The King Tea Kettle: Should We Honor or Destroy It?
In 1905, the Lizzie Loman Stove Works of Sheffield was for sale. Two brothers who worked as salesmen for King Hardware of Atlanta saw the potential in the business and persuaded the company to purchase the foundry. By 1917, William H. and Charles Martin had secured what was then known as King Stove and Range for themselves. They subsequently made a wise business move to add a line of cast iron cookware to the foundry's line.
Many of the factory's employees were African-American, and wages were poor even by the standards of the day. For whatever reason, William Martin's wife was concerned enough about her husband's employees that she packed Christmas baskets each year and delivered them to workers' families. Thus began a tradition that Martin Industries continued until its demise 80 years later.
However, it's the apocryphal story of the King Stove tea kettle that has always been the most intriguing. One by one, King Stove added pieces to its popular line of cast iron cookware. Looks may not have been of major concern to those who designed the holloware, but utility was.
The story has often been retold that the designer of the King tea kettle (similar to one pictured above) took particular care with the piece since he knew it would be a staple in most homes. Looking at the not quite finished mold, he announced to those assisting him that it was almost ready - it lacked only the spout opening, and that could be neither too large nor too small.
An older black employee then stepped forward and used his thumb to perforate the spout, and the designer declared it perfect. Was this particualar finishing touch what made the King Stove tea kettle so popular?
With many today calling for the destruction of what has been made with underpaid or even free African-American labor, should we melt down all the remaining collectible King kettles? Or should we cherish them even more because they illustrate the value of one exploited laborer who never received any recognition for his contribution?
King Stove discontinued its line of cast iron cookware in 1953. In 1974, the company combined with its sister foundry Martin Stove in Florence to form Martin Industries. While never wildly successful, the Florence based firm catered to a mid-priced niche for decades until competition finally proved too much. Martin Industries closed its doors for the last time in 2003, leaving almost seven million dollars in debt. The location of the company's once modern headquarters on East Tennessee Street in Florence is now a vacant lot encircled by a graffiti covered retaining wall.
Bette F. Terry holds a degree in history from UAH.