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“Modern” Heating: The Mattress Steam Radiator at Rose Hill Mansion

November 26th, 2019

By Amy Pepe, Visitor Services and Public Programs Manager at Rose Hill Mansion and Johnston House

square shaped  radiator on a stand with rows of circles

Gold’s mattress steam radiator on display in Rose Hill Mansion

The Swan family lived at Rose Hill Mansion for forty years, from 1850 to 1890. Although they primarily relied on their twelve fireplaces to heat their home, we know that by the 1870s the Swan’s had begun to modernize their heating system  If you visit Rose Hill Mansion today, next to the bed in the Green Redroom on the second floor you will find a large metal object that is square and white with a scalloped design on the front. This is a mattress steam radiator.

So named because of the evenly spaced rivets across its face (and not because it has anything to do with heating a mattress), this mattress steam radiator was patented in 1854 by Steven J. Gold of New Haven, Connecticut. It became the first commercially successful radiator in America because it was much safer than its predecessors. Steam radiators frequently exploded due to problems with pressure regulation. In fact, there were at least 10,000 recorded boiler explosions in the United States between 1870 and 1910. This is an average of one explosion every 36 hours, some of which were fatal. Gold’s new design cleverly circumvented this problem with a low-pressure system and was also more efficient.

Diagram from the patent for Gold’s radiator.

In his patent, Gold points out the advantages of his new system over older ones:

The advantage of this apparatus for heating buildings consists in a great measure in the economy of fuel which it admits of, as a very low pressure of steam is required for the heating purpose…The self-regulating property of this apparatus is another advantage in its use…This self-regulating property gives a security to the use of steam as a heater not possessed by any other apparatus, as nothing is required but to keep up the fire, and the necessary amount of steam…will be conveyed…in the several apartments to be warmed.”

Another advantage of Gold’s radiator is that it could be used with any boiler; it did not require its own separate boiler system.

The Swans clearly also saw the advantages of switching to Gold’s radiator. It seems that the mattress steam radiator must have been a big improvement in heating Rose Hill Mansion over using only fireplaces; Robert Swan’s 1877 inventory of the house reports mattress steam radiators in nearly every room of the house. Although today we only have one radiator in the house, an 1889 photo shows that a mattress steam radiator was installed in the main hall while the Swans were still living there.

corner of a room containing three chairs, a radiator and a large piece of furniture

A view of the Main Hall in Rose Hill Mansion from 1889, where the mattress steam radiator is visible.

Sources:

  1. Gold, Steven J., “Improvement in warming houses by steam.” United States of America, 1854.
  2. Holohan, Dan. “Gold’s Mattress Radiator
  3. Kent, James. Kent and Riegel’s Handbook of Industrial Chemistry and Biotechnology. New York: Springer Science and Business Media, 2007.
  4. Rose Hill Mansion room sheets
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One response to ““Modern” Heating: The Mattress Steam Radiator at Rose Hill Mansion”

  1. Charlie Bauder says:

    Very interesting article. Thanks for doing the research and sharing it.

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