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A History of Traditional Tile Stoves
600 Years of 'Kachelofen' tradition


The following text describes the history of the popular central European tile stove or 'Kachelofen', a type of energy-efficient stove found in Austro-Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, Bohemia, Northern Italy and Scandinavia. Tile stoves are less known in Anglo-saxon countries such as the US or Britain, where cast iron stoves became popular in the Victorian age. However, masonry and tile stoves did gain some popularity in the US in the 1970s. The Masonry Heater Association of North America has a homepage at http://mha-net.org/.

A History of Traditional Tile Stoves

Enjoying a hearty breakfast on a cold morning in AustriaApart from open fireplaces, the tile stove is probably the oldest type of heater. It is certainly the heater with the longest tradition.

The precursor of today’s tile stoves was probably the pilework stove of the Bronze Age, around 2,500 BC. This early prototype, which developed in the German and Austrian Alps, consisted of a fireplace, which was built up with stone and loam. Even then, the stones took on the role of retaining the heat.

The further development of the tile stove also took place in the Alps. Fired clay pots were pressed into the stove’s main building material of soft loam, in order to increase the heat-radiating surface.

A traditional tile stoveThe actual tile stove, whose shell is made up solely of tiles, wasn’t viable before potters developed square tiles with a ridge from the pots they were previously using. This development can be traced back to the 14th century. Since then, the tile stove’s exterior has followed the styles of the various periods, from Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Classicism, Biedermeier (a German-Austrian Folk style) and Art Nouveau through to the present day. The tile stove’s heyday was in the 16th and 17th centuries.

19th C Postcard 'Bliss in the Corner'Probably be the oldest existing tile stove, built in a style still being practiced today, is to be found in the Electoral Prince’s residence in Meran (South Tyrol, northern Italy). It was built in the 15th century. Art historians are of the opinion that the Romans were probably involved in the development of the tile stove. At least the term "caccabus" seems to imply this. A caccabus was a hollow cylinder with an opening on one side. They were lined up in rows and thus formed domes for kilns and other types of ovens. It’s probable that the German word “Kachel”, meaning stove tile, is derived from the word "caccabus".

The development of the tile stove progressed logically from pressing individual tiles into the soft loam to the tile shell. People soon realized that the tiles, made by the stove-fitter/potter, offered a suitable surface for artistic decoration. Not only princes, but also peasants now had their tile stoves custom built.

Plan showing energy efficient heating methodThese days, stylistic periods can be traced back via the many preserved tile stoves of past centuries.

Apart from the surface embellishments the tile stove was also developed technically in those periods. Thus tile stoves may be considered traditional, but modern at the same time - traditional because they are built mainly according to tried and tested methods, and modern, because they utilize most sources of energy and heating techniques available to us today.

Tile stove with baking compartmentToday, a tile stove could utilize wood, coal, gas or electrical hot water and may even have a separate baking compartment attached, according to individual tastes and ideas.

Article couresty of HAGOS, The German Society of Tile Stove Makers: http://www.hagos.de/.

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