The Fascinating History Of The Gas Stove

In a now-infamous interview with Bloomberg in 2023, US Consumer Product Safety commissioner Richard Trumka Jr., explained his stance on the health concerns surrounding gas stoves, especially the subtle or quiet dangers of the appliance. Trumka observed that the stoves not only have potentially negative effects on the environment but can also lead to indoor air pollution well beyond what users are aware of. The commissioner noted that it's completely within the organization's right to impose a ban on this type of stove and that there could very well be limitations surrounding them going forward. This statement seemed to hit political fault lines, or perhaps better yet, gas lines, and public discourse erupted in January 2023 into what The Guardian described, not necessarily hyperbolically, as a culture war.

As Trumka explained later to CNN, in the face of backlash from President Joe Biden, various congresspeople, and public discourse, his previous statement did not mean to imply an outright ban on existing gas stoves. While he admitted that the agency has not come to one conclusion, there could be restrictions imposed on the appliance in the future. But when exactly did gas stoves become commonplace, and how did that happen? The complicated history beyond this common kitchen appliance may just astound you.

British inventor James Sharp was the first to create a functioning gas stove

Gas stoves are not an American invention. The British inventor James Sharp is credited with first creating a functioning gas stove in 1826 (via The Inventors). Technically, the first gas stove was designed by the Moravian chemist Zacchäus Winzler around 20 years prior in 1802 according to historian Ruth CowenIron Patent weighs in that unfortunately, the latter was never able to get his designs off the ground and never produced a functioning gas stove. 

The honor belongs to the aforementioned Sharp, who was able to produce the first stove that didn't rely on wood or coal for the first time in recorded history. This was pretty major given that for the previous thousands of years, cooking was fueled by wood or charcoal. These flame-driven stove tops required constant attention and often filled the air with heavy smoke. Cowen points out that the introduction of Sharp's gas stove meant cleaner, safer cooking that didn't carry the same risk of poisoning as charcoal cooking might. But, perhaps because of the long history of cooking with fire, the public didn't initially take to Sharp's revolutionary gas stove.

Celebrity chef Alexis Soyer helped popularize the stove

According to historian Ruth Cowen, there was considerable doubt surrounding Sharp's gas stove. After all, existing stoves worked fine, so why change now? The popularization of the gas stove wasn't due to science, but rather, celebrity. According to Cabinet Magazine, a French transplant in England, Chef Alexis Soyer, was a pioneer in his field and did not shy away from novelty. The chef was always looking for new ways to bring good and healthy food to different groups of people and is considered widely to be the father of the modern-day soup kitchen. Soyer, always striving for improvement, was highly critical of charcoal ovens and believed that they tended to be improperly used, often leading to poorly cooked meats.

Soyer was the first to publicly use the gas stove in 1850, over 20 years after the stove's initial invention (via Alexis Soyer). He cooked a whopping 535 pounds of beef for The Royal Agricultural Show at Exeter in under 5 hours, which garnered a lot of attention and lead to the gas stove being referred to, if only for a while, as the Magic Stove. The tide had certainly turned for the gas stove, or at least was beginning to.

A gas stove debuted at London's Great Exhibition

It was however at the Great Exhibition of 1851 that the gas stove really came into its own. The exhibit was designed, as per The United Kingdom Historical Society, to showcase all the major advancements of the Victorian age. Housed in a newly constructed glass atrium, known as The Crystal Palace, the five-month exhibition featured everything from pottery to hydraulic presses to even to-scale housing models. It was only fitting that renowned chef Alexis Soyer would also showcase his prized gas stove at such an occasion.

Soyer was tasked with holding court, food court that is, as he designed a sitting meal for event Lord Mayors and none other than Prince Albert (via Alexis Soyer). The chef, according to his legacy site, spent three days in total decorating the banquet hall alone. Ever known for his flashy dishes, he served the dignified crowd a truly jaw-dropping dish: his so-called 100 guinea pie. As noted by the aforementioned source, the truly large concoction contained alone five turtle heads and over 300 assorted birds, it truly was a dish fitting the occasion.

Gas took a while to be popularized in the States

As observed by Old House Online, in England, cooking with gas had more or less become normalized by the 1860s and wasn't the threat it once seemed to be. The island nation soon found itself exporting its gas stoves across the pond, though Americans were not exactly enthused with the invention. Part of this had to do with the concerns that the Brits had in the prior century, as of course, cooking with wood or coal remained the status quo for the majority of homes, and many wondered how gas might affect the taste of their cooking. Unique to the States, however, was the considerable cost of gas: Gas was primarily used for lighting and considered much too expensive to squander on cooking.

But by the turn of the 20th century, electricity was slowly starting to come into vogue as the preferred light source. Now dealing with competition, gas companies turned their focus to where they might be able to direct business, and that was into the kitchen. Aesthetic improvements also brought the gas stove into vogue. The cabinet range had arrived and was beginning to be seen as a chic investment. 

