When Coal First Arrived, Americans Said ‘No Thanks’
Back in the 19th century, coal was the nation’s newfangled fuel source—and it faced the same resistance as wind and solar today
Steven Preister’s house in Washington, D.C. is a piece of American history, a gorgeous 110-year-old colonial with wooden columns and a front porch, perfect for relaxing in the summer. But Preister, who has owned it for almost four decades, is deeply concerned about the environment, so in 2014 he added something very modern: solar panels. First, he mounted panels on the back of the house, and they worked nicely. Then he decided to add more on the front, facing the street, and applied to the city for a permit.
Permission denied. Washington’s Historic Preservation Review Board ruled that front-facing panels would ruin the house’s historic appearance: “I applaud your greenness,” Chris Landis, an architect and board member, told Preister at a meeting in October 2019, “but I just have this vision of a row of houses with solar panels on the front of them and it just—it upsets me.” Some of Preister’s neighbors were equally dismayed and vowed to stop him. “There were two women on my front porch snapping pictures of my house and declaring, ‘You’ll never get solar panels on this house!’” Preister says.
Renewable energy is at a curious crossroads. It’s needed to avert further climate damage, and solar and wind power are now remarkably cheap. But even clean-energy proponents often dislike the aesthetics of the new technology. They’re happy for solar arrays and windmills to exist somewhere—just not within sight. Many homeowners’ associations refuse to let residents install panels.
This is the great new shift we’re facing. For decades, gas- and coal-fired plants were tucked far away from view. But now, power generation is visible all over. “There’s really no other energy source that people have that personal relationship with,” says Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.
Yet this struggle has a long history. Ironically, coal itself faced a similar pushback in the early 19th century, when it was the newfangled power source that promised to solve many of the country’s problems.
Until the early 1800s, Americans burned very little coal. The country was thickly forested, and wood was cheap. Most houses had one or more wood fireplaces. The country didn’t have many factories that required serious energy, and coal was a niche fuel used, for example, by blacksmiths who needed high heat for their work.
But as cities grew rapidly and demanded ever more fuel, choppers quickly deforested surrounding areas. Firewood became scarce and expensive. By 1744, Benjamin Franklin was bemoaning the plight of his fellow Philadelphians: “Wood, our common Fewel, which within these 100 Years might be had at every Man’s Door, must now be fetch’d near 100 Miles to some towns, and makes a very considerable Article in the Expence of Families,” he wrote. Johann David Schoepf, a German physician and botanist who traveled through America during and after the Revolutionary War, fretted that all this wood-burning would not “leave for [American] grandchildren a bit of wood over which to hang the tea-kettle.”
Part of the problem was that a fireplace was a profligate way to heat a house, since so much heat vanished up the chimney. “A lot of the open-hearth wood fires were just insanely inefficient,” says Christopher Jones, a historian at Arizona State University who studies early American power-generation.
America was sitting right atop the answer to this fuel crisis, in the form of massive piles of coal, particularly Pennsylvania’s lodes of anthracite, a dense, rocklike form of the stuff. Anthracite was ideal for burning in houses, because it didn’t produce as much smoke as “soft” bituminous coal. No longer simply the provenance of blacksmiths, coal became a hot commodity, and mining ramped up: Companies began increasingly ambitious anthracite digs, then began building canals and railroads to distribute the fuel to the East and South.
But convincing Americans to use the new fuel proved tricky. In the years before massive factories, the main consumers of power were households; “homes were the beachhead market” for coal, Jones says. House by house, coal merchants had to persuade Americans to shift over from wood.
One obstacle was technological: Burning coal required metal ovens, which were still expensive and rare. But a more complex barrier was cultural: Many people hated the aesthetics of stoves because they were enclosed, and you couldn’t see the flames within as you could in a traditional fireplace. In articles and speeches, prominent citizens protested, denouncing stoves as, essentially, un-American.
In an 1864 essay, Harriet Beecher Stowe fulminated: “Would our Revolutionary fathers have gone barefooted and bleeding over snows to defend air-tight stoves and cooking-ranges? I trow [believe] not.” In his 1843 short story Fire Worship, Nathaniel Hawthorne argued that gathering before a flickering hearth was crucial to bringing families and citizens together.
