Book Review: Sean Patrick Adams, How Americans Kept Warm in the 19th Century (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

In the 18th century, Americans burned a lot of wood to keep their homes warm.  But everything from a log cabin to a brick house had an open fire place with a chimney made of brick or stone. These open fires were quite inefficient. As Adams notes, houses in the Northern states would burn ten to fifteen cords of wood per year (a cord being a pile of stacked wood 4x8x4 feet in size).  The amount of effort that went into chopping down trees, sawing them in smaller pieces, and then splitting those pieces into firewood must have been immense. What Adams highlights however is the effort needed to ship and market firewood in the city. As forests near the large cities were depleted, firewood was shipped in from farther and farther away. Boston, Philadelphia, and New York had large regulated networks of cordwood suppliers. As firewood became harder to procure, Americans sought heating solutions.

The transition from open fires to more efficient enclosed wood stoves, however, was slow. There were many reasons for this. Anglo-Americans were stubborn, resistant to change their ways. And ironically, some Americans in the coldest region of the country, New England, were the last to switch to wood stoves.  Americans felt that open fires, whatever their inefficiencies, were part of a healthy (read: drafty) house. Early wood stoves, meanwhile, were expensive, smoky, and sometimes difficulty to operate. Adams gives credit to Benjamin Franklin and others like David Rittenhouse and Charles Wilson Peale for designing stove improvements. But, crucially, he described this technological change and adoption as a slow, disperse process with many participants. “No single actor or institution coordinated these alterations…,” (16)  Adams writes. Wood stoves were never popular in the 18th century, but remained a product for the rich.

Adams deftly combines cultural history and the history of technology, noting for example that the distance of most Americans from metal forges was a problem for distribution of heavy wood stoves.  Stoves were heavy and bulky, so they were often shipped unassembled as six iron plates (think six sides of a cube) or ten pieces (stoves with an additional raised section). Some stoves were shaped like barrels. Wood stoves were expensive, but as Americans discovered their relative efficiency over open fires, they came to see stoves as an essential element of a home. Parallel developments in design innovations, transportation improvements, and iron forge technology contributed to the growth of wood stove usage In the early decades of the 19th century, wood stoves became the first mass consumer item.

Adams show the reverse of the common complaint that products are made and marketed to the public. Instead, there was a real desire for improved heating. Needs were real, not invented, and wood stoves were a large advantage. There are also interesting discussions here about the role of patent law and the development of new technologies in the early republic. In the 18th century, stove innovations were unpatented, and made for the public benefit. But patent law encouraged more people to contribute new design ideas. Patents, therefore, encouraged designers who hoped for profits. While some did benefit, in reality, patent suits were not always successful.

As wood stoves replaced open fires, so coal furnaces came to replace wood stoves. Although coal came from mostly large suppliers, it appeared to be a relatively efficient market. Price fixing was difficult, but suppliers tried to cut corners on weight or quality. Whereas Americans were once able to trace their cordwood to a supplier and to a specific forest, the complexity of the coal industry led consumers to be ignorant of its workings.

In 1789, the U.S. passed a protective tariff on coal to protect the young domestic coal industry from competition against British imports. At the time, one major region for coal mining was in Virginia, just west of Richmond, where there were significant deposits of bituminous coal. Anthracite coal, meanwhile, was being discovered in Pennsylvania’s eastern mountains. Large deposits of bituminous coal in the Appalachians seemed well located for distribution via railroad to American’s east coast and Midwest.

Coal was first adopted as a heating source by the upper class. But the wealthy did not always switch entirely to coal, and would buy wood or coal depending on their needs and the prices at market. Like with wood stoves, coal furnaces required a consumer base and some education about the new product. Coal was replacing wood in the 1840s and 1850s. During the Civil War, increased demand for coal benefited railroads, and railroad growth, in turn, benefited coal producers.

The decision to adopt coal as a nation’s major source of heat fuel was made thousands of times at the household level. Again, Adams shows describes markets and engines of creativity and wealth, able to coordinate production and distribution through the decisions of millions of producers, miners, wholesalers, middlemen, retailers, and consumers. “The creation of a complex industrial system that raised, accumulated, and distributed coal was beyond the capacity of a single entrepreneur, corporation, or even state.” (64) By the 1870s, coal dominated the national market.

In a final chapter, Adams described the general failure of steam heat to replace coal furnaces. Steam systems in the late nineteenth century were generally centralized, large boilers that pumped heat through a large building or across a city neighborhood. Steam systems struggled for a place in the market because they had high initial costs, they could be loud and dangerous, and there was a social problem of convincing neighbors to join the network.

This is an original, well-written and interesting book, with useful maps. It would work well in a university course on the history of American technology, markets, business, or culture.  Of my few minor complaints, only one is worth mentioning: the thesis statement of the book (on page 12) is written in a forced, overly academic style.

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