Coal definitely made a brighter, warmer, and less smoky fire than wood, and in Jane Austen’s day, had become a preferred source of heat. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 1700’s was fueled by coal and though it had been a prime energy source for centuries, the oldest continuously worked deep-mine, Tower Colliery, was opened in Wales, in 1805. Prior to that coal had been gathered “at the surface” or in private mining endeavors. The first commercial coal mines in the United States were started in 1748 in Midlothian, Virginia, near Richmond, Virginia.
The following excerpt from The House Servant’s Directory
, was written by Robert Roberts in 1827. Mr. Roberts had been butler to the governor of Massachusetts in 1809 and drew upon his work in that great house, to offer this advice to his fellow laborers.
Directions how to make a fire with Lehigh coal
And now, Joseph and David, I must address a few ‘last words’ to you on the subject of making coal fires. Having put down all that need be said in respect to employers and servants in their conduct towards each other, I wish to add some very superior directions for making fires of what is anthracite coal, otherwise called Lehigh, Rhode Island, or any hard coal.
Very few servants at first understand the method of kindling and continuing a fire of Lehigh coal, many will never learn, and many more from erroneous instructions, whilst they think they understand is, make but a bungling piece of work of it. I had prepared some observations on this subject to be inserted among the directions and receipts, but have omitted them in order to give room to the following full account and directions, and as our book is intended to be useful to servants, it must be granted that a knowledge of how to make a Lehigh coal fire, when it is becoming so common in this country, is quite an acquisition.
I wish my fellow servants to read the rules very attentively. They are very humorous, but very true, and they lay down a plain and easy method for preparing and burning this kind of coal. These rules were first published in the ‘New York American’—and people thought them a burlesque upon the use of this kind of fuel, but experience has make them acknowledge that they are most excellent and true, and hundreds have enjoyed the comforts ofa hard coal fire made according to the writer’s directions.
Chapter One: Of Buying and Breaking*
Chapter Two: Of the Kindling
- Buy from the vessel, if possible; for a chaldron there is more than at the yard. And remember that every seller of coal is a cheat.
- Stand by and see that large pieces only are put into the cart, for a cart of very large pieces, when broken up, makes a cart and a quarter of small ones.
- Refuse a load that appears to contain dust, because Lehigh dust is clear waste, and enough in all conscience is made when breaking.
- Break the coal before housing it, unless you would have to break it yourself at the risk of either eye.
- Do not be hoaxed out of a dollar for a hammer made expressly for the purpose of breaking Lehigh. The family axe is just as good.
- Do not take a man from the yard with his patent hammer, to break your coal for you, unless you would pay twice what the job is worth, and what a dozen, in less than five minutes after the coal is dumped will offer to do for you.
- In breaking, see that each piece is broken by itself on the pavement, and not as is usual, on the mass, unless you wish to burn half the coal as powder.
- Make the man who breaks, carry in as fast as he breaks, whereby much dust will be saved.
- Let the pieces into which it is broken be about as large as your fist, if your hand is rather a small one; otherwise about the size of your wife’s, provided her hand is something larger than common; or about the size of a half pint tumbler.
- Watch the fellow who breaks, or he will not break half small enough—or he will break it on the mass—or he will use a bushel as a missiles against the boys, cows or pigs—or he will take care to wet it all in the gutter before he takes it up.
- When the coal is in, proceed to the mystery of burning, which deserves a separate chapter. This subject, however, is better handled under the two heads, of kindling, and of replenishing and perpetuating.
- This a great mystery, therefore proceed with caution and with a mind divested of all prejudice.
- Let the grate be perfectly cleared of all foreign substances, and begin the fire at the bottom.
- The best material for kindling is charcoal, unless perhaps dry hickory be preferred; the latter is much cheaper—not absolutely, however, that I know of, but it is relatively. For, in relation to the cook, it may be affirmed that half the charcoal which you buy for kindling will go into the kitchen fire to save trouble. The cheapest method is this: buy a load of dry hickory, stipulate that it shall be large, have it sawed three times—the wood will now be in junks which you may defy the cook to burn—split it up as fast as wanted and no faster. Some say that Liverpool is the cheapest kindler. It may be at six dollars a chaldron, but it is not at sixteen dollars; and they you must have wood to kindle the Liverpool.
- Having got the kindling, proceed to the grate. Throw into it first live coals from the kitchen, then lay on the charcoal or hickory, be not too sparing—then place loosely, and with the fingers, fair pieces of Schuylkill, Lehigh or Rhode Island of the orthodox size. I advise the use of the fingers, because the work is done quicker than with tongs, from which the smooth Schuylkill perpetually slips. Let the coal be piled as high as the grate will allow.
