JANE: So, Alan, last week I promised you a story tie-in to our discussion on coal. Here it is…
Some years ago, my friend Paul gave me a set of cassette tapes featuring The Shadow radio dramas, starring Orson Welles in the title role. The company that produced these tapes included the commercials for the show’s sponsor as well.
This was a good choice. Somehow, hearing a deep-voiced male enthusiastically touting “Blue Coal, the finest Pennsylvania anthracite,” placed the stories in a historical context and added verisimilitude to the experience.
ALAN: Was it really blue? I always think of coal as being black.
JANE: Apparently, it was tinted somehow, because the commercials stress this, saying things like (I paraphrase) “You’ll know it by its distinctive blue color.”
Did the English get into coloring coal or stressing specific brands?
ALAN: We didn’t colour it, but there were certainly specific types of coal that you could buy. Anthracite was the best and the most expensive. It burned well and gave off a lot of heat. The cheapest, right at the bottom of the scale, was nutty slack, which was really just coal dust with small lumps of rubbishy coal in it.
JANE: “Nutty slack” is a great term… I like it.
ALAN: But coal has another literary connection – have you ever read The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley?
JANE: I have, indeed. In my opinion, it’s a rather brutal book.
ALAN: In retrospect, I think that’s true. But as a small child, I rather enjoyed it. The story concerns a boy called Tom who works for a chimney sweep. One day the sweep sends him up the chimney and he somehow falls out into a river where he is transformed into a water baby and has lots of adventures. I was mightily impressed by the story and next time we had our chimney swept I volunteered to be sent up it to clean out the hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. The chimney sweep looked puzzled and rejected my offer. I was very disappointed.
JANE: I’m sure you were. I remember how Michael Banks was very eager to assist the chimney sweep in one of the Mary Poppins novels. Hmm… That’s another literary connection. I bet they were using coal fires, too. If it was mentioned, I probably glossed over it an assumed a wood fire. We do bring our own lives to the books we read.
I’ve had the chimney at my house swept a time or two, but I admit, I felt no desire to participate.
ALAN: I always found it quite exciting. The chimney sweep would come round every six months or so. I would watch him in total fascination. He would wedge his brush a short way up the chimney. Then he’d drape sheets around the fireplace to stop the soot covering everything in the room. The handle of the brush poked out through the sheet and he would start to push it up the chimney. Every so often, as the handle began to disappear from view, he’d attach a flexible rod to lengthen the handle so that he could push it further. Eventually the brush would be poking out of the top of the chimney. The sweep would then reverse the process, pulling the brush down and removing the extension rods one by one. Great clouds of soot would billow down from the chimney and (hopefully) be caught in the sheets.
JANE: I don’t recall anything nearly that elaborate when I had my chimney attended to. Goodness!
ALAN: Oh believe me, the elaborate precautions were very necessary. An unbelievably huge amount of soot would come down from the chimney. I shudder to think what the room might have looked like if the sheets weren’t there to catch the soot.
When the chimney sweep was finished, he’d clean up the soot as best he could, refold his sheets and take his brush off to the next job. The sheets were never completely effective and my mother would always have to spend quite some time restoring the room to its pristine glory after the chimney sweep left.
JANE: Ah! That reminds me of another bit of coal-related trivia. Did you know that spring cleaning was directly related to the use of coal (and to a lesser extent, wood) as fuel? By the end of a heating season, the house would be distinctly sooty, so as soon as the weather warmed sufficiently for fires not to be needed, out would come the heavy-cleaning materials.
Now that coal and fires are no longer the primary sources of heat – at least here – spring cleaning is a ritual carried on out of habit, rather than from need. Do you want to guess when – according to statistics based on sales of cleaning products – is now the time of year when most serious housecleaning is done?
ALAN: I don’t know. I’m very lazy and I tend not to do spring cleaning. So tell me, when am I supposed to do it now?
JANE: In late autumn, early winter, in preparation for the holiday season! In other words, a complete reverse from the days of coal.
Given the popularity of steampunk these days, I think it would be useful for me to know more about the practical details of coal use. How does one light a coal fire anyhow? I’d think it would be really hard to get a rock to start burning.
ALAN: Yes, it is. You need quite a high temperature. You have to sneak up on the coal when it’s not looking and take it by surprise. My father had a daily ritual for lighting the fire. He’d begin with single sheets of newspaper. He’d roll each one up into a cylinder then he’d curl it around itself and loop the ends over in a knot to stop it unravelling. He called these paper bundles “firelighters.” He’d put a layer of firelighters in the bottom of the fireplace and lay some sticks of wood over them. Then finally he’d pile a layer of coal on top of the wood.
Once the fireplace was prepared, he’d light a spill – that’s a thin splinter of wood about eight inches long. He’d push the spill into the heart of the fire to start the paper burning. The paper would act like tinder and ignite the wood which in turn would set fire to the coal.
JANE: Did your dad make his own spills, too?
ALAN: No, he didn’t. He just bought them from the shops. They were dyed in multiple colours – blue, green, red and purple. I used to enjoy weaving them together into multicoloured sheets, much to my father’s annoyance. We kept our spills on the mantelpiece in a small wooden barrel with an open top. There was a plaque inset into the barrel which claimed that it was made of wood taken from HMS Warspite.
JANE: That’s cool! Was it an antique?
ALAN: It must have been quite old – I’ve just checked, and the last wooden ship to bear that name was built in 1807 and was finally decommissioned in 1846. My grandparents had an identical barrel, so I suspect that they were probably bought as a pair.
JANE: Seems quite logical. So, did the different color spills burn differently, or were the colors simply ornamental?
ALAN: No, the colours were just there to make them look pretty. Once the fire was well alight, it would burn away merrily all day as long as you remembered to keep feeding it coal.
JANE: Did you keep running out to the shed all day to get more coal?
ALAN: No – spare coal was kept by the fire in a coal scuttle. Ours was a pot-bellied bucket which had three small legs that it sat on. The scuttle would be filled up last thing at night, just before my father went to bed, so that it was ready for the morning.
We used a pair of tongs to pick up pieces of coal from the scuttle and feed them to the fire. We also had a poker which we used to push the coal around in the fireplace so as to make sure that the air could get at it and keep the fire going.
If the coal got too tightly packed or too full of ash, the fire would be starved of oxygen and go out. We also had a dust pan and brush to sweep up any mess we made. We kept all these implements in a huge brass casing from an artillery shell. It was my mother’s pride and joy and she polished it until it gleamed like gold.
JANE: Between the spill container made from a warship and the artillery shell, your fireplace had a distinctly military flare.
Jim and I have a similar set of tools by our wood-burning fireplace. However, they’re on a rack, not in a nifty container like your mom’s. Since we haven’t made a fire for quite a while, most of the time the fireplace tools simply serve as something for the cats to play slap-paw around.
ALAN: Well, now that we’ve got a good fire going, there’s a trend I’ve noticed in modern literary criticism/reviewing that is starting to burn me up. Would you like to talk about it next time?
JANE: You bet… Though I wonder if we can somehow tie it to coal?