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Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
Category: Science and Technology
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The modern heating systems help us enjoy cozy nights in front of the fireplace without having to leave the house for bringing wood throughout the night. But that wasn’t the case in the past when people didn’t use modern heating systems, and they relied on wood-burning and other types of heating systems. 

When the weather is getting colder, we turn on the heat and enjoy a glass of wine in front of the TV wearing just a T-shirt, but during the 1700s and 1800s, people had to sleep in leaky and draughty houses, with ill-fitting windows and doors, no heating and plumbing systems, and high ceilings. They used plenty of wood to warm up their houses, but most of the heat escaped through the draughts in the walls and chimneys. 

People had no room screens and fireplace screens to keep the heat inside, so they could feel at the same time hot and cold. The upper class had more resources to heat their houses, so they used good fuels and hired people to care for the fire continually. But even if they warmed their houses, they still suffered from deadly health problems because they didn’t dress adequately. A fashionable lady from the 18th century wore thin muslin gowns and a Norwich shawl that didn’t protect her from the freezing temperatures. In fact, in the 19th century, the phenomenon was so common, that all the women suffering from deadly colds and pneumonia were diagnosed with the “muslin disease”. 

How did people cope with cold in the 1700s?

By the 1700 people installed fireplaces in their dwellings to heat them during cold days. Some of them had a fireplace in each room, and one or two chimneys to retrieve the smoke. Fireplaces weren’t very effective because s they both gave and took the heat away. Chimneys pulled cold air into the house to replace the warm one. To heat a house, people need extensive wood supplies. 

Simple houses with detached kitchens at the American plantations had one fireplace similar to a bay made from stone or brick. For example, in the kitchen of the Stratford Hall, the Lee mansion on the Potomac had a fireplace twelve feet wide. To power this fireplace, people used even an acre of woodlot in a year. Because the fireplaces were huge, some homeowners had to drag the wood logs into the house with the help of a horse. 

In 1741, Benjamin Franklin looked for solutions to boost the fireplace’s efficiency. He created cast-iron inserts for the firebox and invented the Franklin Stove. We can find details about its functionality in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, volume 2. He didn’t modify the look of the fireplace, but he addressed a theory about the heat. He compared heat to liquid, and he looked for ways to keep heat in the room as long as possible. However, his stove came with numerous drawbacks, the stove had to be tight and if it had any leaks the smoke got inside the room. During windy days, smoke also blew back inside, so many people refused to install it. 

Did things evolve in the 1800s?

Sean Adams, professor of history at the University of Florida and author of the Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century states that during the 1800s people relied on wood-burning fireplaces to heat their homes in America. Most of them were English settlers, and they didn’t expect winters to be harsher than in England. But the winters soon proved that their fireplaces were inefficient and they had to look for other more effective methods. The majority of heat in a fireplace goes up and out through the chimney and the little heat remained in the room is concentrated in front of the firebox, leaving the rest of the room close to freezing. 

Adams states that in the 1820s and 1830s coal was the main fuel people used to heat their houses. Stoves burning coal or wood were highly popular, compared with our times when people use floor heating systems and boilers to warm their houses and heat water. Nowadays, when the boiler fails to heat the water because of a malfunction, you can easily hire boiler rentals, but back then if the stove didn’t function, people were freezing in their homes until they repaired it because they had no other alternative.

In the 1800s stove providers came with new technology, iron stoves. In America, English settlers used fireplaces and German settlers iron stoves that were more efficient in heating a house. But not only the iron stoves were new for homeowners, but also the type of fuel they needed to function, coal. Because it was so different from wood, it took people some time to get used to it and switch to it. 

At first, coal was considered a new technology only courageous people willing to take a risk would use. It was described as the fuel of the fashionable that could revolutionize home heating. 

Coal stoves featured multiple decorations, with intricate ironwork and decorative finials to make them more fashionable. People purchased them not only for their utility but also for their desirability. During the post-Civil War period, in America coal was the main fuel. Wealthy families created specific rooms to store coal and burnt it in basement furnaces to heat their homes. Poor families also used it, but they installed little stoves in each room of the house for increased comfort. 

Steam heating first appeared in the 1850s, but it gained great popularity during the 1880s. Adams describes it as another form of coal heating because it was used to heat water and turn it into steam. Institutional buildings were the first ones to use steam heating because the system required a complex network to function. 

The 19th century also saw the invention of the radiator in Russia and the electric heater made by Thomas Edison in 1883. After the Civil War, steam, hot water, radiators and boilers became popular heating solutions.