By now it’s a familiar chorus: American dependence on fossil fuels is linked to pollution, climate change, and uncomfortable alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia. Despite that, change has been slow. Last year, less than 10 percent of the energy consumed in the country came from a renewable source like solar or wind.
What does it take to shift something as big as a nation’s energy habits? It sounds like an unprecedented challenge. In fact, though, this isn’t the first time Americans have embarked on an energy revolution. In the 19th century, the nation essentially switched its entire domestic heating infrastructure, moving from open wood fireplaces to coal-fueled stoves.
As the weather turns cold, it might seem surprising to think of your own humble radiators or fireplaces as sites of a massive societal transformation. But they were: Driven by comfort and convenience, Americans moved away from a renewable energy source. As they did, the change had huge effects on technology, infrastructure, and the economy. Industries grew and declined around it.
Today, historians are looking closely at the period and arguing that it has implications i mportant for us now. “America’s first fossil-fuel addiction occurs in the 19th century, and it’s from heating homes,” said Sean Patrick Adams, a historian whose book “Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the 19th Century” was published earlier this year. “Fossil fuel addiction occurs at that personal level.”
What convinced Americans in the 19th century to disrupt a habit largely unchanged for thousands of years? The answers might seem discouraging for renewable-energy advocates today, who are hoping to drive a change without the pressures in play back then. In this case, they’re trying to get homeowners to switch from a system that is already relatively cheap and easy, rather than difficult and inefficient. And modern households are reliant on a power grid that may not give people much choice about the source of their energy.
But examining how Americans developed an appetite for fossil fuels offers some useful lessons: for one thing, just how long and complex this kind of transition is. It’s also a story that reminds us that, ultimately, individual consumers sit in the driver’s seat. As we contemplate adopting solar panels, biomass systems, and other investments on both individual and collective scales, it’s worth considering how simple home decisions can change not just a household, but the world.
Trees are so renewable, and wood fires so cozy, you might almost wonder why people would give them up. But relying on an open hearth for heat and cooking was a brutal way to live. “A fireplace is just not very efficient, it is very dangerous, and it is a lot of work,” said Susan Strasser, a professor emerita at the University of Delaware who has written about the history of American housework. In the winter, open hearths barely provided more than a few feet of decent warmth, while most of the heat escaped up the chimney. Water, ink, even brandy were known to freeze indoors.
Wood was an abundant fuel supply in rural areas, but it posed problems. Chopping and hauling were always laborious, and in cities, wood shortages were common during bad winters and wars. Boston was especially vulnerable because of its location on a peninsula; in the winter of 1775-76, citizens tore down John Winthrop’s old home for firewood, and later burned horse dung to survive. In New York a few years later, desperate Manhattanites chopped down ornamental trees.
Then, in the early 19th century, both a new technology and a new fuel supply became available to cities like Boston and Philadelphia. A resource with vast reserves in Pennsylvania and other parts of the United States, coal is less cumbersome than wood, and it was known to burn longer and hotter. For urbanites especially, it was objectively an improvement: It burned best in a free-standing stove, which disseminated heat through a room much more effectively than a fast-burning open hearth. (Later technology meant it could also be pumped through the house via a furnace.) In the early 19th century, improving manufacturing and transportation infrastructures began to make both stoves and coal more accessible.
Given all these advantages, you might assume that Americans would have flocked to coal immediately. But here lies the first lesson of the last great American energy transition: Habits are sticky. In practice, the change took decades, with many resisting on grounds of health and aesthetics, not to mention cost and unfamiliarity.
Adopting coal meant a daunting initial investment in new technology. Free-standing stoves were costly and large, at a time before Americans were accustomed to buying big appliances. “Stoves [were] the first American consumer durable in that string of big purchases like refrigerators and automobiles,” Adams said. They were unfamiliar, too; women and their servants had to learn whole new methods for maintenance and cooking.
