Heating Your House with Coal

Blue Coal Pavonia Ice and Coal

That center grate was also a good place to sneak a peek after you went to bed to see who was gathering in the dining room. I remember getting up in the morning and coming down to open the damper and shake down the ashes and stand there in your wool robe turning around 360 degrees to warm up as the coals got hotter and I also remember going to bed with a hot brick or iron wrapped in a towel to warm your feet. Every time I went to visit my Grandmother I would take the ashes out to the curb and sift through them for any unburned coals.

Jim Bessing, July 2004

I can still remember my parents saying at night when we lived in Ablett Village ” It’s time to bank the heater ” which meant adding enough coal to hold the fire over until the next morning. I remember the coal trucks and the coal bins and if a family was running out of coal they used to borrow some from the neighbors until they received their delivery. Jim Bessing has mentioned about sifting the ashes for un-burnt coal. I used to do that as a chore as my father made a square box with wire mesh on the top and we used to dump the ashes on the form and moved them around. It was amazing how much good coal was found. Talking about finding coal, we used to walk the railroad tracks and pick up coal that fell off the rail cars. We also saved the ashes or cinders for the ice and snow for traction. Coal heat wasn’t the best heat and there were many nights my mother, my dad, myself and my sister would be in the vicinity of the grate, grill, or as we called it the register.

Earl Crim, August 1, 2004

I can’t help smiling when I read such tales of woe as “Heating with Coal.” Did everyone but me have central heating back in the 30’s?

Although it must have been fun to be able to spy on those downstairs through the ceiling grates, it must have been wonderful to feel the warm air rising into your freezing bedroom on a cold winters night. Most houses with central heating, which you didn’t use in the summer, came equipped with a gas range for cooking and most houses with gas had a water heater. Central heat via a furnace also meant the ability to pay for coal by the ton which few if any on little Cooper Street could even dream of.

Life on the other side of the tracks:

Coal was a luxury to be bought only when it was absolutely necessary and then only in 50 lb bags. Blue coal or pea or nut or even coke, it didn’t matter on any particular day, except which happened to be cheapest.

I would take my little wagon up to the Pavonia Ice and Coal Co. at Howell Streets when we had the money and struggle with a bag I could hardly lift then haul it back home and try to carry it into the house. This was our secondary source of coal. At other times, which I hated, I would be ordered to take a bucket and walk the railroad tracks to find coal that had fallen off coal cars. This also meant playing hide and seek with the railroad police, who were not the friendliest people in the world. At that age it didn’t dawn on me that they were looking out for my safety as well as protecting railroad property.

My route for coal scavenging usually ranged from behind the Haddon Press down to behind Dimedio Lime, Du Bell Lumber and Concrete Steel Co. On a bad day I would have to continue all the way beyond Warren Webster’s to the Standard Oil place at Federal Street and River Road to fill my bucket after which it was a heavy trip back to Cooper Street.

Our heating system at home consisted of a large wood/coal cooking range in the kitchen which was jet black and had shiny nickel plated parts hanging on it. I also had the job of polishing this stove which was done while it was very hot using a liquid consisting of an oil and carbon black dispersion. You rubbed this on with a cloth and it smoked like a volcano and you continued rubbing until it was dry and shiny black, and so were you.

This stove was used for cooking and heating water. There was only one faucet in the house and it was ice cold water. This is why in those days there was a Saturday bath, you didn’t shower a couple times a day even if you wanted to. There was no hot water and no shower. Bathing was done in the galvanized laundry tub. During the week you washed your face and hands.

Picture a woman’s life during this period:

I can’t help smiling when I read such tales of woe as “Heating with Coal.” Did everyone but me have central heating back in the 30’s?

Although it must have been fun to be able to spy on those downstairs through the ceiling grates, it must have been wonderful to feel the warm air rising into your freezing bedroom on a cold winters night. Most houses with central heating, which you didn’t use in the summer, came equipped with a gas range for cooking and most houses with gas had a water heater. Central heat via a furnace also meant the ability to pay for coal by the ton which few if any on little Cooper Street could even dream of.

There was a pot bellied stove in the parlor which was seldom used at all. Parlors were generally used for special visitors or which happened, it seems, all to often in those days, wakes.

Next comes the pot bellied stove in the dining room which was where we lived. This room served as living room, dining room and family room. This stove was our primary source of warmth throughout the winter months. This stove was not large but it kept the room comfortable.

What about the bedrooms? There was zero heat except what your body generated and the quilts managed to hold next to you. The kitchen stove didn’t help because the kitchen was a separate room attached to the rear of the house.

