Cape Cod Fire Starters - Yankee Ingenuity to Light Hearth without Kindling

This copper pitcher stood on the mantle at my grandparent’s home.  It is 6 inches tall with a hinged lid.  There is a long wand with a ceramic or stone ball screwed onto the tip.  This thing now sits in front of my fireplace but I don’t really know what it is.  Any information would be appreciated.

Cape Cod Fire Starters used a wand tipped with an oil soaked pumice stone to light fires without kindling

Well, I’m surprised it stood on the mantle: that seems unnecessarily precarious.  It is much safer and more appropriately placed on the hearth near the fireplace or hung on a mantle nail through the hole in the handle.  You have what we from Massachusetts call a Cape Cod lighter. 

These lighters are designed to light a fire with no kindling needed – a relief when the snows of winter bury your woodpile.  They were very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  I believe similar ones are still made.  The set consists of a lidded pitcher, an under plate and a pumice or ceramic tipped wand.

The pitcher would be filled with whale oil or kerosene.  The porous volcanic pumice or unglazed ceramic end of the wand would be left to soak in the pitcher, absorbing fuel like a sponge.  When you wanted to light your stove or fireplace, you would remove the wand and hold a match to the saturated stone.  The fuel soaked stone would light easily and burn for about ten minutes.  You’d simply stick the torch like wand under your wood and wait for the wood to ignite. 

(I’ve read conflicting accounts of what’s done next.  One camp says remove the still burning wand and submerge it back into the pitcher.  Close the lid and the flame will be smothered.  The other camp recommends removing the wand once your fire is going and leave it on the under plate to burnout and cool.  Either way, the stones can be reused for years before they loose the porosity.  Then the stones are easily replaced.)

According to the mark on the bottom, your set came from the Cape Cod Shop.  The Cape Cod Shop was one of the best-known makers of these fire starters.  They had a retail store on Fifth Avenue in New York from the 1890s through the 1930s selling these and other brass and copper fixtures for homes.   Your fire starter is their “classic” model made from brass with the company’s distinctive flared fishtail handle.  They also made a more expensive Mission Style in riveted copper, brass or wrought iron for those furnishing their homes in the Arts and Crafts taste.

I found a copy of a Cape Cod Shop ad for the New York retail shop.  The building at 30 West 15th, in New York’s Flatiron District, was built in 1908 (it’s now an expensive co-op!) so this helps date both the ad and your pot.  The ad lists the price of your pot at $5.50. 

Pots like yours can be found in antique shops or an eBay selling in the $15-50 range.  Your set is missing the under plate so a true collector would not pay top dollar.  What you do have - with your delightful example of Yankee ingenuity – is a useful tool and a great conversation piece.