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The Domestic Revolution

The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything by Ruth Goodman

In London, they were using coal for heating and cook during the Elizabethean era. It appears to have started then, too, and been very quick; a Star Chamber proceeding calmly states that "sea coal" (coal brought by sea) is the ordinary fuel of everyone. And it spread throughout the land. It had a lot of consequences.

This opens with two chapters discussing the prior fuels. One about peat and the art of digging it and firing it, dung with the problem that you could not use it for fertilizer at the same time (along with the beasts' higher-fiber diet making it more feasible), thistles that you had to weigh down first to avoid the hollow center that would act like a chimney.

One about wood, and coppicing, and how fireboxes exactly matched the legal prescriptions for selling firewood.

And then -- off into coal. And dealing with it. Such as smoke. Chimneys were innovations at a standard part of the house -- they drew off a lot of heat, but they made it possible to have upper floors, which you couldn't do if the roof area was filled with smoke. (You could guess whether a home had a chimney based on the furniture -- low to avoid the smoke, or high to avoid the inevitable draught induced by the chimney.) But coal accelerated this because of the noxious smoke.

Many innovations in iron to make pots and other fire tools that could stand up to that smoke. (You really needed a grate to burn coal.) They were to be of later importance in the Industrial Revolution.

The vast changes to cooking. Including the invention of "perpetual ovens" -- ovens where the heat source was applied to the oven while baking, as opposed to building a fire, letting it burn out, and using the residual heat to bake -- and then "integral ovens" -- built into the grate. The fall of thick dishes that needed to be stirred. The change from roasting to baking meat. Baking not bread but pastries and cakes. The attempt to export cooking. This did not affect the United States so much because it was chiefly settled from the regions still burning wood, but trying to cook British cooking on wood fires was as much a problem as the reverse.

And then into cleaning. Big problem. The first and more obvious is that coal smuts are much more sticky than woodsmoke. The second is that wood ash was a common cleansing material, and now you had to buy if you wanted it. Soap rose instead. It affected cleaning your dishes, your home, and your clothes. (And may have affected the rise of pottery.)

Lots of stuff.
Tags: author: g, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history
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