Answer Man: Were we really the 'Stove Capital of the World'?

News-DemocratNovember 9, 2013 

We often hear that Belleville once was known as the Stove Capital of the World because it had so many foundries. Is there any hard proof behind the legitimacy of this claim or is it simply based on local pride and puffery? -- Don Faltus

How often have you heard Cardinal executives, players and announcers refer to St. Louis fans as the best in baseball? While it might be true (and we here would like to think it is), you'd have a darn hard time proving it (especially to Bosox fans these days).

The same apparently is true for the decades-old claim that Belleville was once the center of the universe for stove production. While it is true that dozens of foundries and related industries opened, grew and then flamed out here since the 1800s, proving we were the world's capital would have been an impossible matter -- especially a century ago.

"The claim would be kind of hard to prove because I'm sure there were places maybe in the Northeast or other industrial cities that maybe put out more stoves," said local historian William Shannon IV, curator of the St. Clair County Historical Society, who figures the claim is largely based on civic pride. "But the thing that was notable was that for a town its size, Belleville had a remarkable number of stove manufacturing companies."

Indeed, at the turn of the 20th century when Belleville had a population of less than 18,000, it had a dozen or more stove foundries flourishing. So just as Rockford once called itself the Screw Capital of the World, Belleville business poobahs decided to bill Belleville as the stove center.

The reason for the concentration of foundries here? While you might think two or three foundries would be enough to saturate a small city, just the opposite is often true. According to economist Harold Hotelling's law, it often makes sense for producers in a market to make similar products, not different.

"You have a couple that are successful, so other entrepreneurs take a look and say, 'Well, we've got a large community of skilled stovemounters here,'" Shannon said. "'This is a good place to open up that kind of factory.'"

The area's central location and transportation network played a role, too. But the Depression helped do it all in.

"A lot of them closed down then, never to reopen," Shannon said. "Also, there was some significant labor unrest amongst the workers. It got pretty rough and that hurt a lot of the companies."

Today, only a couple of the old names remain, and "Stove Capital of the World" is now a remnant of glory days long past.

"The clearest thing you could probably say is that we sure made a lot of stoves here and there were a lot of stove foundries," Shannon said. "But as for the Stove Factory Capital of the World -- I'm leery about claims like that."

How did the phrase "sponge bath" originate? -- G.P., of Belleville

My dad, who grew up on a Freeburg-area farm in the early 1900s, always liked to joke that Saturday night was bath night whether he needed it or not.

As you may have seen on "Little House on the Prairie" and countless other shows depicting a more rustic time, bathing back then was a time-consuming ritual. Water had to be heated and often poured into a washtub. Unlike modern bathtubs, the most convenient way to use the washtub was to either stand or kneel and use a sponge or washrag to bring up the water to first wet your body and then rinse off the soap.

It wouldn't be the way I'd want to start or end my day, but back then they didn't have much choice with water heaters not yet being a common appliance. At some point, someone apparently called it a sponge bath, and the name became popular. According to the best records I could find, the term entered the public vernacular about 1860.

Now, it's a common alternative to showers and baths for certain groups of people, including babies, hospital patients and places where water is in short supply.

Today's trivia

Why should we remember Moina Michael?

Answer to Saturday's trivia: In the Jewish Bible, you'll find a reference to a tribe of Canaanites known as the Jebusites. Before they were conquered by King David, the Jebusites built up a city that they dedicated to their god of the evening, Shalem (or Shalim). Today, we call it Jerusalem, which many scholars say means "foundation (Sumerian 'yeru') of the god Shalem." Others say it combines "Yhwh yir'eh ("God will see to it" as Abraham called the site where he offered to sacrifice his son) and the town Shalem. For more interesting facts about this ancient city, go see the film "Jerusalem" now showing in the St. Louis Science Center's Omnimax Theater.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-236-2465.

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