A roaring fire in your fire place, snow falling outside your windows, a cup of coffee (or tea) in your hands, a really good book all while curled up on the couch under a warm blanket. Sounds like a great way to spend a cold winter’s night, am I right? A fire lit in your fireplace in the 21st century is a romanticized version of what it was like to have one in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
So, the first aspect to truly grasp is that wood was not the first choice for many in England. The price of wood was becoming increasingly expensive as deforestation from a larger demand in building both houses and ships was limiting the supply. The whole supply and demand thing. Then, it was not easy for wood to be supplied to remote areas forcing those who did not live in populated areas to cut their own wood, a tedious task, especially after a long day of working most likely in the fields of your farms. Also take into account that most people did not live on their own land and cutting down trees from a landlords property was usually prohibited and would result in punishment of some sort, to the owners discretion of course.
The most logical choice that Georgians came up with? Let’s burn coal! England was rich in coal so it was a much, much cheaper alternative and it was also easily shipped to most everyone. I guess it was better to burn coal than manure, which is what occurred for the poorer folks who could not afford wood before the use of coal rose in its popularity.
It’s not as simple as that though. While in London there was a law against thatched roofing ever since the Great Fire of 1666, housing in every other part of England were still using straw or reed. Imagine the drafts this produced. Couple that with windows that were not properly insulated, as well as all the exterior walls, and this mixture did not provide a very warm environment inside.
And to note: people believed that since the air outside was filled with the most unpleasant smells, that it was better to always keep the windows of your home closed.
Coal burns hot. Very hot. And it smokes at an incredible rate. Now, let’s put coal into a fireplace that was specifically designed for wood and the result is a terrible draft that blows down the chimney which forces the smoke back into the house and lets the heat escape up. Luckily, some chap by the name of Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, invented the Rumford Chimney which was much smaller allowing less heat to escape. While these fireplaces were being created for homes by 1796, they were expensive and homes of those who could not afford to rebuild existing fireplaces needed to suffer with the drafts.
Did I mention that coal burns extremely hot? It was not uncommon for members of a family to gather around a fire, and the colder it is outside, the closer you scoot to the warmth. Great idea except for the current women’s fashion. While women wore less cumbersome clothing in Regency England, it was still a multiple layer ordeal. This meant that embers would fly from the fire had the potential of landing on the clothing of one of these women and since the clothing was not easy to take off, the woman would burn to death. Remember, water in homes was still not commonplace so putting out fires was not easy. Many women suffered death by fireplace, it was a reality that needed to be faced head-on.
Let’s get back to the fact that coal-smoke filled rooms were a normal occurrence. Breathing in coal dust has been proven to be fatal overtime, so the smoke from burning coal must have had long-term side effects, possibly even short term. The more that was burned, the more smoke would be created, and unfortunately for those living in England during the 1790s, it was a particularly cold time. Homes inside would reach below freezing temperatures, so bad that the contents of chamber pots would freeze within minutes. Sure homes were great protectors of the wind but not the cold, not in the 1790s. It was even worse for those who could not afford to buy enough coal to heat their homes all day or even every day, the cold would have been your worst enemy.
I wish I had better news, I wish that the romanticized version of our 21st century fireplaces was something that every person throughout history would have enjoyed but it is just simply not true.