Behind The Scenes, Resident Feature

There’s No (Fire)Place Like Home

January 22, 2020


“Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin” 
(There’s no fireplace like your own fireplace)1
~Irish Proverb

Joseph P. Moore was at his Bridget’s side when she passed away on September 25, 1882 in their apartment at 398 3rd Avenue. He provided the information necessary for the attending physician to complete a death certificate. Over one hundred years later, Museum researchers used that certificate to help interpret the story of Bridget Moore’s life. It provides enough content to paint in broad strokes: Bridget was 36 years old when she died of ‘fatty degeneration of the heart,” a condition she endured for at least a year, according to the doctor’s notes. She had lived in the United States for 19 years. Her parents, John and Jane Meehan, lived in Ireland. Though no birth record has been found, working backward from the information on the death certificate tells us that Bridget was born in 1846 and immigrated in 1863 to New York City from an unspecified County in Ireland. She was 17.

Birth and death records, baptismal certificates, and census enumerations expand Bridget’s story. She was a Catholic, living as a single woman in New York City for two years before marrying Joseph Moore. In time, Bridget gave birth to eight children (four of whom she would mourn), battled a chronic illness, and died prematurely. The records indicate that at the end of her life, she was a House Keeper, and in earlier census enumerations she was Bridget ‘Keeping House’. Either way it’s phrased, both occupations revolve around domestic technology. If we are to understand Bridget better, we have to conjecture beyond the written record; we have to trade her paper trail for one of material culture, which leads us to the very heart of the home and the center of domestic technology: the heat source. And because immigration played a fundamental role in her life, we have to begin this story where hers began, in famine-ravaged Ireland.

The Fire Before: Hearth and Home in Ireland

In 1847, Ireland was in the third year of potato crop failure, and America was described a ‘refuge of [the Irishman’s] race, the home of his kindred, the heritage of his children and their children.’3 The majority of Irish immigrants to New York City during the famine period, 1845-1855, had origins in the southern region of Munster or from Ulster in the north.  For many people in the poorest counties of Connacht, in the west, the expense of immigration was too great a barrier, and so they arrived in New York City in far fewer numbers.2 Immigration from Ireland expanded exponentially during the peak famine years, and remained steady for subsequent decades. Three years before Bridget made the passage herself, reports from The New York Times observed, ‘If this [exodus] goes on, as it is likely to go on…the United States will become very Irish….So an Ireland there will still be, but on a colossal scale, and in a new world.’4

In 1863, Bridget joined that exodus, likely coming from the northern or southern regions.

The 1860 excerpt from the Times implies that Bridget Meehan’s Ireland was a desperate one, almost on the verge of extinction. Born in “that calamitous year, 1846,”5 the second year of the famine, Bridget knew an Ireland filled with instability, turmoil, and loss. The “strange stench”6 associated with the potato blight would have been in her earliest memory. As the staple crop failed year after year, food scarcity and starvation became a daily reality for rural Irish families like the Meehans. Without question, her memories included family members and neighbors becoming sick and dying for lack of food.

It is likely that as a child Bridget heard about traditional Irish recipes, rather than actually savoring them. In those desperate years, Father White, of Ballinasloe County Galway, noted the poor of Ireland were “forced to live on weeds.”7 Charity soup kitchens offered small relief, serving a watery brew made from leg of beef, fat drippings, brown sugar and flour, flavored with onion, celery tops, turnip parings and a little salt. A serving of this soup, combined with a biscuit, was believed to “be more than sufficient to maintain the strength of a strong healthy man.”8 A mother’s strength needed preservation as well, especially to nurse a child, and it’s possible that Jane Meehan took a place in the line to partake in this thin soup.

Being in line for soup might have spurred an emotional conflict for Jane. As an Irish mother, she knew how to flavor the most basic foods to elevate their taste. Ingredients varied by county, but broadly speaking, in good times the diet for families like the Meehans revolved around oats, potatoes, and dairy. These ingredients were supplemented with barley, pork, beef, fish, cabbage, root vegetables, maize and tea. Flavoring agents included herring, bacon, leeks, scallions, ramps, ginger and caraway seeds.9 Prior to the famine, Jane’s life involved laboring over the hearth, where she may have rendered these ingredients into tasty boiled stirabout (porridge) and stews, hearth-baked potato and oat cakes, brown bread, and occasionally roasted meats or fish. What was Jane’s impression of the loveless soup kitchen offering knowing, as she did, how leeks and buttermilk could transform potatoes, and how slight variations in root vegetables could enhance the character of a stew? Perhaps the idea of taste was just a passing concern for Jane, since sustenance of any kind was all she needed to maintain strength enough to be a mother and homemaker.

