By Ann Munn
While viewing the Museum’s collection of hearth utensils, many visitors ask if colonial cooks employed as many objects as are on display. Most believe colonial hearths only contained andirons, a back bar, and an iron pot. However, colonial cooks employed a number of utensils and tools for a variety of tasks. Not only does the Museum’s collection reflect the diversity of 18th Century hearth cooking objects and the ingenuity of their cooking tools and utensils, but the items on display mirror those that were listed on Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s 1784 inventory.
Among the items displayed at the hearth, objects include two sets of andirons, various ash shovels, a bake kettle, a tin reflector oven, skewers, frying pans, gridirons, peels, pot hooks, trammels, skimmers, a standing broiler, waffle irons, and a swivel toaster. These items were all used for different cooking results. For example, the 18th Century cook also had a number of items to assist in the preparation of bread. Normally a weeks worth of bread and other baked goods were baked one day per week in the bake oven. However, sometimes more items needed to be produced. For example, a preheated bake kettle contained a lip on the lid for hot embers to be placed atop for an even baking. The bake kettle provided a valuable alternative to the bake oven, especially for smaller amounts of baking. A toasting iron provided a means for preparing bread and re-toasting bread that had already been baked. Not only did the toasting iron provide warm bread but it also made stale bread easier to eat.
Along with the cooking objects, the construction of the hearth was also important to its users. During the mid-18th Century, modifications to hearth design were being adopted in newly constructed houses, including the Bidwell House. For example, installed within the hearth is an iron swinging back bar built into the mortar of the fireplace. The introduction of the backswing bar allowed for easier temperature control by freeing the cook from having to regulate fire intensity, and provided greater protection from the dangers of a hot fire.
Another modification includes the bake or beehive oven. Before the mid-18th Century, most hearths included a bake oven placed inside the fireplace. By 1750, newly constructed homes, including the Bidwell House, had their bake ovens placed to the side of the fireplace. Therefore, the cook did not have to reach over the fire to access the bake oven. Using a bake oven was already dangerous without the added danger of reaching over the hearth fire.
More cooking items were highlighted during the program, “What Was Cooking at the Bidwell House: Foodways in Colonial New England held on Saturday, July 31, 2004.”