- If you are in a hurry, put up the blower; if not, do not use it, for the hard coal kindles better without forcing. The blower makes a quicker fire, but a worse one, for the outside of the coals is burned before the inside is even heated. When the blower is removed, the heat suddenly subsides; the coals (Lehigh, especially) are found encrusted with a white coating of hard ashes, which renders them almost incombustible, and the fire afterwards becomes very dull.
- If the process of kindling fails, begin all over again. Failure most frequently proceeds from stinginess with the materials of kindling. Better be prodigal of it than have the fire go out, and the grate all disemboweled a second time.
- The fire now being well kindled—but this is the subject of another chapter.
Chapter Three: Of Replenishing and Perpetuating
Chapter Four: Of the Poker
- The fire now being well under way, it will need to be fed but three times during the day and evening. The first replenishing should take place immediately after breakfast, when the family breaks up, the gentlemen retreating to the counting room, office or study, and the ladies to their dressing-rooms; the second about an hour before dinner; the third a little into the evening.
- If my readers are willing to be truly economical, let them replenish a fourth time, viz. at the going to bed—which I call the perpetuating process. Since, if it be done properly, the fire need be kindled but once for the whole winter, say, on the first day of November, and thus an immense amount of kindling may be saved.
- The method of perpetuating is extremely simple and consists merely in adding a few pieces of coal at 11 o’clock, say, and then cover the whole with cinders and ashes…till you have shoveled up as much as the grate can bear. In the morning all you have to do, is to clap on the blower, and presto, the fire before you is red hot. Following this plan, my parlor has always been comfortable at breakfast.
- Let not the ladies murmur: the grate can still be cleaned. When the servant first approaches the grate in the morning, everything is calm, quiet, slumbering and cool—you would hardly believe the fire to be there; and the brass can therefore be polished without the least hindrance. And not till that is done, should the blower be applied.
- A judicious use of the poker is essential to the well-being of an anthracite fire. This is the most delicate part of the science of coal burning, and the strictest attention should be given to it. So nice a matter is this,that I am almost ready to say, that I can form my opinion of a man’s intellect from his application of the poker as well as his pleading, preaching or physicking.
- An ignorant, meddlesome or nervous person you will often see thrusting in the poker at all adventures without rhyme or reason—as often as marring as making the fire. In a cold winter day particularly, the poker should always be kept out of their reach. They are unworthy of its honors.
- The legitimate office of the poker, in the case of a hard coal fire, is to clear away the ashes which accumulate on the lower bars and promote a free circulation of air. Not to quicken the blaze by breaking a large coal in pieces, or by changing the position of the pieces as in the fires of Liverpool.
- A fire should be poked when at its zenith—if you wait till it is much below that, your poking will only poke it out; the more you poke, the less it will burn.
*This coal is sold by weight…and broken up at the yard, at an extra charge of fifty cents per ton.
- If the fire from having been too long neglected, appear to be in a doubtful state, hesitating between life and death—never touch a poker to it, it will be the death of it—never stir it—scarce look or breathe upon it, but with the step of a ghost clap on the blower, and if the vital spark be not wholly extinct, the air will find it out, and in a few moments blow it up to a generous heat—then gradually add fresh coal in small clean pieces, devoid of dust, and your fire is safe—Servants never learn this mystery, they always fly to the poker in every case of distress, and by their stupid use of it, double their own labor and vex the mistress of the house.
- This direction should be particularly observed in the morning, when a fire has been perpetuated. No coal should be added, nor the fire touched, till the blower has been up and done its work. It will often be found, especially in the case of Schuylkill coal, far preferable to Lehigh—that this alone will furnish sufficient heat for the breakfast hour; which is a demonstration that it is not waste, but a clear saving, to perpetuate the fire in the manner laid down.
- Many more niceties might be enumerated touching the poker; but I refrain and willingly leave something to the imagination of the reader. I would conclude, as preachers say, with only one practical remark—that you will never have a good anthracite fir, till you have broken your husband, a brother or wife of the mischievous habit of poking. It is surely an unseemly habit in itself, as well as injurious to the fire. It shows a too meddlesome, prying, insinuating disposition; and I can never help thinking, when I see one of this sort poking the coals, that he only wants the opportunity to thrust himself into my private affairs.
Enjoyed this article? Browse our book shop