Despite the scarcity of food, the hearth likely remained the home’s center for. Each morning she would kindle a new fire from the live embers of the previous night’s. This would warm the air and drive away the dampness in the cottage. The fire was never allowed to die out; as long as the hearth burned, there was hope, and life, however bleak it seemed, was bearable. Weary families found refuge around hearth fires. As if to spite their suffering and to counteract their mourning and loss, families and friends shared stories, sang songs, told jokes, and celebrated holidays at hearth gatherings.

The hearth occupied a large part of Bridget’s childhood and adolescence. In time she would learn from her mother how to tend the fire. She would help with cutting and stacking turf – peat cut from bogs, the primary fuel for hearth fires. The pleasant smell of burning turf would have entered her library of olfactory memories, no doubt associated with warmth and comfort. As her family emerged from the famine years, their diet, like others’, changed to reduce the dependence on the potato; it became a secondary ingredient, replaced by a broad range of staples like Indian meal, oatmeal, and breads, accompanied by dairy, produce, meat, fish, eggs and tea.10 While Bridget’s mother likely passed along her old culinary knowledge, they might have collaborated to make these new staples as delicious as possible. In this way, the hearth, a very old cooking technology, could also be the center of innovation.

Bridget’s time around the hearth ended abruptly when she left for New York City in 1863. By then, the people of Ireland where quite familiar with the Irish community established in the lower wards of New York City. Many regularly received money sent back to support families and to assist with national recovery efforts. Ireland’s recovery, however, was long and slow, and for the Meehans it may have made the most sense for Bridget to leave home. As a survivor of the famine, Bridget would have been accustomed to people leaving home. And as daughter of the Emerald Isle she would have been familiar with the practice of carrying a pail of live embers to kindle the fire in the new home when a family moved.11 When she moved to the United States, her inability to observe this tradition might have weighed heavily on her heart. That fire which burned uninterrupted in the Meehan home for generations – the fire which she slept near and drew comfort from for her entire life – went cold for Bridget Meehan.

The Fire This Time: Coal Stoves and Tenements in New York City

After nearly two weeks of ocean voyaging, Bridget arrived in Lower Manhattan. Her pre- marriage life can only be surmised. Following contemporary trends, it is very likely that Bridget found work as a domestic servant in a merchant house. There, with the support of other Irish domestic servants or through the explicit direction of the mistress of the house, she would learn what it meant to keep house in an affluent New York home – something entirely different from what she had learned in her Irish home. Bridget Meehan needed to be alert, quick-witted, and calm in order to learn everything she was expected to know. At 17, she was reinventing herself in a land of abundance and new technology, during a time of civil war.For two years Bridget lived in New York City as a single woman, building her network through the Catholic Church, the people she shared space with, County affiliations, and places of employment.

In 1865, a man named Joseph Moore immigrated to New York City from Dublin. His efforts to build a community intersected with Bridget Meehan’s growing network, and by the year’s end, the couple were married and living in a tenement house at 65 Mott Street. Being something of a ‘greenhorn’, Joseph might have relied on Bridget’s experience. She might have used her contacts to help him find work as a waiter. They may have combined their wages to purchase a portable cast iron range of their own, since the responsibility of owning a stove fell on the tenant- and a house without a stove would never be a home.

Taking the place of Bridget’s childhood Irish hearth as the central cooking technology, the stove had become an essential requirement of an urban American home. As cities developed, the hearth and fireplace became unsafe, inefficient, uneconomical and unsustainable. The portable cast iron range offered an alternative. In terms of efficiency and safety, cast iron stoves were superior to hearth and fireplace. While some early models used both wood and coal for fuel, in cities, where wood was scarce and expensive, coal was the main source of heat. If maintained by a skilled cook, a single load of coal could burn as long as 6 hours.12 Coal stoves needed constant looking after as the slightest variations in airflow could impact the way they burned. Too great a draft would cause the coals too burn excessively hot and fast, and insufficient draft could extinguish the fire. Coal ash was routinely emptied and taken pail by pail downstairs to the streets. Coal dust coated every kitchen surface, resulting in a constant need to sweep and wash.

