Book Review: The Ubiquity of Coal in the Mid-Atlantic


Taking stoves such as Pine Grove Furnace’s ten-plate as his inspiration, Sean Patrick Adams links the domestic hearth of the average family living in one of the nation’s growing cities with the broader process of industrialization. In Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century, he puts to rest the notion that the move from wood to coal for home heating was either a product of simple market forces or the result of a singular breakthrough technology, such as Ben Franklin’s famous “Pennsylvanian freplace” (which, it turns out, blew smoke into the room and required constant tending). Explaining the rise of the “industrial hearth,” as the author describes it, instead requires attention to the enormous capital and labor expended in transporting anthracite over hundreds of miles, the dirty and dangerous work done in iron works and coal mines, and “the bare-knuckle negotiations between colliers, railroads, wholesalers, and customers” (9). After overcoming the bias toward open fres, energy entrepreneurs faced technological hurdles in manufacturing effective appliances. These problems were not resolved until new transportation systems helped move the iron production process closer to retail customers. The substitution of fnicky anthracite for wood took several more decades to achieve and “required a sustained transformation of everyday household practices on par with the most radical changes that the Industrial Revolution brought to the workplace”