Speaking of Conner Prairie…when I was employed as an Interpreter
there, beginning 25 years ago, I was frequently reminded of specific
principles to which I was required to adhere at all times. Of course,
being an institution that (at the time) prided itself on its first-person
capabilities, the main, and most important, one was that we always
be as historically-accurate as possible. Another, which constituted
the site’s very foundation, was that the three most important things
were research, research, and research! In turn, these two mandates
supported a third, namely, that if any interpreter wanted to make,
sew, wear, cook, build, create, or whatever, anything that had not
been done before, she or he must procure at least (as in a minimum;
more was ideal) three pieces of documentation. And preferably, that
person would find primary documentation (although, if none could
be found, secondary would, possibly, suffice), to prove that, indeed,
whatever “it” was, had existed or had been done, or worn, made,
cooked, built, and so on, during our time period (1836). At least,
that’s how I remember it. These mandates influenced my entire
experience at Conner Prairie. They’re also the foundation of all
I do, even to this day.
Okay. Great! So, what’s the point? Where is this going? Well,
here’s the deal…
You see, when I was at Conner Prairie (at least, as I recall, my
fading memory notwithstanding), “spider” was the word used
for this piece of cooking equipment:
And no, I don’t know why. I never asked, and no one ever said.
It’s what I was told, and what I heard others say. I suppose,
maybe, it’s because of the three legs?
Nevertheless, then I moved East, where I found many people
who called the above pot a Dutch oven. That is, until I started
attending assorted hearth cooking classes and symposiums. There
I met dozens of fellow hearth cooks who, like me, were dedicated
to being as historically-accurate as possible. And they always
referred to it as a bake kettle.
What the heck?! So, which is it? A Dutch oven? Or a bake kettle?
Or hey, maybe a spider?
I’ve already thrown out the last one (spider), as I believe that’s
likely what this cooking implement is called:
Which makes sense. Three long legs. Kinda like a spider? But
I’ve also seen it simply referred to as a long-legged skillet.
Although, if you continue reading, you’ll see that I found one
citation with the word “spider.” It’s just the one, though. Or,
perhaps it’s a regional term? You know, it’s known as a “bake
kettle” in the East, and as a “spider” in the West? I don’t know.
Alas, more research specifically on this term is needed!
In any event, I’ve been searching for answers for quite awhile,
and I believe that I’ve found those requisite “at least three”
pieces of documentation. HUZZAH! Two are from primary
sources, and the others are from secondary. Of course, I’m
constantly on the prowl for additional evidence, especially
primary, but certainly these, below, satisfy that “Let’s see
your proof” mandate, as it was set forth at Conner Prairie.
In short, I’ve determined that this:
is a bake kettle, and not a Dutch oven, because that’s what this is:
And here’s why…
Documentation Number One, Primary Source
A tinsmith’s advertisement in The Pennsylvania Gazette
of May 16, 1765:
BENJAMIN HARBESON, HATH removed
from the House he formerly lived to
a House in Market street, at the Sign
of the gilded Still and Teakettle, next
door to the Widow Wister, and nearly
opposite to the Indian King; where
he continues to carry on his Tin and
Coppersmith Business as usual, and
hath for Sale, Stills, Brewing Coopers,
Washing Kettles, Boilers, Fish Kettles,
Dutch Ovens [emphasis mine], Stew
Pans, Preserving Pans, Chocolate and
Coffee Pots, Tea Kettles, Sauce Pans,
Plate Warmers, Coal Cases, brass
and iron Wire, Scales of all sorts,
Brass and Lead weights, with a
compleat Assortment of best
London Pewter, &c. &c.
Mr. Harbeson operated a “Tin and Coppersmith Business,”
so these “Dutch Ovens” would’ve been made of tin and/or
copper, not iron.
Documentation Number Two, Primary Source
From Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife (1824):
TO ROAST POTATOES.
Wash and dry your potatoes, (all
of a size,) and put them in a tin
Dutch oven [emphasis mine], or
cheese toaster; take care not to put
them too near the fire, or they will
get burned on the outside before
they are warmed through. Large
potatoes will require two hours
to roast them. To save time
and trouble, some cooks half
boil them first.
A key word here is “roast.” The main purpose of a reflector
oven is to roast meats and other food items. In addition,
it mentions not putting the potatoes “too near the fire,
or they will” burn. Although they might burn in a bake
kettle, it’d likely be because they were left too long or
there were too many coals under or on top, and not
because they were “too near the fire,” particularly
since placing the pot near a fire is not required.
