Buyer’s Guide to Vintage Appliances

One of the best ways to create old-time kitchen ambience is to introduce antique appliances—in particular, a cookstove and a refrigerator.

This 1915 wood-burning Wedgewood stove is still in use at the Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont, California.

One of the best ways to create old-time kitchen ambience is to introduce antique appliances—in particular, a cookstove and a refrigerator. Loyal cooks swear by a refurbished cooking range’s ability to kick out BTUs to rival today’s commercial stoves, while many old-appliance enthusiasts claim their 1930s refrigerators have never had to be serviced. Whether the early 20th-century make you’re looking for is a Wedgewood, Hotpoint, Chambers, Quick Meal, or a GE Monitor Top, do your homework before buying. Here are some tips from old-appliance pros on purchasing these antique conveniences.

“Buying an old appliance is like buying a used car—you’ve got to kick the tires,” says Mike Arnold, owner of Twentieth Century Appliance Restorations in Troy, New York, who’s been in the restoration business for more than 40 years. “I started my company when these items weren’t considered antiques yet,” he says. “Your best bet is to look for a stove or refrigerator from the 1930s to the mid- 50s. These appliances will most likely have all the bells and whistles you’re looking for today solid construction, good oven regulation, and built-in safety features and little extras such as clocks, lights, additional ovens, or food warmers.”

This Magic Chef range has teardrop oven handles.

First check to see if the cooking stove or refrigerator has all its parts, Arnold says. There were literally thousands of stove brand names by the early 1900s. Every foundry made a stove, and any department store could put its name on that stove. The number of companies making refrigerators went from 20 in 1910 to 200 by 1925. So if a refrigerator part is missing or broken, it can be hard to locate.

It is also important to hook up the appliance to make sure it works. “Unless you’re buying from a reputable dealer, don’t take the seller’s word for it,” Arnold says. Often a stove just needs a quick fix; dirt can be the biggest “gremlin,” he says, and the simple task of cleaning and lubricating an old gas valve can bring the stove back to new. If an oven is not heating accurately, sometimes the thermostat just needs to be adjusted. Another common problem is rodent infestation, in which case the insulation would need to be replaced.

Home on the Range

Enclosed coal- and wood-burning cast-iron cooking ranges were in use in many homes by the late 1800s women no longer had to cook meals in an open hearth. The first gas ranges were introduced around 1880 in cities where illuminating gas was available, but they weren’t insulated and lacked oven thermostats. Stoves were insulated by the 1920s and by the 1930s many safety and cooking amenities had been incorporated. The earliest 20th-century stoves were made of cast iron with nickel-plated trim and exposed valve piping, while later models were constructed of porcelain-enameled steel.

The O’Keefe and Merritt stove has a glass window behind its burners. An angled mirror inside lets the cook view the oven’s interior without opening the door.

Jack Santoro, editor of The Old Road Home, a magazine devoted to antique appliances, has been in the business of refurbishing old stoves for 35 years. “I’ve seen a real shift in my clientele—maybe the old timers have died off,” he deadpans, “but we are getting calls from 25-year-olds looking for antique stoves to add to their kitchens.” He says some of the most popular but hard-to-find stoves are the larger ones—60″ wide with six to eight burners and rotisserie spits, such as the O’Keefe and Merritt Estate or the Magic Chef 6300 series. Another trend he sees is the popularity of small 30″ stoves originally made for apartments—”1940s and ’50s ranges are popular, too,” he adds. He also advises buying from a reputable dealer, and looking for a stove that works, is well-insulated, restored to meet today’s codes, and has working heat controls. “People can get stuck with a lemon if they’re not careful—you need to make sure all safety systems are in place.” He advises against purchasing early (pre-1910) stoves because of their inefficiency—and they also rarely pass inspection.

Santoro believes vintage stoves are easier to repair because they are put together with screws, rather than riveted together like newer models, thus they are easier to take apart. In the past many of the working stove parts were universal, and they can be fairly easy to replace. Some early models can also be adjusted to go from natural gas to propane. By the 1950s ranges had all types of enticing features, including meters for roasts that would play “Tenderly.” (Santoro even remembers a dryer that would play “How Dry Am I” when the cycle was complete!)

Santoro sells several how-to books on repairing stoves, and finds that many of the magazines readers are willing to fix their own antique stoves. “There are a few things they can’t do on their own, like replating nickel and porcelain or rebuilding thermostats,” he says. Santoro recommends staying away from ranges made in 1946 and 1947. He finds these are usually constructed of scrap metals because most virgin steel had gone to the war effort. The best finds are unused stock (inventory never sold by a company), he adds. He also reminds us that a stove in good condition can be pricey—upwards of $3,500.

Vintage Refrigerators

Iceboxes were typically made of oak and lined with zinc. When gas and electric refrigerators became more readily available for the average homeowner in the 1920s, the ice industry nearly collapsed.

Introduced to the domestic kitchen in the 1910s, refrigerators operating on electricity or gas-powered compressors were regular features in kitchens by the 1930s. The first indoor refrigerator to keep perishables cool was an unpowered “icebox,” which appeared in homes around the 1880s. These classy cabinets were often oak or ash and lined with either zinc, tin, or porcelain and had wire racks or porcelain shelves. Insulated with cork and tar, corrugated cardboard, or fiberboard, they were a revolutionary answer to the issue of preventing spoilage.

By 1925 self-cooling refrigerators, introduced to only the wealthiest households in 1910, had become less expensive for the average homeowner to purchase. Early mechanical refrigerators resembled the cabinetry of their precursor—stalwart chests with nickel strap hinges. Later models from the 1920s were porcelain over steel. “The design of appliances really follows the car industry. Cabinets became more streamlined and more stylish with cabriole legs, while colors were white with mint green or gray trim,” says Arnold. In the 1940s, some manufacturers tried marbleized finishes in porcelain enamel. Also in the ’40s, legs started to disappear and were gone altogether by the ’50s.

The Monitor Top is by far the most popular vintage refrigerator. Its compressor rests on top of its storage cabinet.

The problems Arnold sees most often with old refrigerators are broken handles, missing shelves, or door gaskets. Today the most popular model by far is the GE Monitor Top, introduced in 1927. Its compressor, which rests on its white porcelain cabinet, was said to be reminiscent of the gun turret of the famous Civil War battleship, the Monitor. Arnold believes Monitor Tops are more energy efficient than today’s models, and, he adds, they are almost bulletproof. He advises having the seller plug in the fridge 24 hours before you go to look at it and make sure they have frozen ice cubes in the freezer.

Arnold advises staying away from antique refrigerators made after the mid- 1950s. Finishes went from porcelain to plastic, cords went from cloth to rubber, and tubing went from copper to aluminum. “By then compressor styles changed to high speed. The ‘frost free’ feature also ate up a lot of the electricity. Old refrigerators use 4/5 less electricity than the later ’50s and ’60s models,” he adds. One thing that did happen in the 1950s was the introduction of color green, sunshine yellow, pink, and robin’s egg blue became popular.

Both Santoro and Arnold cook on antique stoves. Arnold has a 1950s electric range and a 1928 Frigidaire refrigerator. “It’s a gray and white cabinet up on legs with handsome chrome hardware,” he says proudly. Santoro cooks on a six-burner OKeefe and Merritt that he swears by. When asked if they would be willing to trade in their antiques for a new commercial range, both said, “Not a chance.”

Tags: appliance kitchens Nancy E. Berry OHJ March/April 2005 Old-House Journal vintage

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