A range of pretensions

18 Nov

I wonder what your first considerations are when you’re shopping for a new piece of kitchen equipment?   Does function and the capabilities of the equipment win out over its form and aesthetic beauty? Mr Kim and I often have a discussion over the relative merits of the Kitchen Aid and Kenwood mixers, the former being favoured by Mr Kim as the perfect synthesis of form and function and the latter being preferred by me as an example of utter dependability in the kitchen (my mother’s Kenwood mixer survived for decades despite falling on the floor on one occasion).

It was great therefore to come across a Victorian  kitchen combination of form and function when I visited the William Lyon Mackenzie house this afternoon.  Mackenzie was Toronto’s first mayor, a radical journalist and leader of the 1837 Upper Canada rebellion; a general thorn in the side of Canada’s ruling elites.  The house, which stands preserved on Bond Street in down town Toronto, was bought for Mackenzie by loyal friends and supporters, since Mackenzie while being a spirited and principled individual was always short of cash.  Mackenzie only enjoyed a few years in the house which was given to him in the late 1850s (he died in 1861).  His wife and unmarried daughters however, once again due to the generosity of loyal friends, were able to stay in the house after his death.

Mackenzie House in Bond Street, Toronto.  When built it was the middle house in a  row of three.

The house, built in the Greek revival style, became a public museum in 1950 and its historical significance meant that it was spared the fate of its adjoining row house neighbours which were torn down in the 1930s.   It’s been restored to give an impression of life in the 1860s with period wallpaper and furnishings and a handful of items which belonged to the family themselves like an chair with seat and back worked by one of Mackenzie’s daughters and a fine sampler worked by his wife when she was a 13 year old girl living in Dundee, Scotland.

There was plenty to catch my interest – I loved the demonstration of the gas lighting in the kitchen for example, with the three jets of flaming gas spurting out of the brass fitting like the veins of a firey leaf and the hallway arch with its angels’ heads, the last touch of original period moulding in the house.  What particularly caught my eye however was the wonderful range in the kitchen.  It was an especially unusual shape; almost triangular and very low in height; our guide suggested that this was because women were used to cooking at hearth level so wouldn’t have found this so strange.  Across the front was emblazoned OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 in vaguely Gothic script.  The whole upper section had the look of a wooden cabinet, perhaps 16th century in style, with the two doors for the ovens each being cast with a clutch of dead game birds, like a decorative carved panel, and the upper warming over doors being cast with patterns imitating carved wood.  Now I suppose when we purchase a cooker (or more likely these days a hob and oven) we’re unlikely to want it to look like anything else.  But taking a quick look over the internet at other 19th century stoves and ranges it’s remarkable how many of them seem to take on the shape of elegant pieces of furniture and wooden cabinets.  It’s almost as if the form of the piece is more important than it’s technical function.


Our Favorite in the Mackenzie kitchen; it was difficult to photograph because the light coming into the basement kitchen was very low but you can just about make out the way it fits back into the wall and the moulding of dead game on the doors above the stove. 

I don’t know enough about the merits of OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 to know if, as a stove, it was particularly functional and efficient.  But it’s modelling and cast decoration certainly suggests that it was greatly valued for its aesthetics.  It reminded me of the way in which early railway carriages were modelled on stage coaches; without a definitive shape for the new form of transport they simply adapted an existing form for new uses.  Maybe the same was true of 19th century stoves; as they became more and more independent of the fireplace they turned to other pieces of furniture to provide an appropriate model.

The upper half of the stove, with the moulded panels like a 16th century cabinet, with the words OUR FAVORITE                              in Gothic script

In actual fact this stove fits neatly into the space which would once have been occupied by a fireplace.  Our guide explained that although the stove in the house today was brought from another property in Toronto, it fitted almost perfectly into the fireplace void in the Mackenzie kitchen, suggesting, especially because of it’s unusual shape that the family had a stove very similar.

The Grand Windsor Stove, a later American 19th century stove, showing clear references to ornamental furniture.

During our tour there were also a number of mentions of the fact that the Mackenzies, as a lower middle class family, did many things for the sake of ‘keeping up appearances’.  Perhaps one reason why such a stove was valued was its suggestion of elegantly and richly carved decoration, a way of showing off social position and cultural sensibility, even if the family finances belied this outward demonstration of position.

All of this has made me very curious about the evolution of 19th century cast iron stoves in function and form, and in the Mackenzie’s OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 in particular.  I’d love to know if anyone has come across references to 19th century stove design or ever heard of OUR FAVORITE NO. 22 before?  Whether it really was a favourite in the Mackenzie household and to what extent they appreciated its fine decoration we shall sadly never know but its elaborate design is great reminder of the changing technologies of the 19th century kitchen.


2 Responses to “A range of pretensions”

  1. Dead Canadians (@DeadCanadians) November 21, 2012 at 10:49 pm #

    You may recall that the other night we passed by Montgomery’s Tavern (the site is now occupied by a Canada Post building with an Edward VIII cypher). Also, you may have passed by the grave of his grand-father, William Lyon Mackenzie King, during your wanderings through Mount Pleasant Cemetery (surprisingly, King is the only Canadian Prime Minister interred at Mount Pleasant). Mackenzie is interred at my favourite Toronto cemetery: the Necropolis (which isn’t too far from your new place). There is also another WL Mackenzie museum in Queenston, near Niagara. Naturally, I have a photograph of it in my bathroom. I can make anything come full-circle.

    • maplesyrupandcastersugar November 22, 2012 at 12:44 am #

      Ah, yes. Do you do necropolis tours? If so I’d love to take one. They do a great tour of Highgate cemetery which I’ve been on with my favourite tomb, that of circus owner and lion tamer Gerd Siemoneit-Barum. As well as Karl Marx.

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