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. 26 Responses  to “The History of Coal Heating”

  2. Steve
    Nov 24, 2015
    what was used to seal the four sections of a Holland Cole furnace
  3. john
    Oct 5, 2015
    I remember living in Flint Michigan as a little kid in the late 40's. We lived in a little World War II Cape Cod and we had a coal furnace. I remember following my Dad and Mom downstairs and watching them shovel coal from the bin into the furnace. Remember the coal truck delivering the coal, opening the coal door in the foundation, then putting the coal chute from the truck into the door and loading the bin. Remember Dad shoveling out the clinkers. Fond memories.
  4. Jennifer
    Aug 17, 2015
    I've recently bought and moved into a home which still has its coal hole or shoot. The home was listed as built in 1940, but that seems highly unlikely, after referencing this article. I'm now thinking that it was built around 1920. It also has a somewhat crudely built sauna in the "Michigan" basement.
  5. CharInOhio
    Dec 25, 2014
    When I was a child , I am 54 .....my grandparents always had a coal burning stove in their living room, it had a stack of course exiting thru the ceiling. It had a door on it and you put coal inside it to burn. It was monstrous in size, they called it a Stove-A-Matic. They had this for many many years and so did many who lived in the area. This is NOT simply some ancient method of heat,its the only method of heat they ever had that I know of.
  6. Jul 22, 2014
    I have a question. I hope you can help me. I was told a story about a coal furnace in the 1920's. My grandfather was 38 years old and in perfect health. He was the fix-it man of the neighborhood. A neighbor asked him to fix their home coal furnace. He returned from fixing the furnace, said he did not feel well, laid down on the couch and died. They could not determine the cause of death and figured it was his heart. A few years ago I was watching a documentary on coal. I did not put it together at the time, but I remember the information talked about men dying after working on home coal furnaces in the same era as my grandfather. I am hoping you can tell me or direct me to someone who may know, what it exactly was about a broken coal furnace that killed the men who worked on them.
  7. Jul 2, 2014
    Hello I am looking for areas where Cities, Towns and Villages dumped household coal ash, cinders and clinkers? Every Town or City had ash pick up we are looking to recycle this material which means jobs and addition to local economies. If you have any information please contact me rjohnson@nehcorp.com
  8. David
    May 15, 2014
    I have an AFCO (American furnace company coal furnace) I'm looking for any information I can get on it, It's over 100 years old in good condition. Thank You,, David
  9. 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!
  10. 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.
  11. 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.