Will the Real Russia Please Stand Up?

Karen, a long-time reader of this blog, asked a question about Isabella’s novel, Interrupted.

Twice in the book, Isabella used the term “real Russia.”

The first instance occurs when our heroine, Claire Benedict, and her Sunday school class take it upon themselves to renovate the church, and they turn their attention to fixing up the cast-iron stove that heats the sanctuary.

As the ladies try to decide what improvements to make next, one of the girls says:

“Look here! Don’t you think our very next thing, or, at least, one of the next, ought to be a furnace? I don’t like those stove pipes, if they are Russia. A furnace would heat more evenly, and with less dust.”

That’s the first mention of “Russia” in the book, referring to the pipes that vent the stove.

An 1899 newspaper ad for Siegel Cooper Department Store (New York) featuring Russia iron heating stoves.


Later, Isabella used the same Russia reference in describing the stove after the ladies cleaned it up:

And really, the stove pipe, though it wandered about according to some wild freak that was considered necessary in order to “draw,” did not look so objectionable now that it was real Russia; and nothing could glow more brilliantly than the stove, which smoked no more.

No wonder Karen was curious! “Real Russia”—whatever that is—played a big role in the ladies’ efforts to beautify the sanctuary.

Men gathered around a cast iron heating stove in 1886.


So, what was “real Russia”?

Isabella was referring to Russia iron. It was produced in Russia and was highly prized throughout the world for its ability to resist rusting and protect engines, boilers and stoves.

Another key feature that made Russia iron the wonder of its time was that it did not flake or lose any of its protective properties when it was bent, as American iron did.

For many years Russia iron could only be obtained from Russia. The manufacturing process was highly secretive, which kept demand high and prices even higher.

In the mid-1800s American engineers finally cracked the code for manufacturing Russia iron; and by the latter part of the century, American foundries were gearing up to produce their own version of the much-sought-after sheet iron.

Ad from Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania-Their Industries and Commerce, published in 1885 by the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce; found at Penn state Universities library.


There was, after all, real money to be made from such a product. Sheet iron was used in the manufacture of many things, such as parlor stoves and cooking ranges.

An 1867 ad for Peerless kitchen stoves.


In addition to stoves, consumers used iron pots and pans on their iron cooking ranges.

Portion of a Macy’s Department Store ad in the New York Journal, November 21, 1897


Commercially, sheet iron was used to clad boilers and the engines on locomotives.

Even though American business was producing a creditable version of Russia iron by the 1880s, most consumers and industries were not fooled. They often referred to American iron products as “imitation Russia iron.”

A 1906 postcard showing a portion of the sprawling Carnegie Steel Works in New Castle, Pennsylvania.


But as more and more American-made products began to be advertised as made of Russia iron, consumers had a difficult time distinguishing between “real Russia” and the imitation. In many cases, the only way to tell the difference between the genuine product and the American version was to find the tell-tale Cyrillic characters embossed on the original full sheets of iron. Click here to see a sample of those Russian characters.

It took many years for American industry to overcome the stigma of producing “imitation” Russia iron; but in 1885, when Interrupted was written, Russia iron was still the gold standard by which all other iron was measured.

So when Isabella wrote that the stove pipes in the church were made of “real Russia,” she was actually commenting on the high quality of the improvements Claire Benedict and her friends made to the church sanctuary.

Would you like to learn all the ways Claire and her friends beautified the church sanctuary in Interrupted? Click here to read the post.

You can also read about other unique terms Isabella used in her different novels. Just click on “Pansy’s Dictionary” under the Categories header on the right side of this page.




Cooking with Martha

Aunt Hannah and Martha 1901When Isabella Alden wrote Aunt Hannah and Martha and John, she created the character of Martha Remington, a young bride who—through no fault of her own—had never been taught to cook and keep house.

Isabella herself was an excellent homemaker. Her niece, Grace Livingston Hill, wrote that her Aunt Isabella was “a marvelous housekeeper, knowing every dainty detail of her home to perfection; able to cook anything in the world just a little better than anyone else.”

Poor, Martha, however, couldn’t cook at all and her bridegroom, John, suffered through many meals that were overcooked, undercooked, sour, or salty.

Aunt Hannah and Martha 1915 illustration

Cooking in the late 1800s and early 1900s was truly a skill that was acquired after years of practice. A young woman stood a much better chance of learning to cook from an experienced housekeeper than she did if she tried to learn to cook on her own.

Kitchen stove Glenwood

This was especially true because of the stoves and ovens that were available then. They lacked one essential feature we take for granted today: A thermostat.

Ranges at the turn of the 20th Century didn’t have any means for accurately detecting the temperature of their ovens or burners, and they had no dials or knobs to turn heat up or down. Cooks controlled the temperature of the oven and burners by the amount and type of fuel they fed the range. They had to rely on their experience and years of trial and error to determine whether an oven was the right temperature for baking a loaf of bread or roasting a shank of beef.

Kitchen stove Monroe

Cookbooks from the time included recipes with very general terms:

“Heat your oven to a satisfactory degree of heat.”

“Bake in a hot oven.”

“Bake in a quick oven for ten minutes.”

With such imprecise instructions, it’s no wonder an inexperienced cook like Martha was so bewildered in the kitchen, and served her husband so many meals that were almost inedible.

Ad from Ladies Home Journal April 1917 ed

Luckily, Aunt Hannah detected the trouble and came to Martha’s rescue, not only as a teacher of the kitchen arts, but as a friend.

Under Aunt Hannah’s gentle tutelage, Martha Remington learned to be a good cook and housekeeper.

Food Bread from Ladies Home Journal May 1917 ed

And as her confidence in the kitchen grew, so did Martha’s confidence in all areas of her life, as she matured into a caring and capable pastor’s wife.

You can find out more abouCover_Aunt Hannah and Martha and Johnt Isabella’s book, Aunt Hannah and Martha and John by clicking on the book cover.