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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "Fire-Worship," December 1843.

This is one of the best and most famous literary responses to the coming of stove heating.  It was originally published in The United States Magazine and Democratic Review Vol. 13 n.s., No. 66 (New York: J. & H.G. Langley, December 1843), pp. 627-30, and then frequently republished in Hawthorne's collection Mosses from an Old Manse.  There are numerous editions of the latter, but the one used here is the London ed. (Wiley & Putnam, 1846),  Hawthorne had the standard prejudices of his class, community, and time (see also this post) -- in "The Old Manse" he wrote about "the abomination of the air-tight stove" (p. 25) --  but in "Fire-Worship" he articulated them at the greatest length, and with some interesting ambivalence.  The ambivalence is expressed even more clearly in his diary entry for 8 November 1842, shortly after he and his new wife had moved into the Old Manse of the title, in Concord, Massachusetts: "During the last week we have had three stoves put up; and henceforth, no light of a cheerful fire will gladden us at even tide.  Stoves are detestable in every respect, except that they keep us perfectly comfortable." [Emphasis added.] (Nathaniel and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, Ordinary Mysteries: The Common Journal of Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne, 1842-1843, ed. Nicholas R. Lawrence and Marta L Werner, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 256, 2005, p. 145,

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p. 128 IT is a great revolution in social and domestic life -- and no less so in the life of the secluded student -- this almost universal exchange of the open fire-place for the cheerless and ungenial stove. On such a morning as now lowers around our old grey parsonage, I miss the bright face of my ancient friend, who was wont to dance upon the hearth, and play the part of a more familiar sunshine. It is sad to turn from the cloudy sky and sombre landscape -- from yonder hill, with its crown of rusty, black pines, the foliage of which is so dismal in the absence of the sun; that bleak posture land, and the broken surface of the potato field, with the brown clods partly concealed by the snow-fall of last night; the swollen and sluggish river, with ice-encrusted borders, dragging its bluish grey stream along the verge of our orchard, like snake half torpid with the cold -- it is sad to turn from an outward scene of so little comfort, and find the same sullen  influences brooding within the precincts of my study. Where is that brilliant guest -- that quick and subtle spirit whom Prometheus lured from Heaven to civilize mankind, and cheer them in their wintry desolation -- that comfortable inmate, whose smile, during eight months of the year, was our sufficient consolation for summer's lingering advance and early flight? Alas! blindly inhospitable, grudging the wood that kept him cheery and mercurial, we have thrust him into an iron prison, and compel him to moulder away his life on a daily pittance which once //p. 129 we now make our fire in an air-tight stove, and supply it with some half-a-dozen sticks of wood between dawn and nightfall.

l never shall be reconciled to this enormity. Truly may it be said, that the world looks darker for it. In one way or another, here and there, and all around us, the inventions of mankind are fast blotting the picturesque, the poetic, and the beautiful, out of human life. The domestic fire was a type of all these attributes, and seemed to bring might and majesty, and wild Nature, and a spiritual essence, into our inmost home, and yet to dwell with us in such friendliness, that its mysteries and marvels excited no dismay. The same mild companion, that smiled so placidly in our faces, was he that comes roaring out of Etna, and rushes madly up the sky, like a fiend breaking loose from torment, and fighting for a place among the upper angels. He it is, too, that leaps from cloud to cloud amid the crashing thunder-storm. It was he whom the Gheber worshipped, with no unnatural idolatry; and it was he who devoured London and Moscow, and many another famous city, and who loves to riot through our own dark forests, and sweep across our prairies, and to whose ravenous maw, it is said, the universe shall one day be given as a final feast. Meanwhile he is the great artizan and laborer by whose aid men are enabled to build a world within a world, or, at least, to smoothe down the rough creation which Nature flung to us. He forges the mighty anchor, and every lesser instrument. He drives the steamboat and drags the rail-car. And it was he -- this creature of terrible might, and so many-sided utility, and all-comprehensive destructiveness -- that used to be the cheerful, homely friend of our wintry days, and whom we have made the prisoner of this iron cage!

