The History of Coal Heating

By: Bill Kibbel , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Obsolete Design Elements

Brett recently wrote about biomass stoves and furnaces, and before that Scott weighed in on the pros and cons of pellet stoves. So I thought I’d provide a little background on the fossil fuel that preceded these newfangled methods of heating your home.

Coal Heating: When Was It Common?

When inspecting old buildings, there’s often some evidence that it was heated with coal at one time. Even really old buildings, originally heated with wood, may have had a central coal heating retrofit. Old wood burning fireplaces may have been blocked off and coal stoves had been piped into the old chimney flues. Some buildings still have their original coal fired boiler or furnace, but it has been converted to fuel oil or gas. In many 19th century homes, an old abandoned chimney used to serve a coal cooking range in the original kitchen. Many basements still have their coal bin.

Coal Boiler

Coal Boiler

I like to point out these clues to an earlier time but then I’m frequently asked during what time period was the house heated with coal. I then have to politely point out that I wasn’t around back then.

I’m the old-house inspector, not the old house-inspector.

As a collector of old books I get to read about building materials and methods, and have a pretty good idea when coal-fired heating equipment became available. This doesn’t necessarily correspond with when coal as a fuel became readily available to a specific area. In colonial America, wood was certainly abundant and to some degree, considered a waste product. In fact, I once read that black walnut was undesirable and used for things like temporary fencing. Until a region became deforested, like many areas of Europe, wood would remain the fuel for heating.

As early as 1748, there was a coal mine near Richmond, VA, but the coal would likely only have been used very locally until the transportation industry developed. By the 1820s, coal was being shipped regularly from Europe to some major coastal American cities, but the cost for overseas transport likely limited the use to only large buildings or homes of the most wealthy. Numerous canals were created by the 1840s, enabling America’s land-locked coal industries the ability to distribute this fossil fuels to many ports, cities, and towns. Horse powered wagons could then provide the local delivery from coal yards to all but the most remote rural homes.

The second half of the 19th century and into the first quarter of the 20th saw coal as the most abundant fuel most widely used–not only for heating but for powering most industrial processes.  The First World War created major shortages of coal and its use peaked right before 1920. By the mid 1930s, fuel oil burners finally became safe and reliable. By the beginning of the building boom right after the Second World War, coal for heating was seen as old technology.

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  1. 19 Responses  to “The History of Coal Heating”

  2. Aug 30, 2013
    Is it possible that you could share with us the sources in which you found this information? I'm an historical archaeologist and am currently analyzing material from Saginaw, Michigan. I find a scattering of coal, and cinders seems to have been the material of choice for underneath sidewalks. The area I'm working in was a "good" neighborhood probably until post-WWII suburban sprawl, and I suspect the homes may have updated to oil early on. It would be useful, though, to know the sources you used. Thanks!
  3. M Collett
    Jun 8, 2013
    When I was a girl we had our coal delivered and there were small pieces of metal in it. We called them dimes but they were somewhat larger. Does anyone know why they were in the coal? We sure got dirty looking for them. Thank you.
  4. GMGary
    Feb 3, 2013
    "Carole King", I don't know if you've received an answer to your question, but here is what I know. Back in the 60s, my Stepdad's mother lived in West Haven, CT, in a house that was built in the late 1800s. She had a coal furnace that had to be stoked (loaded with shovels of coal) at least a couple of times a day to keep it going. So this little old lady had to go down to the cellar twice a day, early morning and last thing before bed at night, and open the black monster's door and shovel in some coal from the bin alongside. In 1968, she finally got an oil furnace, and no more shoveling or stoking. But you had to keep the coal furnace running constantly to keep it running reasonably well---it took too much fuel (wasteful amount) to get it going if you let it go out, and it was not just for heating but also for hot water, so it had to be kept running all year long until it was replaced with the oil furnace.
  5. Carole King
    Oct 20, 2012
    I am writing a history of my parents who had a home in the 1930s. In an interview I did, their nephew said they had a coal burning furnace that had to be stoked.Now years later I'm wondering what that meant. What does it mean--"TO BE STOKED?"
  6. Sandi
    Aug 29, 2011
    I live in an old coal mining town, Carbonado, WA. My basement has an old coal furnace and I love it! My husband would get coal from a few towns over and we have a "window" that opens up from the basement and we would shovel the coal from the truck to the house. We stopped using the coal when we found out that we could burn wood in it as well. It's got vents throughout the house so the mess stays in the basement while the entire 3 story house stays warm! We're thinking about getting rid of it since it's rather large but I love having a bit of history in my home!
  7. Horst Eineman
    Aug 29, 2011
    MR Murphy-You are wrong sir!! Coal is not a novelty-coal still lights your lights and cleans your drinking water-anthracite coal is used in big and small water filters world wide!! People like you have nary a clue as to how much coal makes the world go round!! Because of all the Nuclear red tape from the NRC-nuclear doesn't account for as much generating power as coal. I heat my home with anthracite-you can't even tell that im burning because my chimney doesn't smoke. Bituminous coal is why there is such a backlash against coal in this country. Bituminous coal is indeed very dirty stuff. Anthracite is clean and burns extremely hot. All US powerplants are set up to burn the dirty stuff because it costs less and is easier to pulverize into dust. All Us coal plants are of the atomizing type-You didn't think that there were still men shoveling coal to make the lights work did you? Coal makes sure that the tools you use and the car you drive is made of steel-thats right coal is used to make coke which is in turn used to make steel. With out coal our economy would crash and we would be thrust back 150 years to before steel was a common product and everything was IRON and steel was extremely expensive. So ban coal usage if you must but be warned that your entire existance is based on coal. Im going to burn coal until there ain't anymore coal to burn. Oh and i like burning coal because my stove don't require electricity or gas which becomes unavailable if the USA were to collapse!!!!
  8. Aug 29, 2011
    you should really put a picture of a really really old coal burner on this history of coal heating blog things thanks that would really help i am awesome
  9. Avis Rector
    Aug 29, 2011
    Hi! I'm writing a story and need to know if homes, in the 1920's in small towns in Michigan, would have used coal for heat or maybe, wood? I will appreciate any thoughts yuo may have on this subject. Thank You! Avis Rector Can you tell me if it is logical
  10. dennis h
    Aug 29, 2011
    coal saved me a whole lot of money this year heating my home, hard coal burns clean and is much less expensive than gas or oil .get yourself a good hand fired harmon coal stove sit back and count money saved
  11. Aug 29, 2011
    After working with geothermal systems it really seems like the stoneage when you talk about a coal system.