As mentioned before the parlor stove wasn’t used for general heating. Because of the size and limited utility of the dining room stove there was no ceiling grate to allow heat to rise to the upstairs, which would result in cooling the down stairs.

I remember one occasion where I didn’t think it was warm enough and being home alone I proceeded to remedy that situation. I filled the dining room stove with coke, which was all we had on hand that day. Then I opened the damper all the way which I had seen my father do. In a short period of time the pot belly was glowing red. Soon after the stove pipe started to get red and the red rose higher and higher and I became more and more scared not knowing what to do about it.

The red was within three feet of the ceiling when my father walked in the door. In a short time he had the stove under control. As the stove returned to its normal black my bottom became redder and redder. I had doubts I would ever sit again. This is the way life went on in the good old days…. and they really were the good old days. Ask anyone who grew up during that period.

You may get a different answer if you ask those who were unemployed adults during this time. It’s all in your perspective.

I had many opportunities to stay over in houses with central heating and although they were not perfect when compared to post-war standards I don’t remember a single one that could compare to an entire house heated with one little stove.

One point John made brought back fond memories. That being that you could cuddle up to a potbellied stove. I can remember running in the house half-frozen from playing in the snow and cuddling to to the stove. This was truly ecstasy. It cannot be duplicated by entering room warmed by central heating.

The concept of using the staircase as a convection channel to heat the upstairs only works with an open staircase. The houses on little Cooper Street‘s stairs were totally enclosed clear to the bottom with a full wall both on the dining room side and the living room side. There was a door on one side or the other of the stairs to isolate the dining room, which you wanted to heat, from the living room which you did not.

John states that taking a bath in a cold bathroom was a horrible ordeal. We took our baths in a tin tub in a nice hot kitchen, so take your choice. But a BATHROOM? WOW! Now for the great equalizer. Although we bathed in the nice warm kitchen, think about when nature called.

Remember the old poem: “Out of bed and unto the floor and a fifty yard dash to the outhouse door” Actually it was probably about twenty feet door-to-door. When the temperature was down toward freezing or a rain storm was in progress this was a real challenge, and since our lighting was kerosene lamps and nobody was going to light these in the middle of the night the trip would be made in total darkness.

John made a comment about pines and other such woods burning dirty and is probably right. I was too young to pay attention to such things but I remember that my father saved all his old flashlight batteries and on occasions put them in the fire. He said that the acids in the batteries helped keep the chimney clean. Whether it worked or not I don’t know.

Tom Agin, December 18-21, 2004

When times were hard, it was not an uncommon practice to go to the railroad tracks to pick up coal that had fallen from the trains… this is in the days before diesels. Coal-fired locomotives operated in Camden into the 1950s. This of course could be a dangerous practice, and at least one person was killed while picking coal, hit by a train near North 32nd Street in April of 1928.

Phil Cohen, October 1, 2005

Do you remember the center grate or grille usually between the living and dining room. This was the only heat grille in the house, upstairs depended on gravity with the hot air rising for heat. Needless to say it didn’t work very well. We burned coal till I was almost a teen.

Hot water was a summer-winter hookup from the furnace. Cold weather didn’t always get you hot water- you got steam, and you had to be careful. In the summer there was no hot water from this system. We had a little “buck a day” separate hot water heater, which used a bucket of coal a day to make hot water in the summer. With coal costing $20 or more a ton there was only hot water on wash day and maybe Saturday. Don’t believe what they tell you, cold baths do not build character. Showers were something you saw in movies.

Ashes were the biggest pain in burning coal. They would get tracked all over the house in winter. One thing I think I forgot about burning coal, was that everyone kept old orange crates or scrap wood around. The wood was used as kindling but it had to be dry.

You would put some scrap paper and kindling in the firebox. Kindling went on top or under the coal as your preference. You light the paper, the paper lights the kindling, the kindling lights the coal. So much for auto ignition. Coal was a poor way to heat especially with gravity hot air. Steam and hot water was better.

It was sign of pride that when ashes were shifted that only a few pieces of coal weren’t burnt. The ashes were a pain. In the winter everyone used them on icy sidewalks and to give cars traction. Guys would keep ashes in trunk all winter, for snowy weather. Of coarse when you came indoors during winter you tracked the ashes everywhere. There was also a separate collection day for ashes separate from the garbage. collection As a kid I had a little route taking out ashes for some older neighbors. They would give you ten or 15 cents, which was movie money.

