This entry deals with the wintertime cold and the summertime heat as experienced by those of us now of the “older generation.”
Those of the modern day have no concept of the lack of heating and cooling in houses of yesteryear.
First, I shall deal with the aspects in homes of the early 20th century — from the earliest of the century until about 1950 and, in some areas, much later.
Most homes of the early 1900s were wooden structures, some were quite large and others much smaller. There was no insulation in the walls or ceilings, thus allowing whatever heat had been provided in the rooms to rather freely escape. Even storm windows and doors were not to be found in many homes.
How were houses of those days heated? Usually by fireplaces or by wood or coal burning stoves.
The fireplace was typically a stone or brick opening near the base of the chimney. The chimney was usually built of bricks and rested on a solid foundation underneath the house. The fireplace was an open space in the chimney facing the room or rooms to be heated. Fuel was either coal or wood.
The wood burning fireplace was not supplemental to other heat, as is the case today. It was the only source of heat for a large room and perhaps even more. Wood was cut into about 18-inch to 2-foot lengths and burned in the fireplace. The heat radiated out into the room, which meant the farther from the fireplace one was the colder the room was. In the evenings families would gather around the fireplace for whatever activities went on.
Building a wood fire is somewhat of an art in itself. The ashes from the previous fire would need to be removed along with some possible remaining embers. These would be placed in a metal bucket and taken outside for safe disposal. Next, one would put some small pieces of wood in place, possibly over some folded newspaper. These small pieces are commonly called “kindling.” Andirons are metal devices that hold the wood in place. The fire would be started with a match, never with gasoline or other highly flammable substances.
Soon, if all went well, a roaring fire was in the fireplace. Good fires could fairly well heat an ordinary-sized room. From time to time, more wood would be added to keep the fire going. At bedtime more wood would be needed to keep the fire going. As bedtime approached, one of the adults — usually the father — would place a rather large log on the fire. When it caught “afire,” it would be placed at the back of the fire and covered with ashes. It served as a “backlog” and remained there overnight. If all had gone well, the next morning the backlog had become embers and would serve to start the fire for the next day.
The coal-burning grates were also a means of heating. Coal was bought in fall and placed under a shelter commonly called the “coal house.” It would be brought into the house in what was known as a “coal scuttle.”
The coal grate was also located in a chimney, built as described. Instead of an open fireplace, there was a place called a “grate” in it. The grate was simply an iron frame, usually flush with the front of the fireplace. In it one would build a fire, usually started with some small pieces of wood as above. Once the kindling was burning, possibly other somewhat larger pieces of wood would be added. Then, the coal would be placed on the fire and would burn, producing heat. Coal makes good heat, but the grate was usually so small that it did not produce enough heat for a larger room.
The ashes from the fire would drop down under the grate and would be shoveled out and disposed of as needed. Coal fires were often hard to keep overnight, so often had to be started afresh in the morning.
Rooms away from the fireplace or coal grate simply did not have heat. Bedrooms were often not heated and were very cold. One would get into a cold bed — and sheets can be extremely cold — and shiver and shake until body heat finally got them warmed. That was why one welcomed someone else sharing the bed with them — two bodies made more heat than one! Blankets were often used instead of sheets, for they tended to not feel as cold as did sheets.
Now, let’s look at the sources of fuel for those fires. Wood was largely provided from the forests on or near most farms of the day. Trees would be cut in the summer or fall and used for the wood supply. This had to be chopped with an axe or cut up with a saw.
As a youth, it was my job to see there was enough wood on the porch for at least a two-day supply for the fireplace. That meant cutting it up into fireplace length with a saw or axe. Since I was the only one to do it, the cutting was often done with a “one-man” saw, a larger saw that would cut through a log. It took a lot of going back and forth to cut through a sizeable log. It was great when there was someone to help. Then we used a “cross-cut” — or two person saw. Someone on the other end of the saw helped a great deal.
How well I remember when, around the late 1930s, my grandfather and uncles got a round-bladed gasoline-powered saw that could cut up a whole winter’s supply of wood in one day. It was wonderful to see that woodpile grow and grow, knowing that each log was one I would not have to cut with an old one-man saw.
Of course, it still had to be brought to the porch by wheelbarrow. That was no big job and could be done rather quickly. I always saw that there was enough wood on the porch after that.
Somewhere along in the late ’30s they came out with what was called a “warm morning heater.” It was a big round stove that connected to the fireplace via a pipe and sat in front of the fireplace. It would burn either wood or coal and put out the best heat we had ever known. That thing would heat more than one room, so we had grills put in the ceiling to the bedroom above. For those days, that was a modern way of heating.
A few people in the 1930s and even ’40s could afford a furnace. The furnace was located under the house in the basement — if the house had one. It had pipes going to vents in the various rooms of the house. These were called “heat ducts.” The furnace usually was coal-burning, through possibly some used wood. This was the predecessor of modern central heating.
What about schools and churches and other larger buildings? Heat was usually provided by stoves. These were either wood- or coal-burning large, “pot-bellied” stoves that sat in the middle of the room or church. Stove-pipes led from the stove to a wall chimney, often criss-crossing the room above the heads of everyone. It was often the minister or principal’s job to arrive early, build the fire, and have it going when the congregation or students arrived. It was not too unusual for a church or a school to burn because of a defective flue. My old home church at Walker’s burned in 1932 because of a defective flue.
Now, let’s touch on cooling in the summer. Central air conditioning, even window air conditioners, did not come about until early 1950s. Until then there was no real means of cooling a house or church. Schools usually closed during the summer months.
Mostly, people endured the heat. Large trees were found around most country homes. These provided shade, which helped some, and some houses had wraparound porches for more shade. Windows were open and had screens to keep the bugs out. If there was a nice breeze those windows helped a great deal. Not so if it was calm outside.
Handheld fans were widely used in larger facilities. These were often provided to churches by funeral homes and other businesses as a means of advertisement or as a courtesy. People would sit and fan briskly while the preacher preached! Electric fans came about after World War ll and were common in larger facilities and in homes.
Can you imagine going back to those days of cold houses and fireplaces? Or going back to hot houses, especially hot kitchens? Have we made progress since those days? What a difference!
About the author
Alexander W. Delk, who turned 90 this weekend, has provided a 10-part series of articles of life as he remembers it from the 1920s and 1930s.
He said the purpose is “to reminisce for the older generation and to enlighten the younger generation of how people in rural America lived in those times of yesteryear.”
Delk was born on July 19, 1922. He was born in Davidson County, about 15 miles north of Nashville, in the town of Goodlettsville. He grew up in Union Hill community.
His father died of injuries sustained in World War I two months prior to his birth. His mother remarried when he was 6. Delk was largely raised by his grandparents.
He attended rural school in Union Hill and graduate from Goodlettsville High School in 1940.
He has a bachelor of arts degree from Scarritt College in Nashville, a master’s degree in religion from Vanderbilt University and a master’s degree in education from the University of Tennessee.
He taught for 56 years. He was a member of the Lee College faculty form 1954 to 1960, then spent 30 years in education in Illinois.
The past 21 years he has served as an adjunct professor at Cleveland State Community College. He taught public speaking.
He was married to the late Faye Treadwell Delk for 58 years. He is the father of four, grandfather of six and great-grandfather of nine.
He is active in Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church and South Cleveland Church of God.