It can be near or far. If that makes sense?!
Documentation Number One, Secondary Source
From Alan Davidson’s “Glossary” in Prospect Books’ facsimile
of (First Catch Your Hare,) The Art of Cookery Made Plain and
Easy (1747), by Hannah Glasse:
TIN OVEN. The reference to a tin
oven, [on page] 91, is to the
‘Dutch oven‘ [emphasis mine]
which was in common use and
which stood in front of the fire.
The food being cooked was exposed
to direct heat and also to reflected
heat from the polished tin interior.
A door in the back could be opened
to permit viewing and basting.
Incidentally, this refers to a receipt on page 91 of Glasse’s cookbook
for “Salmon in Cases.” It’s instructions state, in part, “…a Tin
Oven before the Fire does best.” Now, I’ve cooked this dish
several times, and yes, I used a “Dutch oven” or tin reflector
oven. It works surprisingly well!
Documentation Number Two, Secondary Source
Below is an image from another secondary source that supports
the use of the term “Dutch oven” to mean a tin reflector oven.
Note, too, that a low-lying cast iron pot with three legs and
a lid is referred to here as a “bake kettle.” This is from Home
Life in Colonial Days (1898), by Alice Morse Earle. Though
her work is often discredited by historic researchers, she
was a pioneer in the field of domestic and social history
of early America. In addition, according to the “Preface,”
the illustrations in this book “are in every case [taken]
from real articles” that were held at the time in the
collections of Deerfield Memorial Hall, the Bostonian
Society, the American Antiquarian Society (as they were
then known), various state historical societies, and others.
Documentation Number Three, Secondary Source
Old Cooking Utensils, by Britisher David J. Eveleigh (sixth
edition, 2001; first, 1986), contains more evidence. In
the “Roasting, Broiling and Toasting” section, the author
mentions dutch ovens, describing them as “made of tinplate.”
In other words, they were reflector ovens:
Roasting screens, also known
as hasteners or dutch ovens
[emphasis mine], appeared
in the early eighteenth century.
They were made of tinplate
and stood in front of the fire,
the bright surface reflecting
the heat, reducing cooking
time and saving fuel. They
were made in various sizes,
the larger ones standing on
three legs. Most incorporated
a dripping pan and a door
in the back for basting.
There’s a term I’ve not heard before: “hasteners!” And
his timeline is a little off. Reflector ovens, whether made
of tin or copper, were in use even in the 17th century (see
NOTE for more information).
Later in this pamphlet-sized book is a drawing of “A cast
iron camp oven [a new term!] with three legs.”
Documentation Number Four, Secondary Source
Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt’s (she knew well the Lefferts
house that now sits in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park) 1882 book,
The Social History of Flatbush, contains these passages:
The roasting of meats and
poultry was done before
the open fire, in what was
called a Dutch oven [emphasis
mine]. This was cylindrical
in form, but stood on four
feet, and the joint to be
cooked was held in place
by a long spit which
projected at each end,
so that the meat could be
turned without opening
the door of the cylinder.
It was of course open
to the front of the fire,
and there was a door
at the back for convenience
For the baking of hot biscuit
for tea, or a single loaf of bread
or cake, a flat iron pot was used,
which was called a ‘bake-pan‘
or a ‘spider.’ [A-Ha! emphasis
mine] This was placed in the
corner of the fireplace upon hot
coals, and a layer of hot coals
covered with ashes was placed
upon the tight-fitting iron lid.
So, there you have it. An abundance of documentary evidence,
from not three, but SIX sources, two primary and four secondary.
All of which tell us that the words “Dutch oven” refer to a tin
reflector oven and NOT to the low-lying three-footed cast iron
container with a lid. Instead, that piece of cooking equipment
is primarily referred to as a “bake kettle.”
Of course, I’ll keep looking for additional documentation. Who
knows what else I might find? Besides, there’s no such thing
as TOO much evidence! Eventually, I hope to do a search of
other receipts from historic cookbooks (such as the previous
one from Randolph) to see what words are used and in what
context. I know I’ve seen others in my work during the past
umpteen years. There’s also the question of when, and if,
the words used were possibly changed and/or switched or
even utilized interchangeably. There’s more to investigate!
And if any readers know of, or discover, other tid-bits
of documentation, I hope they’ll pass ’em along. Please
So, to review all of the above…this is a bake kettle:
and this is a Dutch oven: