Remembering Modern Maid

Monday, December 4, 2006 - by Harmon Jolley

The demise of our electric stove began many years ago. My grandmother thought that it was a lightning strike that caused the mechanical clock/timer to stop working. No one ever fixed the clock, since one could cook without it. In later years, after we had acquired the unit, its exhaust fan sounded like a chipper/shredder, so we stopped using that feature.

Along the way, some of the paint had flaked off the chrome trim. Its mechanical dials eventually looked outdated when compared to the digital controls of those newer, young whippersnapper ranges.

Still, its main functions all performed quite well, so we never thought about replacing it. However, when some of its electrical components couldn’t be fixed due to its age, we made a difficult decision. After an estimated forty years of faithful service, our Modern Maid chateau-style, slide-in electric range/oven was given a eulogy.

Our range was born at the Modern Maid plant at Main Street and Holtzclaw Avenue. The manufacturer’s lineage dates to 1904, when J.L. Caldwell headed a new corporation, the Tennessee Stove and Manufacturing company, which had $50,000 in capital stock. The organization quickly became a leading manufacturer of nickel-plated coal and wood cast iron ranges and heaters.

The technical specifications and designs of Tennessee Stove were so important that they were stored in a fireproof vault, according to a Chattanooga Times article on January 30, 1916. Thinking that someone might dare to steal the designs or equipment, company president J.L. Caldwell petitioned the sheriff in 1923 for the night watchman to be allowed to carry a gun.

In 1927, L. Hardwick Caldwell became head of Tennessee Stove Works upon the death of his father. The company expanded its production of ranges, including gas models. During World War II, Tennessee Stove switched into making items such as barracks heaters for the national defense.

After WWII, as availability of electricity spread, Tennessee Stove began making electric ranges. In the mid-1950’s, the Modern Maid line of built-in ranges was added. The latest technical innovations were applied to the Modern Maid ranges. Black Glass Doors, made of heat-tempered glass, became transparent only when the oven light was activated. The company stood behind its PermaCoil elements with a lifetime guarantee.

In 1961, L. Hardwick Caldwell, Jr. became president of the company, and his father served as chairman of the board. The firm employed hundreds of employees, and the products they produced were sold in all fifty states and Puerto Rico. Modern Maid became the new name of Tennessee Stove in 1965.

The Chattanooga Times of October 27, 1967 reported a product launch by Modern Maid of the industry’s first self-cleaning gas unit. At a speech at the Hotel Patten to Rotarians – who sang “Home on the Range – executive vice-president Robert H. Caldwell said that his company was ahead of the competition with this new technology. I remember learning to cook in Home Economics at Lookout Jr. High on one of those self-cleaning ranges. You see, at Lookout, boys and girls had to take both Home Economics and Shop class.

Modern Maid was one of several local manufacturers represented at the annual Chattanooga Home Show. Prospective home buyers or renovators could check out all of the latest appliances and conveniences. The company also pursued new markets beginning in 1969 with its launch of Modern Maid Homes.

In 1972, Modern Maid merged with McGraw-Edison of Elgin, Illinois. Sales of Modern Maid appliances, which by then included dishwashers and microwave ovens, were estimated to reach as high as $30 million. Approximately 750 employees worked at Modern Maid’s 10-acre enclosed facility.

In 1979, Raytheon acquired Modern Maid, and by the 1980’s, the local plant was shuttered. Somewhere within that factory, there was a spot where our Modern Maid chateau-style, slide-in electric range/oven had been born.

Forty years later, we reluctantly have said good-by to an old friend. You gave us many delicious baked potatoes, biscuits, mac and cheese, muffins, oatmeal, popcorn, puddings, roasts, turkeys, and vegetables. You boiled baby bottles, Easter eggs, and trombone mouthpieces. You helped us to can many jars of produce from the garden. Speaking of which, it was this year’s canning of tomatoes that finally did you in.

If you memories of Tennessee Stove Works/Modern Maid, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.


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