- Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the 19th Century by Sean Patrick Adams
Home Fires is part of Johns Hopkins’s new How Things Worked series, geared to emphasize the role of institutions in technological developments and to engage undergraduates. It is meticulously crafted to reach its intended audience. Home Fires offers insights about the rise of industry, the shift from an organic to a fossil-fuel economy, and the development of a consumer marketplace through a seemingly simple question: how did nineteenth-century Americans keep the home fires burning? Sean Patrick Adams argues that industrialization changed the home, not simply the workshop. As the book tracks the shift from wood to coal-heated hearths, it investigates a host of associated workplaces on which the hearth relied, from the stove-making foundries of upstate New York to the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania, from the coal yards where dealers intensely competed to the legislative halls where lawmakers created policy to facilitate shipments and shape industrial development. Thus, this compact volume touches on histories of technology, labor, business, politics, environment, health, and consumer culture.
The work will jostle undergraduates from conceiving of a fossil-fuel economy as simply “the way things are” by offering detailed descriptions of early-nineteenth-century cities where wood, not coal, powered daily life. To invoke the chill of a room heated by a woodstove, for instance, the author relates how eighteenth-century New York physician Cadwallader Colden discovered frozen Madeira in a well-fired room. Similarly, Adams reminds readers that so intense was the shortage of firewood that Bostonians even felled the Liberty Tree—a great symbol of American independence.
But Home Fires is more than simply a repository of good stories. It offers challenging and substantive interpretive correctives. Adams disabuses the notion that innovation alone drove the rise of the coal-fired stove. While he credits the modifications Benjamin Franklin and Count Rumford made to home heating, Adams demonstrates the faults and slow adoption of these stoves. Nor did the shift to coal stem simply from a dearth of wood. To be widely adopted, coal-heating technology required broad-scale economic changes, such as the development of a transportation [End Page 980] infrastructure and manufacturing capacity, for consumers to see coal-fired stoves as a viable alternative.
Adams is at his best when he tells readers not simply how coal networks worked, but why and when they didn’t. Rhode Island’s anthracite coalfields, well-positioned to furnish wood-starved Boston with fuel, ultimately foundered because of difficulties securing shipping to the city. And consumers had to develop new skills to tend a coal-fired hearth, especially to get tough-to-ignite anthracite burning.
The author attends to how the technology of coal heating transferred from a practice of the wealthy to urban northerners at large, providing evidence of the central role of philanthropic campaigns that facilitated the adoption of coal heat by poor households. Home Fires focuses exclusively on northern cities. Adams might do more to position the urban North relative to other regions, especially because rural Americans enjoyed access to a greater abundance of wood, but faced credit and transportation challenges that may have slowed the adoption of coal-fired heat.
Adams promises more than he delivers about coal stoves and the emergence of a consumer economy. He offers some evidence of consumers’ resistance to anthracite, but few hints of how manufacturers and coal dealers changed their practice to meet consumer demands. Ultimately, though, the limited attention to consumers’ authority might strengthen Adams’s interpretive power. For students steeped in the notion that consumers are sovereign, Adams demonstrates the importance of manufacturing capacity, regulatory climate, and cultural perception on consumers’ choices. Fire insurance underwriters’ suspicion of steam-heat systems, and the limited production of steam radiators in the 1870s, for instance, made them too expensive for most households to consider their installation. Even well-heeled consumers who backed steam heat could not overcome the suspicion about the safety of steam heat held by...