They dry wet gloves, warm homemade pies, and, topped with a pan of water, they can even humidify the air. But the primary reason old cast-iron radiators stand in millions of American houses today is for their ability to gently and evenly heat a room. Late Victorian–era ones with embossed scrollwork and floral motifs are also a reminder of a time when even the most utilitarian fixtures featured high-style design and fine craftsmanship.

Freestanding radiators date to the 1860s, when pioneering American heating contractor Joseph Nason designed an accordion–shaped iron manifold with a central rod to hold its fins, or sections, together. This steam system had a single pipe connecting the radiator to a boiler. As the water boiled and steam rose to fill the radiator, it circulated through the fins and transferred heat to the room. When the steam cooled, it condensed to water and drained back down the pipe and into the boiler, where it was reheated.

By the early 1900s, these one-pipe steam radiators were being replaced by hot-water versions with two pipes—one to carry water from the boiler to the radiator, and a second by which it exited and traveled back to the source to repeat the cycle. These two–pipe radiators are the most desirable ones found at salvage yards today because they work with both hot-water and steam boilers, says Chuck Bauer, co–owner of Bauer Brothers Salvage in Minneapolis, Minnesota. So whether you want just one vintage radiator to complete that finished basement or enough to outfit a new addition, you need to figure out which kind of heating system you have before you shop.

Work with a plumber

Harry James, co–owner of New England Demolition and Salvage in East Wareham, Massachusetts, tells his customers to work with a plumber to determine how big or small the radiator should be based on the Btu—a measure of a radiator's firepower—needed to efficiently heat the room. The dimensions of the space where you plan to install it need to be factored in as well. A tall, slim six–fin unit may fit nicely between two windows in a front parlor, but two short eight–fin radiators that tuck under the windows may heat the room better.

If you plan to install a radiator in a newly built kitchen, for instance, find one that closely matches those in the rest of the house to help blend the new construction with the old. Your house's architectural style should also influence your choice. A plain radiator with squared–off corners is well–suited for a clean–lined Craftsman, while an ornately embossed one with rounded fins and curved feet is better for an Italianate. The raised patterns on Victorian–era radiators have even inspired people to use them in purely decorative ways.
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