Like turf, burning coal emitted a smell, but not one generally considered pleasant. Bridget might have simply tolerated the smell of coal burning. Unlike turf in a hearth, the coal fire in a cast iron range would be allowed to burn out twice a week for deep cleaning.13 Bridget would dismantle and wash the stove’s burner covers, doors, panels, and surfaces with soap and water, then follow-up by scrubbing with a stove brush. Next, she would apply blackening to the range-top to prevent rust. The sides and legs of the stove were also wiped down, but not blackened, to reduce the possibility of the blackening transferring onto the housekeeper’s dress.14 The parts of the stove would be reassembled and the fire started over again. It would be about an hour before any cooking could be done, as the stove required a minimum of one hour to fully heat.15

By 1869, the Moore family had expanded. Joseph and Bridget, along with their daughters Mary Kate, Jane and Agnes (virtually an infant at the time), took all of their possessions and started their life over again. Perhaps needing more space, or hoping to find better living conditions, they moved into an apartment at 97 Orchard Street. Would they have taken their stove with them? Like many families, the Moores may have chosen to move with their stove- all two hundred pounds of it. With Joseph’s help, Bridget would have put the stove back together, connected the flue to the chimney breast, and built up the fire for the first time in their new apartment – a housewarming. Some families sold their stove before moving, if they knew in advance a stove was available to purchase from the previous tenant at their new address. If the Moores had such an arrangement, the family might endure a period of adjustment as Bridget formed a relationship with her new appliance.

By 1869, after six years in New York and four years as a mother, the demanding routines of the stove might have developed into a kind of ritual. Bridget must have learned how to adjust the dampers to extend the life of the coal, benefiting the family economy. On a windy day, she’d have paid close attention to the stove to mind the rate at which the coals burned. In the mornings, she’d be the first awake, crossing the cold wooden floor from the bedroom to the stove, where she cleared out the ash and raked out the fire from the day before. She might have looked forward to passing these rituals onto her daughters, no doubt reflecting on how different the stove was compared to the hearth of her own childhood.

The stove itself might have come to symbolize Bridget’s successful adjustment to life in the United States. She had remade herself in relationship to that household appliance and all the opportunities it offered. With a large indoor market at Essex Street, only two blocks away, Bridget had access to a supply and variety of food that must have been shocking to her, the child of the famine. For many famine survivors living in New York, this abundance led to a change in diet, marked by an increased consumption of meat. Bridget learned how to prepare new foods from people she knew or from recipe books, not to mention her own intuition and creativity. Bridget might compose a meal around dishes from her childhood alongside a new ‘American’ recipe. A meal at the Moore family table was, in essence, a living record of their past and present.

But on the morning of April 22, 1869, there was one less person at the Moore table. Agnes, their infant daughter, had died the previous day. She was nearly six months old. Awake early, Bridget would complete her crossing from bedroom to kitchen along cold pine floorboards to stoke the fire and warm the apartment. In this quiet time, while her family was perhaps still asleep, Bridget could reflect and mourn over the losses in her life. As she rebuilt the fire, was she conjuring the memory of her family gathered around a hearth in Ireland – the smell of turf, the warmth of the fire, and the sense of hope it offered? And as the room began to heat up, was Bridget able to feel comforted and consoled?

There is no way to accurately answer these questions, but there is tremendous importance in asking them, for they uncover an underlying sense of humanity that draws us closer to Bridget Moore- her joy, her hopes, her pain. The stove- an essential object of Bridget’s daily life- sits in silence waiting for our questions. A more personal portrait emerges out of this informed speculation, and by contemplating the myriad ways Bridget interacted with the stove, we establish an empathy powerful enough to cut across the generations.


2 Thomas Colley Grattan, 1847

3 Historical Archaeology, Vol 33 No1 Confronting Class (1999), Go gCuire Dia Rath Agus Blath Ort (God Grant That You Prosper and Flourish): Social and Economic Mobility among the Irish in Nineteenth-Century New York City. Griggs, Heather J. P90

4 The Times, quoted in The Nation, May 1860

5 (William Trench, land agent in County Kerry)

6 (William Trench, land agent in County Kerry)

7 (Father White, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, 1847)

8 (Monsieur Soyer The Lancet, April 1847)

9 The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol 41, The Food Issue(2018), Recipe Collecting, Embodied Imagination, and transatlantic Connections in an Irish Emigrant’s Cooking,Wack, Mary F. p.112

10 Reforming food in Post-Famine Ireland: Medicine, Science, and Improvement 1845-1922. Miller, Ian 2014

11 The Art of Irish Cooking, Sheridan, Monica,1965 p.xvi

12 At Home With the Range: The American Cooking Stove, 1865-1920, Ellis, Phyllis Minerva, 1985 p28

13 IBID Ellis p21

14 IBID Ellis p28

15 Early American Cookery: The Good Housekeeper, Hale, Sarah Josepha 1841, p26