How kindly he was, and, though the tremendous agent of change, yet bearing himself with such gentleness, to rendering //p. 130 himself a part of all life-long and age-coeval associations, that it seemed as if he were the great conservative of Nature! While a man was true to the fireside, so long would he be true to country and law -- to the God whom his fathers worshipped -- to the wife of his youth -- and to all things else which instinct or religion have taught us to consider sacred. With how sweet humility did this elemental spirit perform all needful offices for the household in which he was domesticated ! He was equal to the concoction of a grand dinner, yet scorned not to roast a potato, or toast a bit of cheese. How humanely did he cherish the school. boy's icy fingers, and thaw the old man's joints with a genial warmth, which almost equalled the glow of youth! And how carefully did he dry the cow-hide boots that had trudged through mud and snow, and the shaggy outside garment, stiff with frozen sleet; taking heed, likewise, to the comfort of the faithful dog who had followed his master through the storm! When did he refuse a coal to light a pipe, or even a part of his own substance to kindle a neighbor's fire? And then, at twilight, when laborer or scholar, or mortal of whatever age, sex, or degree, drew a chair beside him, and looked into his glowing face, how acute, how profound, how comprehensive was his sympathy with the mood of each and all! He pictured forth their very thoughts. To the youthful he showed the scenes of the adventurous life before them; to the aged, the shadows of departed love and hope; and, if all earthly things had grown distasteful, he could gladden the fireside muser with golden glimpses of a better world. And, amid this varied communion with the human soul, how busily would the sympathizer, the deep moralist, the painter of magic pictures, be causing the teakettle to boil!

Nor did it lessen the charm of his soft, familiar courtesy and helpfulness, that the mighty spirit, were opportunity offered him, would run riot through the peaceful house, wrap its inmates in his terrible embrace, and leave nothing of them save their whitened //p. 131 bones. This possibility of mad destruction only made his domestic kindness the more beautiful and touching. It was so sweet of him, being endowed with such power, to dwell, day after day, and one long, lonesome night after another, on the dusky hearth, only now and then betraying his wild nature, by thrusting his red tongue out of the chimney-top! True, he had done much mischief in the world, and was pretty certain to do more; but his warm heart atoned for all. He was kindly to the race of man; and they pardoned his characteristic imperfections.

The good old clergyman, my predecessor in this mansion, was well acquainted with the comforts of the fireside. His yearly allowance of wood, according to the terms of his settlement, was no less than sixty cords. Almost an annual forest was converted from sound oak logs into ashes, in the kitchen, the parlor, and this little study, where now an unworthy successor -- not in the pastoral office, but merely in his earthly abode -- sits scribbling beside on air-tight stove. I love to fancy one of those fireside days, while the good man, a contemporary of the Revolution, was in his early prime, some five-and-sixty years ago. Before sunrise, doubtless, the blaze hovered upon the grey skirts of night, and dissolved the frost-work that had gathered like a curtain over the small windowpanes. There is something peculiar in the aspect of the morning fireside; a fresher, brisker glare; the absence of that mellowness, which can be produced only by half-consumed logs, and shapeless brands with the white ashes on them, and mighty coals, the remnant of tree trunks that the hungry elements have gnawed for hours. The morning hearth, too, is newly swept, and the brazen andirons well brightened, so that the cheerful fire may see its face in them. Surely it was happiness, when the pastor, fortified with a substantial breakfast, sat down in his armchair and slippers, and opened the Whole Body of Divinity, or the Commentary on Job, or whichever of his old folios or quartos might fall within the range of his weekly//p. 132 sermons.  It must have been his own fault, if the warmth and glow of this abundant hearth did not permeate the discourse, and keep his audience comfortable, in spite of the bitterest northern blast that ever wrestled with the church-steeple. He reads, while the heat warps the stiff covers of the volume; he writes without numbness either in his heart or fingers; and, with unstinted hand throws fresh sticks of wood upon the fire.

A parishioner comes in. With what warmth of benevolence -- why should he be otherwise than warm, in any of his attributes?  --  does the minister bid him welcome, and set a chair for him in so close proximity to the hearth, that soon the guest finds it needful to rub his scorched shins with his great red hands. The melted snow drips from his steaming boots, and bubbles upon the hearth. His puckered forehead unravels its entanglement of wrinkles. We lose much of the enjoyment of fire-heat, without such an opportunity of marking its genial effect upon those who have been looking the inclement weather in the face. In the course
of the day our clergyman himself strides forth, perchance to pay a round of pastoral visits, or, it may be, to visit his mountain of a wood-pile, and cleave the monstrous logs into billets suitable for the fire. He returns with fresher life to his beloved hearth. During the short afternoon, the western sun-shine comes into the study, and strives to stare the ruddy blaze out of countenance, but with only a brief triumph, soon to be succeeded by brighter glories of its rival.  Beautiful it is to see the strengthening gleam -- the deepening light -- that gradually casts distinct shadows of the human figure, the table, and the high-backed chairs, upon the opposite wall, and at length, as twilight comes on, replenishes the room with living radiance, and makes life all rose-color. Afar, the wayfarer discerns the flickering flame, as it dances upon the windows, and hails it as a beacon-light of humanity, reminding him, in his cold and lonely path, that the world is not all snow, and solitude, and desolation. At //p. 133 eventide, probably, the study was peopled with the clergyman's wife and family; and children tumbled themselves upon the hearth-rug, and grave Puss sat with her back to the fire, or gazed, with a semblance of human meditation, into its fervid depths. Seasonably, the plenteous ashes of the day were raked over the mouldering brands, and from the heap came jets of flame, and an incense of night-long smoke, creeping quietly up the chimney.