Environmental concerns caused a rise in popularity

The John Desmond blog notes that by the 1920s, gas stoves were used in most American household kitchens. There were a multitude of reasons surrounding the switch from coal to gas. As the site notes, gas stoves were lighter and smaller than hefty charcoal stoves. SFGate also chimes in that gas stoves were much easier to clean for the women that so often needed to. The fact that it needn't be constantly heated, like a charcoal stove, also freed up a lot of time that women would otherwise need to spend to keep the stove going, or cleaning up ash. During the summer, gas stoves didn't need to be turned on all the time, which meant that kitchens wouldn't overheat as much (via Hancock Historical Museum).

There were environmental concerns surrounding the charcoal stove top. As per the John Desmond blog, problems such as deforestation and climate change hastened the shift away from coal stoves. Also, of course, the fact that gas stoves didn't contribute to as much (noticeable) air pollution in the household came to be a major selling point for many.

The 20th century saw an aesthetic rise of the gas stove

As the gas stove was popularized in the domestic kitchen, its design also began to change and modernize as well. Smaller designs freed up space in kitchens that would otherwise be dominated by a large stove and two-tone colors added a playfulness that had not necessarily been seen in the kitchen to this extent before (via Old House Online). The cabinet design from the '20s wound up being a major breakthrough that would influence the design of American kitchens for years to come.

As noted by the John Desmond blog, it was in the 20th century that kitchens were becoming places to not only produce food in, but also to organize, to show off, and even to host in. As the site notes, by the '80s, kitchens had opened fully into social spaces. It's hard not to imagine these changes happening without the replacement of the charcoal stove by the gas stove.

There were many campaigns to popularize cooking with gas

But the popularization of the gas stove didn't happen just naturally. As Old House Online points out, gas companies sought to court American households, and their kitchens, at the turn of the century in order to drum up business. But this wasn't the only marketing strategy on the part of gas suppliers. In fact, it was only the beginning.

The environmentally-oriented news source Mother Jones critically turned an eye to the history of marketing by the gas industry in the last century. The news source points first and foremost to the language surrounding the stove. The stoves are said to use "natural gas," lingo dating as far back as the '30s. But really, as the site notes, this is really just a euphemism for fossil fuels, a term that holds much more weight in the 21st century.

The news source also notes that gas companies wouldn't limit their marketing strategy to terminology — they also worked their product into cartoons and even, in the '80s, into rap jingles. It seems that these efforts paid off, as gas stoves remain quite common in American homes.

This still continues to this day

Ad campaigns are still a large part of how gas stoves are not only sold but remain normalized. As reported by Mother Jones, historically, a lot of marketing around gas stoves centered around the idea that gas is both cleaner and more environmentally friendly than alternatives. Another half of the marketing coin for gas stoves is to sell the idea that the stoves are as chic and trendy as other must-have kitchen appliances.

One way that this can be done, nowadays at least, is through online marketing. Another Mother Jones article focuses on the #cookingwithgas content floating around Instagram. The news source theorizes that the content that features trendy Instagram chefs posing next to gas stoves with lengthy captions explaining how gas cooking has improved their recipes is most likely sponsored content to inspire a new generation of Americans to keep on with this now-classic method of cooking.

Gas stoves are now the target of health and environmental concerns

Similar to how environmental concerns once helped to encourage the transition from charcoal to gas, they may now lead to a switch from gas to electric cooking. Per Time Magazine, gas stoves rely on methane, one of the most common greenhouse gases. Even when not in use, gas stoves leak methane and other pollutants including trace amounts of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. While this may seem minimal, as one expert interviewed in Time asks, no other devices in the home are allowed to emit these substances, so why should gas stoves be an exception?

NPR weighs in that it's not only the environment we need to be concerned about, but also how gas stoves may pollute the home. Gas stoves should be outfitted with a large vent, or hood, to suck up emitted fumes, but in practice, most don't have adequate ventilation.  What happens then is that polluted air diffuses throughout the house. As noted by both NPR and Time Magazine, this can have detrimental long-term health effects and could exacerbate asthma. 

It seems like many aren't ready to let their stove go

Despite The Guardian describing the 2023 controversy over the potential federal ban of new gas stoves as a culture war, according to Statista, the majority of American homes have an electric stove. This isn't to say that gas stoves are a rarity; they account for the majority of stoves in states such as California, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York. Conversely, in North Carolina and Tennessee, as many as 89-90% of residents cook with electricity.

The American Gas Association, in response to the restrictions that gas stoves may be facing in the coming years, points to world politics as a reason to stay with gas. In a statement released in 2023, the organization argued that so-called pricey installations of new electric equipment would only continue to hurt those affected by the current economic situation. Furthermore, the Association argues that clean electricity in the future will rely on solar panels, which may be difficult to reliably acquire on the ever-tenuous world stage. In addition to practical and economic concerns, for some, as outlined by The Guardian, standing by the gas stove is a point of pride and identity. Many chefs also prefer gas stoves because of their perceived performance benefits.