Monday, February 5, 2024

Nineteenth Century Heating in North America by Zina Abbott

About four years ago, my husband decided his days of cutting wood for our woodburning stove were over. It took three years plus a few months to use up or stockpile. After a few weeks of shivering next to an electric oil-filled radiator-style heater, for our Christmas and anniversary present, we invested in a pellet stove. We still heat with a flame generated by wood, but the technology has moved into the twenty-first century.

For my current work-in-progress, I needed a means for a snoopy mother to be able to eavesdrop on her children. The children soon learned how Mama seemed to know things, and they took steps to prevent being overheard. This carried forward, even when they both grew to adulthood. My first thought was Mama listened at a vent as sound traveled through the heating ducts. During the time of my story, was that even possible? Here is what I found about home heating, particularly in North America.

Medieval kitchen

Fire has been a primary source of heat for centuries. It is hard to believe it was not until the twelfth century that the chimney was invented. Before then, most fires for both cooking and heating were on an open fire or, inside a structure, a hearth beneath and a hole in the roof to draw smoke outside. With a chimney came the fireplace with a firebox and hearth and often a mantle.


Courtesy Virginia State Parks

Through the end of the seventeenth century, the fireplace remained the primary source of heat and cooking. However, once Europeans arrived in North America, they discovered many regions winter weather could be much harsher than where they came from. Necessity is the mother of invention.

1744 – Benjamin Franklin invented the “Pennsylvania Fireplace.” It included a grate to burn wood, sliding doors to control draught, and required a fourth of the amount of wood compared to a fireplace. It would be housed inside a large fireplace or used free-standing in the middle of the room as long as it was connected to a chimney. It became widely popular in North America.

Rumford Fireplace

1795 (about) – Anglo-American physicist, Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, as part of his investigations on heat, developed the Rumford fireplace. The back wall of the firebox is one-third the width of the opening to reflect more heat into a room. Also, its streamlined throat reduces turbulence, allowing smoke to be carried away with minimal loss of heated room air.

Early 1800s – the potbelly Franklin stove evolved from the earlier Franklin stove.

During the majority of the nineteenth century, wood provided the primary source of fuel for fireplaces, stoves, and other forms of heating devices. Especially east of the Mississippi River and most of its tributaries, wood was plentiful. It was the English who primarily brought the fireplace technology to North America. German immigrants brought the iron stove for heating living spaces.

1820 – 1830 – Coal became increasingly popular as a fuel, particularly Anthracite, or “hard” coal.  Adams explains, coal was quickly becoming a dominating fuel type. Stoves that could burn either wood or coal became popular.

1833 – Eliphalet Nott invented the first base-burner stove for using anthracite coal. 

1834 – Dennis Olmstead was the first to use the term “radiator” in a patent for a heat exchanger which then radiated heat.

1840s – The White House and Capitol building were outfitted with steam heating systems in the 1840s.

1855 – The heating radiator as we know it was invented by Franz San Galli, a Kingdom of Prussia-born Russian businessman living in St. Petersburg. by the late 1800s, the technology made it way to North America. To lower costs and expand the market, companies, such as the American Radiator Company, promoted cast iron radiators over the previous fabricated steel designs.

The use of boilers, radiators, and steam or hot water to heat homes became more popular after the Civil War. Large commercial and public buildings often used steam, but most homes were equipped with lower pressure hot water radiators because they were considered safer.

1883 – Thomas Edison invented the electric heater.

1885 – Coal became the most predominant source of fuel to generate heat. Carts and later trucks would deliver loads of this fossil fuel to basements around the world for the next fifty years or more.

1895 – Ernest Bryant and Ezra Smith, two businessmen, shared their plans for an  furnace using riveted steel for the heating surface with David Lennox. Furnaces at that time were made of cast iron, which tended to warp and crack after extended use, causing smoke and coal gases to escape into houses. After the three signed an agreement, Bryant and Smith lost their financial backing. Lennox took over their patents and reworked their design. He then successfully marketed the natural convection furnaces under his own brand name.

1919 – Alice Parker patented a central heating system. Prior to that, a lack of electricity for fans meant that heat was transported through the ducts by the process of natural air flow. With the addition of an electric fan connected to a network of ducts, a furnace could supply warm air more uniformly throughout a house.

Unfortunately, this research answered my question regarding whether or not being able to listen through the ductwork of a heating system was possible, even in the upscale houses of the 1870s or 1880s. The answer was no.


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