Aleksandr Bierig


“Firegrate of the Charterhouse, London, c. 1620” From L. A. Shuffrey, The English Fireplace: A History of the Development of the Chimney, Chimney-Piece and Firegrate, 1912.The household hearth was a primordial device for capturing coal in an immediate sense, the place where fuel was burned and its heat communicated to occupants. Historians have shown the centrality of the hearth in histories of coal, outlining how the need to provide coal to domestic consumers in London initiated an intensified pattern of mining and a more durable supply chain between northern sources and southern demand, beginning in the early seventeenth century. Household coal consumption predominated over industrial uses in many areas of Britain well into the nineteenth century.

In light of this small-scale fuel transition, the coal-fired hearth required new kinds of spatial and material arrangements. Coal was denser and more powerful than the previously used fuel, wood, and the bituminous coals commonly used in households contained impurities that let off noxious smoke. These emissions, in principle, would be directed away from the interior and towards the exterior. On a micro-scale, that is, coal created what would become known, much later, as externalities: it intensified early efforts to keep desirable warmth inside and to push noxious smoke out, where others might be left to deal with it.

Ideally, this required a better chimney—one that tapered upwards to draw airflow more forcefully over the flames—as well an instrument to lift coals off the ground, like an iron grate. In practice, however, these design changes took place piecemeal, with few reliable records. As scholars including Margaret Spufford and Sara Pennell have shown, the everyday nature of such domestic micro-negotiations makes the history of the coal-fired household difficult to trace in detail. Records that do survive tend to be evidence from the higher reaches of society, like the opening image of this essay, a seventeenth-century fire-grate belonging to the coal merchant, Thomas Sutton. If original, wrote the fireplace historian, L.A. Shuffrey, this image shows an “early example of the grate for burning coal,” as well as a “fitting object” for someone “who made his great wealth by bringing coals to London.”  

While these changes were unfolding, however, a few observers placed the coal-fired hearth within a broader perspective, offering what we might call theories of the fireplace. Here I will discuss only one, by the Scottish writer James Anderson in his 1771 Practical Treatise on Chimneys. Unlike most who attempted to “improve” the fireplace—from earlier writers such as Nicolas Gauger and Benjamin Franklin, to later ones like Count Rumford and Neil Arnott—Anderson willfully disregarded the problem of fuel efficiency. He interpreted the fireplace as a device for heating as much as it was an engine for aerial ventilation.

“Perhaps nothing contributes so much towards the preserving of health,” Anderson wrote, “as the fires that are usually burnt in our apartments; as they perform the part of a perpetual ventilator,” reflecting a common understanding, at the time, that air quality was one of the crucial determinants of human health. Because of this, his treatise advocated for the use of “open fire[s], which are much more cheerful, are also more conducive to health, than concealed stoves, which are employed in some cold countries. We ought therefore to adhere to our own old fashion, and not be in too much haste to imitate our frugal neighbours”. The penchant of Britons for their wasteful, open fires of roaring coals was renowned; historian Stephen Mosley has shown its persistence into the second half of the nineteenth century. Anderson, however, did not just disregard efficiency, but he consciously disavowed it. Coal’s abundant power would underpin the healthy, airy household.

At the same time, Anderson began his book by placing the hearth in a very large context. The absence of smoke in interiors was a sign, for him, of an advancing society: “as mankind advance in civilization,—as they become easy in their circumstances, and come to form a more adequate idea of enjoyment, —when they acquire an idea of cleanliness, and feel what a high degree of luxury it is to enjoy it, smoke in their houses becomes so exceedingly inconvenient, as to be accounted one of the greatest interruptions to domestic enjoyment.” If this was true, in some measure, everywhere, Anderson continued, “it becomes doubly so in Great Britain, and Ireland, where pit-coal is the most common sort of fuel, the smoke of which is not only disagreeable, but absolutely noxious.” The smoke from coal was “more than sufficient to counterbalance all the elegancies that modern refinement has introduced into the dwellings of individuals.” In this, Anderson captured an essential contradiction of coal-fired progress. The very thing that seemed to give comfort also threatened to take it away. The creation of a supposedly civilized interior required the harnessing and control of coal’s unruly consequences.

Plate of Illustrations from James Anderson, A Practical Treatise on Chimneys: Containing Full Directions for Preventing or Removing-Smoke in Houses, 1783.As has been explored by historian Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, Anderson would eventually develop a number of social and natural schemes for “improvement,” particularly in his native Scotland, publishing on a wide range of projects—for the cultivation of peat moss as fuel, for the use of lime for manure, and for planning state-run fisheries, among many other topics. But his Practical Treatise on Chimneys was his first publication. The problem of the household hearth, anticipating his later work, presented an object located precisely on the border between social and natural, interior and exterior.

The surplus energy of coal, however, seemed to expand this border, a quality that was made evident in Anderson’s plate of illustrations. While his first diagrams illustrated different forms of chimney construction, Anderson came to realize that his book’s central goal—to “explain all the circumstances that can promote or retard the ascent of smoke in every case”—required the control of larger and larger expanses of space. If the home was to be turned into a machine for heating and ventilating, then it was difficult to know where the household began and where it ended. Through his text, he moved from the explanation of specific chimneys to the disposition of chimneys within homes and even to a structure’s placement in a landscape—as he put it, “the wrong position of the house with regard to external objects,” as shown in the house at the bottom of the page next to a large cliff that obstructed its internal airflow. The house owner should be wary, Anderson wrote, of building “in a situation that is not altogether free.” The interior conditions of the coal-fired home might become composed, but only if the boundary of its design moved further and further outward.

The early nineteenth century witnessed a rapid expansion of heating techniques from redesigned stoves and grates to new methods of piping hot water and steam through buildings. Each began applying the power of coal at even larger scales of operation. As Anderson seemed to predict, the immense variety of regional adaptations of dwelling and heating were, in time, displaced by ideals of energy-intensive comfort. Many began to take for granted that coal’s heat would always be at their disposal.

This expectation is glimpsed in the cartoon below by Thomas Rowlandson, which illustrated a passage from James Beresford’s popular satire The Miseries of Human Life (1808), a book that skewered the everyday moaning of well-to-do Londoners. This image shows a man arising on a “cold gloomy morning” to the horror of his servant cleaning an “empty grate,” which lacks the burning coals that might otherwise warm his body. But this expectation of available fuel and heat was eventually felt beyond the wealthy homes of the metropolis. “Every dwelling-house in the kingdom, however small or poor,” wrote John Holland in his 1841 History and Description of Fossil Fuel, “has its appropriate apparatus for keeping up internal warmth, and is for the most part thus linked to the importance of the coal trade.”

Illustration of The Miseries of Human Life, by James Beresford, 1808.


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