition of a marble slab on top.
February 1st, 2013 at 10:53 am
This was lots of fun and showed me Roasters I did not know about. Thanks
Rumford’s improved fireplaces/roasters are mentioned by Jane Austin. Someone wrote a thesis about it.
The Germans used a brick ‘stove’ with a firebox below and holes for the pots above. Rumford expanded the stove to allow for large scale cooking in military and poor house situations. That is probably where he worked out the roaster details.
The stove parts were quite expensive, not many of them exist today. His fire box reconfiguration became the standard. Houses and their remodelings can be dated by the existence of – or upgrade of a firebox to be – a Rumford fireplace.
Asher Benjamin included a Rumford Roaster in his 1804 pattern book.
February 1st, 2013 at 12:04 pm
Hello Jane–thanks for your notes; I totally forgot about Asher Benjamin; I think I might add him. And it’s Northanger Abbey–I was just reading it last week. It warms up Catherine’s very cold room at the Abbey.
February 5th, 2013 at 10:59 pm
Thanks, but I thought there was also a mention someplace in Jane Austin of someone inspected a house that had Rumford improvements? maybe not.
I think the people pictured with naked backsides in front of Rumford fireplaces are great illustrations of how nice it was to be warm! How cold houses really were with great open cooking fire boxes and flues open all the way up to the chimney – what a draft and no dampers! I especially like the cat luxuriating in the warmth on its back on the rug.
The Rumford reconfiguration reflected the heat into the room. Some of the fireboxes are only 12″ deep and they do work.( I grew up with 2).
Benjamin Franklin was a patriot and invented the Franklin stove at about the same time – His stove won out.
February 1st, 2013 at 11:58 pm
Finally a smart blogger…I adore how you happen to be thinking and writing!
February 3rd, 2013 at 4:22 pm
Thank you, Lara. What a nice compliment.
February 2nd, 2013 at 9:24 pm
Benjamin Thompson is a relative of mine, his mother and my 5x great grandfather were siblings. His genius must have skipped me, but we have many inventors in this line, the last one was my 2nd great grandfather, Peter Hoogerzeil of Beverly. He lived near the Salem bridge, and invented many kitchen gadgets, including a roaster that was patented in 1894. I found advertisements and drawings of the Hoogerzeil Baker in Salem directories of the time, and in newspapers from Beverly and Salem. As for me, I understand history but thermodynamics is completely over my head!
February 3rd, 2013 at 4:24 pm
Neat, Heather. I’m with you: you notice how I skimmed over the science?
February 15th, 2018 at 10:20 am
If used for cooking, why is the bottom curved? How would you set a pan in it?
March 29th, 2023 at 11:44 pm
It’s probably a Rumford FIREPLACE that House of the Seven Gables has, not the roaster. (I didn’t know about the roasters until reading the above, so hence my confusion on your Instagram. I assumed it was just a synonym for his fireplace…)
Benjamin Thompson’s discoveries I know quite well because I tutor thermodynamics with my undergrads. He was the one that established the connection between heat and kinetic energy and in doing so, proved that heat could not be treated as a fluid (“caloric”). I am not at all sure that he entirely understood the significance of that observation, but it put other people on the right track to discovering the First Law (which is conservation of energy).