Discover more from Life in the 21st Century
The Domestic Revolution
Ruth Gordon's excellent, The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything is a wonderful account of the history and politics of technology. Gordon documents the adoption of burning coal in English homes and its eventual impact on the houses, diet, culture, and economy. The book delves into the details of every day life too often ignored by historians, the daily actions of hundreds of thousands and millions of people combining to become history's greatest shaping forces.
Historically unprecedented, the scope of the last several centuries fossil fuel revolution still remains under appreciated. Previous to this era, Homo sapiens’ and our ancestors’ energy supply was primarily that of the energy pouring from the sky’s great fusion reactor and the resulting energy locked into wood and straw by the process of photosynthesis. It is only in the last two centuries, ancient sun, fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas, in that order—became the dominant energy sources, redefining daily human life.
Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution. Gordon writes about the beginning of the 18th century’s transition from wood to coal fired iron production, “It is the transition from charcoal to coke, that gets industrial historians excited. This is one of the key innovations that sparked the Industrial Revolution.” She adds, “Although they don't generally have cooking pots in mind when they do. Iron was the base metal of the Industrial Revolution, thanks in large part to the domestic adoption of coal-burning and the need for iron pots.”
“A single generation or two of Londoners, living between 1570 and 1600 made the big switch. They surely gave little if any thought to the long-term consequences of this private, household decision. These changes were driven, bit by bit, by the 'hidden people' of history. The voiceless, the unregarded and uncelebrated, they have constituted a vast army of practical, unintentional radicals.”
As a heating and cooking source, coal required changes from wood. Most homes had a simple, open, wood-burning hearth on the floor in the center of the home's main room. Most homes were only one room. The heat would spread from the center, the smoke wafting up and out of the dwelling through a hole or the smoke porous roof. With coal burning, center hearths were replaced by fireplaces located on the wall, chimneys dispelled the noxious coal smoke. Chimneys became increasingly essential as population pressures caused London to start building up with multiple floor buildings.
A quite interesting fact, opposed to established economic promotions of progress, burning coal was less efficient than wood. Gordon writes,
“A fire on the floor in the centre of the room is very heat efficient. All of the energy released by the fire radiates out evenly into the living space. Chimneys, on the other hand, channel around 70 percent of the heat of a fire straight up and out of the building... and creates a cold draw across the floor. It came down to a choice of burning considerably more fuel or accepting a much colder home.”
Initially, coal became the choice of fuel for the poor and working classes. In wealthy homes a split developed with a “pattern continued for decades: coal for the kitchen and servants areas, wood for the spaces occupied by 'more important' household members and their guests.” In 1557, William Harrison's, An Historical Description of the Island of Britain notes “coal was already associated with the poor, the shock to Harrison and his ilk was that this poverty fuel was being adopted by other social classes.”
Coal fires burn differently than wood fires. If you’ve ever tried either, tending such fires for cooking is an art in itself. Cooking on coal caused great changes in methods and dishes. The coal itself needed to be lifted off the ground resulting in the development of varieties of iron grates. Needing to sit much closer to the coals, new pots were developed, including a change from the mostly brass pots of wood fires to iron pots. This development of iron pots and grates in part led to the development of stronger, more malleable, castable iron. “Iron was the base metal of the Industrial Revolution, thanks in large part to the domestic adoption of coal-burning and the need for iron pots.”
This new fuel and associated cooking methods created modern British cuisine. “Roasting, toasting, and baking evolved and gave birth to a host of new traditions. Puddings appeared, as if from nowhere to stand alone as a national pleasure. Pudding was a style of cooking that not only suited coal fires but became much easier over coal.”
Meat roasts, especially beef, became the traditional Sunday meal. “In 1600 a new word enters the kitchen 'range'. Later this term would come to mean a cast iron, coal-fired cooking stove, but at the beginning it referred to the combination of brick, stone and iron that permitted people to roast with coal as their fuel.” Over centuries, with the mass production of iron, the open roasting range would evolve into the closed kitchen ovens and stove tops of today. “Although we like to hang on to the word 'roast' – so much that few people today are fully aware they are sitting down to baked beef and potatoes for their Sunday lunch.”
Gordon concludes on British cuisine,
“A new fuel had driven the development of a whole new way of cooking and a radically different diet. A menu based upon boiling and baking, with a side order of toast, was the cuisine that accompanied industrialization; cause and effect were intricately linked in a fossil burning age. Cooking on coal helped develop the coal industry, and the iron industry too. Innovations within the iron industry permitted ongoing adaptation and experimentation with iron fire equipment.”
Regarding the overall historical changes Gordon writes,
“The lesson at every hearth was the same: burn more coal and life becomes softer, warmer and more predictable and more comfortable. Energy is there for the taking. Having more energy no longer means having less food. In a coal-powered home, the more fuel used, the more modern and convenient your life was.”
That coal defined modernity remains far too little understood. More energy equaled more modernity, or that even greater ill-defined term, more progress. The idea of cheap unlimited energy supplied by the burning of fossil fuels remains fundamental to valuing human life in the 21st century. The greater understanding of increasingly limited supplies, ever more expensively extracted, combined with how mass scale burning impacted and devastated larger ecological systems, remains, still today, largely an after thought.
Gordon astutely concludes,
“The domestic matters. It is the base unit upon which all else is built. The history of the domestic is the history of everything: how ordinary people choose to lead their lives dictates the future of mankind. Politicians come and go, ideologies wax and wane, but the practical details of how you warm your house or do your washing up will, added up with the actions of you neighbours and their neighbours, reach into the longer term. Your heating and washing-up habits don't simply use a few resources or add a touch of pollution. Nor do they merely favour some industries over others. They also create a mindset that will touch future generations and shape their decisions.”
Such understanding is fundamental in creating a politics of technology. Today, the every day actions, not of a hundred thousand Londoners, but the planet's eight billion people are the mass shaping forces of not simply human life, but life on the planet. Yet, this history is pretty much lost and disregarded in an era of even greater and faster technological change.
In the sharpest line of the book, Gordon writes, “When a more convenient technology solution arises, old traditions also vanish, almost without comment.” Convenient is an innately relative term, right up there with efficient. Yet, they have been thrown about as the great shaping forces of modernity, premier value selectors. As each new technology usurps and buries the past, these values lose any historical reference, a most unnatural selection.
All life, all history is contingent. In the last several centuries of technological development this understanding of contingency has been completely disregarded. History provides, even if at best only roughly, a measure and understanding of the complexity of developments bringing us to where we are. Everything, every last thing existing today was contingent on events and determinations of the past. Historical understanding reveals how we've come to be where, the sublime, wonderful, and at times almost unimaginable contingencies. Without history, we have no context to reference the present and future, left only with the increasingly foolish proclamations of self-bestowed, or worse, money selected technological prophets, devoid of any enlightened reference to the long history and incredibly complex environments that formed us. Instead we are led by, just as the first stone ax or the more recent coal-fired range, only the blunt forces of technology.