Banking the fire didn’t do much good on a day when temperature got unseasonably warm. You could tell people who burned coal on a day like that because they would have front door or windows open.

In the late spring and early summer you would see quite a few coal deliveries. People were getting head a start on next winter and lower price for fuel. Even 35 yrs ago, the oil companies would solicit you to fill your tank during the summer and I believe I paid about 15 cents a gallon in August McAllister had a coal yard from bridge plaza to Pearl Street, between 7th and 6th streets, where Northgate is now on 7th street was the entrance to the yard. They brought coal in on rail cars right up Main Street. They would run cars up a hump and dumped the coal there, then took empty cars away….. and there was coal dust over everything.

Now that weather is starting to change, thoughts turn to heating season. The Pavonia Ice & Coal ad reminded me when we talked about coal heat before, I had meant to tell you this. When ad’s spoke of clean fuel for coal they meant complete consumption of the coal with a minimum amount of ashes. Those old heaters were all natural draft, that is, they depended on temperature difference for combustion air, plus I don’t doubt old houses were so drafty that you had a good amount of fresh air leakage into the buildings.

Coal by nature burns dirty, giving off soot, and natural draft doesn’t help any. On the plus side you had heat even in a power failure. Soot and other products of combustion build up in stack piece and chimney, and as it builds up your combustion draft drops off. The gas of combustion, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and so on, have to go somewhere. With the old chimneys made of brick and mortar, the next thing you didn’t know is that you had a colorless and odorless gas filling the house.

Another problem was a fire in the stack or the chimney. That’s one reason that when they put a new heating system in today they usually put a chimney liner in, as it stops combustion gas leaks and keeps chimney fires down. A lot of people in “shoulder season,” that is, fall & spring, would build a wood fire in the coal furnace. If the wood wasn’t dried out, or was a from a sap tree like pine, this added to whole problem. It wasn’t unusual as a kid to read about a family over come with flue gas and it was known on occasion to lead to a death.

Good old days? I wonder!

When we got oil heat, we cleaned out the coal bin. Of course the wooden chute to send coal under the front porch to the coal bin stayed. In the winter we kept 32 ounce Ballantine’s under there to keep cold. One winter we got a real bad cold snap in December and the whole case of beer froze. From then on only a few quart bottles went there at a time.

While poking around I found a paragraph on “Blue Coal.” According to this little note, Blue Coal was used as a selling point in as much as it was supposed to have superior burning qualities and as a theft deterrent. Some of the coal companies sprayed the coal with a blue coloring, so that if anyone tried to steal coal from a slow moving train they would get blue coloring all over there clothes and hands, making it easier for police to catch them. When the coal reached the coal yards its blue coloring was used as a selling point. Three cheers for truth in ad’s!!!

The natural hot air or gravity system in some ways was worse than a stove in living room or kitchen. It was no more than a large vent that opened on the first floor. Some houses had a grille on the second floor, but often they depended on stairway for any warm air. The drawback was that you lost the radiant heat off the furnace. At least with a stove you could huddle or sleep or sit around it. A lot of the heat from the furnace was wasted.

An even better system of natural draft hot air heat with ducts to the second floor were grossly inefficient. Steam heat was the warmest, but as the boiler aged rather than replace or do needed repair work, most people converted to gravity hot water. The problem here was that the radiators were sized for steam. The hot water didn’t circulate fast enough in very cold weather. Circulators for forcing the hot water to circulate through the system were expensive and pricey. The usual result of converting was that water would circulate as the temperature increased but the whole time the supply & return lines were giving up heat all over the house.

Add that to the fact that those brick row houses with a frame back had no insulation. By the time the water got to the second floor, the loss was high, plus there were always one or two rooms that if the weather was very cold didn’t get much heat. It was like trying to heat the outside.

In the 40’s and 50’s a lot of people had insulation blown in the frame back walls of their row houses. The problem was that the insulation, a product like cut wool paper, would settle after a few years. The lower floor would have all the insulation, while the upper floor where it was needed at night was still starved for heat. Add the fact that the radiators (many of which had been originally for steam) were quite often undersized left a lot of back bedrooms as cold as walk-in boxes.

Most hot water and steam heat systems had an extra coil to use the exhaust from the furnace to heat hot domestic water. Still, the bath was no treat in a cold bathroom. A bath and washing your face, hands, and other parts was, in winter, a wake up experience for a bath in winter.

I still remember people in the 40s and 50s collecting scrap wood. That pine used in pallets burned quick and was a dirty fire.

John Ciafrani, January 2004


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