Antique Potbelly Stoves: A Complete Guide

Updated December 28, 2021
Country store with potbelly stove

Antique potbelly stoves were the workhorse of the heating world. They multi-tasked, performed their duties both efficiently and fashionably, and were built to last a long time. In fact, what makes these compact cast-iron stoves so special is the way that they're still being used to heat homes and cook meals to this day.

What Is an Antique Potbelly Stove?

old schoolhouse with potbelly stove in Tubac Arizona

A potbelly stove is easily identified by its unique barrel-shape. These stoves have a pronounced bulge in the center of the barrel that differs from many of the relatively square models already being manufactured at the time. Made all of cast iron, potbelly stoves burn wood and give off a significant radiant heat. These stoves come in small, medium and large sizes, with adorable miniature doll models and sales models also cropping up in collections in the past few years. Interestingly, a small stove can comfortably heat an office space; a large one can warm a big meeting hall all night long.

The stove stands either on feet or an iron platform, and a stovepipe vents smoke out of a ceiling or a wall. A hinged door accesses the firebox and allows for wood placement and cleaning. Draft controls allow for adjustment of air flow.

Due to their popularity, there were a variety of makers, models, and features. One feature was a cooking area on top. This was a good choice for schools, as teachers would cook lunch for students on the cooktop. Another variation was a ring around the largest part of the barrel. This was a safety feature to prevent burns if someone bumped into it. Some ornate versions had nickel-plated decoration, while other models had two doors--one for adding wood, and one for removing the ashes.

Different Ways the Potbelly Stove Was Used

Pot bellied stove in passenger rail station Hopewell, New Jersey

The antique potbelly stove was used around the world throughout the 19th century and in all types of situations: domestic, transportational, communal, and recreational, to name a few. Among these places, the potbelly was popular in:

  • Homes
  • Schools
  • Railroad stations
  • Tents
  • Shops
  • Public meeting halls
  • Saloons
  • Army barracks

How the Potbelly Stove Came to Be

schoolhouse with potbelly stove

The potbelly was developed in the mid-19th century as an improvement on some of the older cast iron designs, such as the Franklin stove. It became an icon of Americana, portrayed in illustrations, photographs, and films. While it was heavy--weighing several hundred pounds--it was still relatively mobile. Unlike a fireplace, which usually required a masonry chimney, the potbelly's stovepipe could be disassembled and moved. Being this transportable, it was easy to ship from catalog stores as well as to transport to the Great American West.

Like the horse after the invention of the automobile, the potbelly faded into the background at the advent of furnaces and central heating in the mid-20th century. Many were placed in barns and basements and left to rust away. Others, however, were cared for and restored. As an excellent heating source, the potbelly is used now in cabins and even homes. As a historical icon, it's popular in restaurants and hotels. Currently, numerous manufacturers make potbelly reproductions in a myriad of prices.

Potbelly Stove Care and Restoration Is Vital

The most important factor is to determine the condition of the firebox, the grate, and the stovepipe. Look for cracks, warping, or gaps; don't put a fire in the stove if these appear unsound. A professional stove restorer can evaluate the potbelly for safety and possibly repair the identified damage.

Since the potbelly is made of cast iron, it's subject to severe rusting. Therefore, you need to keep it away from water if possible. If there is minor rust, use either a steel wool pad or a drill mounted wire brush to remove it.

If those that aren't painted need a touch up, use black stove polish or paste found at a local hardware store. Rub the polish onto the stove and light a fire in it to cure the polish. If the stove won't hold a fire, enamel paint will also work. Don't use enamel paint on one that can hold a fire, as once a fire is lighted, the enamel paint will peel and smell.

Cleaning nickel pieces on the stove can be difficult. It's best to contact a stove restorer for cleaning or replacing the plating. Many restorers also offer replacement pieces, as well, if the originals are lost or in severe disrepair.

Antique Potbelly Stove Values

Antique stoves may be a niche item, but given their historic popularity and still-useful mechanics, some could consider them pretty collectable. As with a lot of industrial age appliances and home goods, there's a passionate fanbase around the world who share in their love of these items. In fact, there's an entire website dedicated to the antique stove community. Unlike some domestic appliances, antique potbelly stoves range in prices between $150-$2,500 depending on several different factors, including:

  • Size
  • Manufacturer
  • Age
  • Rarity
  • Condition
  • Design

In terms of modern collectibility, potbelly stoves that show little wear and tear and also bear beautifully vibrant coats of paint tend to sell faster than their well-worn cast iron counterparts. Similarly, larger free-standing stoves from companies like C. Emrich have greater values thanks to their detailed designs and larger sizes.

Whether you're thinking about selling, buying, or just insuring an antique potbelly stove, it's important to get an idea of what these stoves are selling for in the contemporary market. Thus, these are a couple of different potbelly stoves ranging in manufacturer, age, and price to give you a preliminary familiarity with their auction values:

Trade the Elephant in the Room for a Potbelly

Long before mechanical stoves were manufactured, the proverbial hearth was a sacred space in your home that promoted fellowship, communion, and camaraderie. Reconnect to these base feelings using an antique potbelly stove. Take time to coax the flames out of hiding and hypnotize yourself away from the hustle and bustle of modern life using these once vital pieces of antique machinery.

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Antique Potbelly Stoves: A Complete Guide