Home Life in Nelson: The Heating of the House

Rev. Edwin Noah Hardy (1861-1950)
Transcribed and edited by Roberta Wingerson

The leaves have fallen, the days are getting shorter, and the smell of wood smoke brings nostalgic thoughts of the past; but most of us just turn on the furnace when days really get cold. What was it like before this convenient way of heating? This edited selection below from the manuscript “Home Life in Nelson” was written by the Rev. Edwin Noah Hardy (1861-1950). He recalls the period when fireplaces alone saw the family through the cold winter months. 

The Heating of the House

The heart of the old Nelson home was the hearth-stone [fireplace]. The past century has wrought wonderful and revolutionary changes in the heating and lighting of the house, but much of the indescribable charm of the colonial home has disappeared with the changes. The increase in comfort has been secured at the cost of what made the old-time home unique.

It is assumed that every reader knows that the old fireplace until comparatively recent times was the only way of heating the house. At the outset, it must be acknowledged that as a mode of heating it was never a success. The draft made the more remote parts of the house unduly cold while those near the fire were uncomfortably hot, but our forefathers had no better means of heating. With the abundance of wood and the cheapness of labor, the fireplace served its purpose well.

The earliest homes had only one fireplace, but it was sufficiently large to meet all the demands on it – big enough to take the huge back-log that was so large often the horse or ox was needed to draw it to the door. It was so deep and so high that a ten-year-old child could stand up inside it and clearly see the blue sky through the great chimney. This fireplace with the brick oven furnished the only means of heating and cooking as some residents still living remember from their childhood.

With the huge chimney, often ten feet square at the base and passing up through the house, it was comparatively easy to construct several fireplaces. In some of the better houses dating back a century, there were from three to six fireplaces adding materially to the comfort of the household. Even in those houses there would be a large kitchen fireplace. In the majority of houses, however, the chambers were unheated and often unplastered, with the building so clumsily built that in winter snow would sift in through the cracks.

For the use of guests, though rarely for the family, there was the warming pan. It was a circular metal pan, usually of copper or brass and often beautifully ornamented, with a cover and long wooden handle. It stood in the place of honor by the fireside.  When filled with live coals from the hearth, it was rapidly moved from side to side to warm the bed but not scorch the linen adding much to the sleeper’s comfort.

It is a standing wonder that Yankee ingenuity was so slow in inventing stoves.  The Dutch oven suggested the cooking stove and the wasted heat in the old fireplace suggested the Franklin stove, the air-tight stove and other improvements in heating. In the course of evolution has come the central heating plant of the whole house. In lieu of wood, once so abundant and now growing ever more expensive, has come the use of coal, gas, and electricity rapidly being substituted even in the rural areas. All these improvements have been crowded into the late 1800s for before 1850, the use of anything but the fireplace, the Dutch oven, and the tin or brick oven was exceedingly rare in the old Nelson home.

Indispensable to the use of the fireplace was the friction match, an even later invention than the cooking stove. They were not made until 1836 from wooden splints laboriously whittled out by hand. In 1842 a splint-cutting machine was invented, but supply could hardly keep up with demand resulting in a costly product. The author has some of the first matches made, called “spunks” and also a box of Lucifers, super-chlorate-tipped matches made after 1850. They were three inches long and black-tipped.  The match was lit by drawing it between a fold of sandpaper supplied with each box.

Before the invention of matches, the Nelsonian was obliged to use other means of lighting his fire or candle. Under such conditions, the greatest care was exercised to cover the house fire at night so it never was allowed to go quite out. If it did, it became necessary to journey to the nearest neighbor’s house for coals or to use the tinder box.  This was a covered oval-shaped tin or iron box about four inches in diameter and one inch in height containing a steel, flints, and tinder made from scorched linen. The adroit use of the flint on the steel would cause a spark which fell on the tinder, where with great patience could be blown into a flame. Imagine the difficulty in kindling a fire or lighting a candle in case of an emergency!