wood heat/Coal heat

Discussion in 'The Golden Era' started by tmal, Feb 22, 2020.

  1. tmal

    tmal One of the Regulars

    How common was it to heat your house with wood? I suppose that the main furnace used coal (preferably Blue Coal as advertised on The Shadow ), I also suspect that as an "extra", that is to warm up a particular room, wood may have been used, as in a fireplace. Now, being from Pennsylvania as I am, and knowing that that is where the coal came from until Wyoming was discovered, I distinctly remember neighbor houses that were heated with coal, they did not, as I recall, have fireplaces. But, period fiction (Peter Cheney anyone), especially Brit fiction, has fireplaces all over the place, especially in London. So what is the story? Were wood burning fireplaces all that common? Were they used as a main source, or a supplementary source of heat? Or were they, as they are now days, mainly an affectation?
  2. TheOldFashioned

    TheOldFashioned Practically Family

    The Great Lakes
    I grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and our house had a dual furnace that could use wood or heating oil. We always tried to burn wood as much as possible. My grandfather owned 120 acres of wooded property, so I spent many weekends in autumn going out to the "back forty" to help cut and haul wood one pickup truck load at a time.

    Sometimes we'd use a trailer for larger pieces, which would then require hooking up a saw or log splitter to his old John Deere tractor so that the pieces could be made smaller to fit in the furnace. As a last resort we'd use an axe for the few pieces that were still too big after being split, and also to make kindling to get the fire started.

    My house had a trap door of sorts at ground level where we could throw the wood from the truck into the basement. I don't remember the overall dimensions of the wood room (it was a ranch style house, so we had a large basement) but we'd pile wall to wall three deep up to the ceiling to last us through the winter. My grandfather's house had a wood storage room off the breezeway between the house and the garage. That would be filled up until there was only enough room to maneuver a hand truck, which would be used to bring wood down into his (much smaller) basement. For the longest time they also had a wood burning fireplace in the living room which was used for supplementary heat. Later in life it was converted to gas.

    The wood was a bit more variable and always seemed to burn hotter than the fuel oil. It often was the case where we'd have a door or the windows open a crack because the house got too warm. The flip side is if you forgot to put more wood on the fire and it goes out you have to start over. That was the one advantage of the heating oil, the consistency of it. Anyway, if you got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom you were expected to check on the fire and add more wood if necessary.

    Not sure how commonplace it was in the grand scheme of things, but it was common for me growing up, and relatively common in the Upper Peninsula. (I think nowadays insurance companies frown upon houses with internal wood burning furnaces. They either charge sky high rates or will refuse coverage.) Some of my best and most favorite childhood/adolescent memories are cutting and hauling wood with my extended family. I can still remember the smell of my grandfather's wood room, the "clank clank" sound that hand cart made going down each step, or the taste of fudge striped cookies dunked in coffee (which really was more milk than coffee). That was ~25 years ago.

    Thanks for reminding me of good memories. :)
  3. vitanola

    vitanola I'll Lock Up

    Gopher Prairie, MI
    After about 1830 fireplaces were largely considered to be decorative in the United States. In fact they weren’t even consider decorative just obsolete. Fireplaces did not come back into fashion until the 1880s. In houses with central heating however mantels were often still used. The mantel would adorn a large cast-iron register for the heat from the central furnace.

    As a rule humble homes were heated with stoves, while more elaborate homes tend to be heated with central furnaces. In Britain the situation was different. In fact central heating was not common until well into the 1960s. Before then the coal fireplaces Were the usual source of heat.

    At the turn of the century in City and suburban areas in the United States It was common for Holmes to have both a coal furnace and a radiant gas heater in a living room fireplace. At that time gas was a relatively expensive fuel source because in most cities the gas service used a manufactured gas made by the destructive distillation of coal or oil wastes.The purpose of the radiant gas heater was for use on days that were perhaps just a bit chilly but not cold enough to warrant the trouble of laying a fire in the furnace.

    In a few areas, generally were oil was produced, places like Western Pennsylvania and the Ohio River Valley, houses would Often be fitted with numerous gas burning radiant fireplace heaters, because in those areas natural gas which was considered a byproduct of the oil production was a very inexpensive fuel. However it was not distributed well.
  4. Nobert

    Nobert Practically Family

    In the Maine Woods
    I think it depends, like so many things, on the urban/rural split. Where I'm from, we still heat our houses by burning chunks of tree, like a bunch of Cro-Magnons. Sure, those who live in town, or the vinyl-sided cul-de-sac neighborhoods, use heating oil, but out in the sticks, it's mostly...well, sticks. In fact, I should go check the stove right now, muttering under my breath, as I do whenever I have to carry in another armload of cellulose, "Why can't we just continue to deplete the earth of its dwindling supply of fossil fuels like normal people?"
  5. Woodtroll

    Woodtroll Practically Family

    Mtns. of SW Virginia
    Coal also comes from Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwestern Virginia, as my grandfathers on both sides will attest. ;)

    For the first 20+ years of our married life, our house had no other heat source than a wood stove. There is absolutely no heat that will drive the damp chill from your bones like backing up to a cranked-up wood stove! About 15 years ago I caved in and put in one single ventless gas heater along with a gas range. Now I can leave the house for several days at a stretch in the winter without worrying that something will freeze. No one burns coal for home heat around here, but probably at least 50% use woodstoves at least occasionally in the winter. We are far out on the end of the power grid, and frequently loose power if it's snowy, icy, windy, rainy, or sometimes "just because". Fortunately wood stoves don't require electricity to keep the whole house warm.

    We still don't have any form of air conditioning, central or otherwise, but as I near retirement I'm considering installing some form of central HVAC.

    Interesting topic!
  6. 3fingers

    3fingers One Too Many

    My grandparents had a gravity wood furnace when I was growing up that was their major source of heat. In later years they did install an LP gas Warm Morning stove in the living room. I can still hear my grandpa padding down the basement steps before daylight to stoke the furnace.
    Thanks for the memory. :)
  7. LizzieMaine

    LizzieMaine Bartender

    From the evidence remaining in my ashpit of a back yard, the people living in my house from 1911 until sometime in the early 1950s burned coal in room-sized stoves -- one in the kitchen, one in the living room, and possibly one in the main bedroom. When they finally got central heating it was strictly heating oil. There are no fireplaces, and in fact I've never lived in a house with any kind of a fireplace.

    My grandparents' house never had central heating -- right up to the 1980s they heated it with two kerosene stoves, one in the kitchen and one in the living room. The only heat upstairs came via a grate in the living room ceiling, and that part of the house was all but uninhabitable during the winter. My mother remembers going to bed in a heavy woolen overcoat.

    Woodstoves have been very fashionable here since the '70s, but in the Era, coal and kerosene were king.
  8. tonyb

    tonyb Vendor

    My mother's basement
    For nearly 20 years I heated a small house a stone’s throw from downtown Seattle primarily with a Jotul woodstove, a green enamel version. I had electric baseboard heaters as well, but that little woodstove could blast you right out of that house on the coldest day of the year with wood procured essentially free, seeing how scrap pallets were always available, as were large branches and such after every windstorm.

    A brother heated a larger house with a Gaudin stove — a wood and coal burner. The coal out that way is soft and fast-burning, and dirty. When snow was on the ground the fallout from it was apparent.
  9. tonyb

    tonyb Vendor

    My mother's basement
    And the hillbilly family living in the house — the oldest house in the neighborhood — across from ours in the early 1970s heated their place with a wood- and coal-burning furnace. The child of the house, a kid a year or two younger than me, was on the short side of average but was plenty muscled up. It had something to do with all that firewood he cut and split.

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