“Social intercourse cannot long continue what it has been, now that we have subtracted from it so important…an element as firelight,” Hawthorne fretted. “While a man was true to the fireside, so long would he be true to country and law.”
The cultural arguments piled up. Food cooked in stoves was baked, not broiled, and that, too, offended American tastes. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson Downing, an early landscape architect, argued in 1850 that stoves were “secret poisoners,” worse than “slavery…tobacco, [or] patent medicines.”
“People were blaming coal-fired stoves for impaired vision, impaired nerves, baldness and tooth decay,” says Barbara Freese, author of Coal: A Human History. It certainly smelled less pleasant than wood. Further, coal—particularly soft coal—produces soot, which choked some towns with dangerous particulates.
Apart from the cultural backlash, coal was a pain to light. Anthracite stoves often required multiple attempts to start the flame and demanded constant fiddling with a poker. An 1827 guide for servants devoted 15 full pages to the black art. One period analysis found the new stoves added an hour of work to a housewife’s chores.
The mining and railroad industriesset out on a marketing binge. They hosted demonstrations at hotels, inviting curious locals to marvel at how much heat a coal stove could generate. Certain wealthy elites behaved like Instagram influencers, evangelizing for anthracite and creating a romantic sense of coal as “the fuel of the fashionable,” says Sean Adams, a professor of history at the University of Florida and author of Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the 19th Century. The wealthy were often investors in mines and railroads too, so they had a vested interest in making coal take off.
In an 1825 letter promoting coal, Mathew Carey, a Philadelphia publisher, boasted that it kept his room a toasty 60 degrees Fahrenheit during chilly months. “My feet used to be cold almost always at night, in winter,” he wrote. “Since I have used this coal those grievances are removed entirely.”
Governments also helped: State officials conducted surveys to identify the yield of coal fields, then published the findings to inspire confidence in investors. To make fuel and stoves more affordable for low-income households, coal interests arranged to buy coal in bulk during the summer, when prices were low, to sell to the poor in the winter, and even lent metal stoves to poorer families.
Gradually, the technology improved, too. By the mid-19th century, new stoves let you simply dump fuel into the top to keep a fire going. And stovemakers lavished attention on the designs of their ranges, with some models becoming almost set pieces. “They’d put busts of George Washington on top of the stove and stuff like that, so that you could have it in your parlor,” Adams says.
By the 1860s, American households were finally—and rapidly—shifting to coal. It was often cheaper than wood; in 1831, for example, Adams estimates that a family would have spent $4.50 on coal in the cold months, while wood would have cost them $21. Still, supply was sometimes a problem. The wealthy had ample funds to buy coal in bulk, so they got better prices than the poor. Local coal-sellers became derided figures among the lower classes, mocked in songs and poems for their alleged greed.
“[Coal merchants] were all over the place in the late 19th century—and everybody hated them,” Adams says.
That didn’t stop coal’s relentless march. By 1885, homes were burning more coal than wood. Particularly in the big cities, the new fuel had won.
These days, the need to transition to renewable energy seems alarmingly clear. Besides contributing to climate change, pollution from coal kills half a million people globally each year. As historians point out, studying early objections to coal can prepare us for road bumps ahead: It shows that transitions to new fuels can be messy and fractious.
“A lot of coal companies went bankrupt in the 19th century; it was an incredibly disorganized industry,” Adams says. “These transitions take a long time and they are sloppy and they’re intermittent.”
What’s more, coal shows the need for further tech breakthroughs to make “new” fuels less of a hassle. With coal, Americans needed improved stoves and railways to transport the fuel; today, we need better ways to store and transport renewable electricity. And cultural fights will continue, as more and more solar panels appear, including the industrial arrays that have taken over fields from Death Valley, California, to Lewiston, New York.
Much like the old coal merchants, today’s renewable industries have a sales job on their hands. Hopper thinks solar proponents need to promote the upsides more persuasively—not just the climate benefits (which most Americans want) but also the prospect of cheaper electricity and the local jobs that come with solar and wind.
Aesthetic objections might soon fade, too. Preister, for one, has found a solution: SolarSkin. Made by a Boston-based firm, it’s a decorative film printed with a photographic pattern of a roof that camouflages the panels underneath. When he proposed this sleek design to the D.C. preservation board, in December 2019, it finally approved his additional array.
These days, he notes, the board is more amenable to the technology on historic houses.