Some also had a romantic attachment to open fires. John Adams turned up his nose at “the Heat, the want of fresh Air” of a stove-heated home in 1777, and upper-class disdain for overheating persisted well in the 19th century. In novels including Henry James’s “The Bostonians,” overheated homes were associated with the nouveau riche. Medical experts claimed too much heat was unhealthful, and sentimental types preferred the aesthetics of an open flame. Henry David Thoreau mourned the fact that a stove made cooking “no longer a poetic, but a chemic process....The stove not only took up room and scented the house, but it concealed the fire, and I felt as if I had lost a companion,” he wrote in “Walden.” “You can always see a face in the fire.”
Critics had more practical concerns, too. Rock-hard anthracite coal was difficult to light and didn’t respond to stoking like wood did. When one Philadelphian sold several tons of the stuff to his city’s waterworks in 1806, the coal was so resistant to lighting that it was ultimately used as gravel. “It wasn’t clear to many people that coal was actually superior,” said Christopher Jones, a historian at Arizona State University who has studied energy transitions in the 19th century. “There were long periods of resistance.”
Their objections sound familiar in the 21st century: The new technology was too expensive, too confusing, too ugly. But over the course of the 19th century, Americans changed their minds. By 1850, nine in 10 homes in the north were equipped with stoves. Between 1870 and 1900, America’s energy consumption shifted from 70 percent wood to 70 percent coal, with some areas transitioning decades earlier.
Beneath the shift lay a combination of government investment and free-market innovation. In the 1820s and ’30s, a publicly funded “canal boom” made iron and coal much easier to transport. The growth of railroads—largely privately funded, but subsidized by public land grants—also helped.
Around that public infrastructure grew a complex private market. The rise of coal depended on a network of manufacturers, inventors, dealers, philanthropic organizations, retailers, and boosters who sprang up not just meet demand, but to create it. Technology developed fast; by 1835, one in 10 American patents related to stoves, and customers were being actively groomed to join the revolution. In Philadelphia, one mining magnate had his wife maintain an anthracite fire in their home at all times for potential clients to peruse. Coal companies sponsored demonstrations in high-end hotels to attract customers and investors.
This suggests another lesson: An energy revolution may ultimately require not just pure public spirit nor pure profit motive to succeed, but both working together. Jones says there was often an element of civic pride in early coal promotions, reminiscent of how some users of solar panels see themselves as part of a larger mission. “The people who develop this really feel they’re doing something good for the nation,” he said. “They want to make money—they don’t pretend they don’t—but they very much see what they’re doing as in the interests of their fellow citizens.”
That kind of mass momentum, experts say, is what’s not quite here yet for renewable technology today. In the 19th century, as boosters converted a few early adopters, they in turn influenced their neighbors, leading to a cycle of positive feedback. “As the technology gets more reliable, people will simply see that a lot of their neighbors have it, it’s working, it hasn’t caused problems,” said Jones, the author of the 2014 book “Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America.” “It’s about developing familiarity.”
When it comes to clean-power sources, many similar factors are at work: Solar panels are currently very expensive, and not practical for many homes; a wind turbine even more so. But when the incentives align through a combination of public nudges, private investment, technological breakthroughs, and market momentum, formerly steep costs become manageable. And peer pressure still works. A recent paper published in the Journal of Economic Geography suggested a “neighbor effect” has influenced the spread of rooftop solar panels in Connecticut in the last few years: When one household installs solar panels, it increases the odds that its neighbors will, too.
For advocates of renewable energy, one of the most important lessons may be patience. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” Adams said. “There are going to be a lot of false starts, and there are going to be a lot of things we think will happen that don’t end up happening.” At one point, he added, many people assumed steam heat would be the next big revolution in home heating. That never panned out. But the way Americans powered their homes did, in the end, change dramatically—and that suggests it could change again.
Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.
Correction: Christopher Jones is a historian at Arizona State University, not the University of Arizona as stated in an earlier version of this story.