With solar power, wind power, and other renewables taking center stage these days, it seems strange to imagine a time when coal was a new fuel source that Americans treated with suspicion. Times may have changed, but the reluctance of many consumers to switch to an unfamiliar source of energy is nothing new.
Even as people in Britain began switching from wood to coal, Americans were much slower to make the change. In America's early years, the country was full of forests that seemed to promise an inexhaustible supply of inexpensive firewood. However, by the early 19th century, many of those trees had been cut down to make way for farmland and quickly growing cities and towns.
In many ways, America was ideally suited for the switch to coal. There were significant deposits of anthracite coal – which burns cleaner than bituminous coal – in places like Pennsylvania. Burning wood in fireplaces was also an incredibly inefficient way to heat homes, as so much of the heat dissipated up the chimney. However, even as coal-fired metal stoves became more affordable, many people were reticent to abandon the comfort of firelight and the familiarity of the hearth. They found stoves difficult to light; railed against having to bake, rather than broil, their food; and blamed coal stoves for a variety of health problems (and, indeed, the air in some cities did become full of particulate matter).
By the 1860s, due to an increase in the price of wood, technological improvements, and a massive marketing effort by the coal and railroad industries, the tide was turning. By 1885, coal had become more popular than wood, especially in cities.
Today, with coal gradually becoming a relic of the past, it's hard to believe that coal-burning stoves were once cutting-edge technology. Perhaps in another couple of centuries, people will think the same about our ambivalence to solar panels and wind turbines.
The cautious acceptance of coal:
- Before it became a fixture in homes and factories, coal was mainly used by blacksmiths who needed it to produce high temperatures for their forges.
- As early as 1744, Benjamin Franklin bemoaned how forests were disappearing around Philadelphia, writing that "wood, our common Fewel, which within these 100 Years might be had at every Man’s Door, must now be fetch’d near 100 Miles to some towns, and makes a very considerable Article in the Expence of Families.”
- By the 1830s, a family could heat their home with coal during the winter for $4.50. Heating the same home with wood would have cost $21.