Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

whistling for a cuppa


I was sitting quietly beside my wife while she was watching House Rules on TV. I was catching up with the news on my tablet when I heard a kettle start to whistle. Normally I wouldn’t notice the whistle, but for some reason this one did. I looked up and sure enough there was a kettle whistling away on the television screen.

I was puzzled why that particular boiling kettle should have drawn my attention. The kettle scene was part of a TV commercial which had no voiceover. Just a series of vignettes, finishing with a simple text message. So,why was my attention drawn to that kettle? It puzzled me, and I had the feeling that there was something odd with the commercial – something felt out of place.

People who know me will recognise that once my mind grabs hold of a thought, it won’t let go until it feels satisfied. And it wasn’t being satisfied. What was it that made that scene of a whistling kettle that bothered me?

And then it dawned on me. What was a whistling kettle doing in a NZ scene? I haven’t seen one in years. In fact, the last one I recall belonged of my grandmother back in the 1960s. In the winter months it sat on the coal range, replacing the standard electric jug that was used over summer.

I can understand why a whistling kettle was used. Just like the silhouette of a steam locomotive is used on road signs warning of a railway crossing, the kettle is an easily recognised icon.

But do whistling kettles still exist outside TV land? I checked several home appliance stores but could find none. An online search found two shops that had one model each. One shop stocked an electric whistling kettle, the other a whistling kettle that required a gas or electric hob to heat it.

Compared to the hundreds of models of non whistling kettles available, it seems that the whistling variety are about as rare as hen’s teeth. So why are they so common in ads and TV shows?

Most shows broadcast here are foreign (mostly American and British), so perhaps that might be a clue. I searched major U.S. home appliance shops and was totally surprised by the results. In four major retailers, eight of the ten top selling kettles were whistling kettles. What’s more, six required heating over gas or an electric element. It’s not like they don’t have automatic cordless models that are the norm here, they just don’t seem to be very popular by comparison.

Perhaps the cost of electricity and gas is cheaper than in NZ? Consumer tests show that an externally heated kettle takes about twice as long to heat as an electric one and uses more energy. I’m sure there’s a perfectly rational explanation why Americans prefer a whistling kettle over an automatic one, but I just can’t think of one.

I notice that the word “kettle” has almost totally replaced the word “jug” when referring to devices for heating water. In the past, “jug” referred to an upright vessel, whereas “kettle” referred to one with a broad base such as those that were externally heated, or were electric models with a similar profile. I’m not sure why the change has occurred, but it may be due to the demise of local manufacturers. For decades I’ve been heating water for my coffee in an electric jug, and the standard expression we’ve used has been to “boil the jug”. Seems like I need to get use to hearing the expression ” put the kettle on” instead.

In the context of an externally heated kettle, that makes sense as it is put on a source of heat. But the expression doesn’t make sense when where the appliance is not put onto anything – it’s simply switched on. Another expression hungover from another era.

So long as the the change in name to kettle isn’t accompanied by a whistle, I’ll manage.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and was diagnosed as being autistic aged sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

7 thoughts on “whistling for a cuppa

  1. We have a whistling kettle, although it is rarely used. It pretty much just sits on our gas stovetop. And here in the states, a jug is something that is filled with apple cider. The only name for a device used to heat water on the stove is a kettle. Well, some refer to it as a tea pot, but that’s sort of antiquated.

    • The only device for heating water on a stove top here is a saucepan. I haven’t seen a kettle like that for decades. I think they would be used here only for camping when they would be used over an open fire or portable gas burner. Certainly, heating water for tea or coffee on a stove top is a very uncommon occurrence here.

      I guess the term “jug” has been used for our kettles because they are more jug like than kettle like in appearance. It’s more efficient to heat a tall column of water than a wide shallow one if heating internally with an electric element. On the other hand,if the heat source is external, having a wide base gives a kettle more surface area for heat transfer from the stove.

  2. Whistling kettles are not common but they’re still in use. I used one at a friend’s house last year. I prefer an electric one and now that everyone can afford a cordless kettle, electric seems to have taken over.

  3. Here in Canada it the same as the US. Most kettles are whistle type although the auto-off electric is getting cheaper and more common. I think it is the initial cost that is the determining factor. A jug here is also a ceramic or glass wide based jar with a handle on the side – usualy a gallon or 4 liters. It typically has a narrow neck that can be capped with either a cork or a screw top. It’s used for cider or juiice or even moonshine storage.

  4. Automatic kettles have been the norm here for over thirty years. Prior to that, “electric jugs” without an on/off switch was the most common device for heating water. You mention initial cost as being a factor for their slow uptake. That’s surprising as cheap models here retail for around $20.

    I’m curious as to why there is such a difference between North America and NZ. I can understand one country adopting a technology before another, but by more than thirty years? There must be other factors playing out here, but I have no idea what they could be. Any ideas?

  5. Interesting post. I enjoy learning the small differences between societies. I have no suggestions as to why Americans have used kettles for so long. I think they are slowly going to become less common, though. More and more, I see people using coffee machines to heat their water for tea. Also, brewing machines like the Keurig are becoming more popular.

    • Being part of a multicultural family — wife Japanese, son in law Maori, daughter in law Tahitian — I find the subtle differences between cultural groups to be fascinating.

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