Heaven forgive the old clergyman! In his later life, when, for almost ninety winters, he had been gladdened by the fire-light  --  when it had gleamed upon him from infancy to extreme age, and never without brightening his spirits as well as his visage, and perhaps keeping him alive so long -- he had the heart to brick up his chimney-place, and bid farewell to the face of his old friend for ever! Why did not he take an eternal leave of tho sunshine too? His sixty cords of wood had probably dwindled to a far less ample supply, in modern times; and it is certain that the parsonage had grown crazy with time and tempest, and pervious to the cold; but still, it was one of the saddest tokens of the decline and fall of open fire-places, that the grey patriarch should have deigned to warm himself at an air-tight stove.

And I, likewise -- who have found a home in this ancient owl's nest, since its former occupant took his heavenward flight -- I, to my shame, have put up stoves in kitchen, and parlor, and chamber. Wander where you will about the house, not a glimpse of the earth-born, heaven-aspiring fiend of Aetna -- him that sports in the thunder-storm -- the idol of the Ghebers -- the devourer of cities, the forest-rioter, and prairie-sweeper -- the future destroyer of our earth -- the old chimney-corner companion, who mingled himself so sociably with household joys and sorrows -- not a glimpse of this mighty and kindly one will greet your eyes. He is now an invisible presence. There is his iron cage. Touch it, and he scorches your fingers. He delights to singe a garment, or perpetrate any other little unworthy mischief; for his temper is //p. 134 ruined by the ingratitude of mankind, for whom he cherished such warmth of feeling, and to whom he taught all their arts, even that of making his own prison-house. In his fits of rage, he puffs volumes of smoke and noisome gas through the crevices of the door, and shakes the iron walls of his dungeon, so as to overthrow the ornamental urn upon its summit. We tremble, lest he should break forth amongst us. Much of his time is spent in sighs, burthened with unutterable grief, and long-drawn through the funnel. He amuses himself, too, with repeating all the whispers, the moans, and the louder utterances or tempestuous howls of the wind; so that the stove becomes a microcosm of the aerial world.  Occasionally, there are strange combinations of sounds -- voices, talking almost articulately within the hollow chest of iron -- insomuch that fancy beguiles me with the idea that my fire wood must have grown in that infernal forest of lamentable trees, which breathed their complaints to Dante. When the listener is half. asleep, he may readily take these voices for the conversation of spirits, and assign them an intelligible meaning. Anon, there is a pattering noise -- drip, drip, drip -- as if a summer shower were falling within the narrow circumference of the stove.

These barren and tedious eccentricities are all that the air-tight stove can bestow, in exchange for the invaluable moral influences which we have lost by our desertion of the open fire-place. Alas! is this world so very bright, that we can afford to choke up such a domestic fountain of gladsomeness, and sit down by its darkened source, without being conscious of a gloom?

It is my belief that social intercourse cannot long continue what it has been, now that we have subtracted from it so important and vivifying an element as fire-light. The effects will be more perceptible on our children, and the generations that shall succeed them, than on ourselves, the mechanism of whose life may remain unchanged, though its spirit be far other than it was. The sacred trust of the household -- fire has been transmitted in unbroken //p. 135 succession from the earliest ages, and faithfully cherished, in spite of every
discouragement, such as the Curfew law of the Norman conquerors; until, in these evil days, physical science has nearly sueceeded in extinguishing it. But we at least have our youthful recollections tinged with the glow of the hearth, and our life-long habits and associations arranged on the principle of a mutual bond in the domestic fire. Therefore, though the sociable friend be for ever departed, yet in a degree he will be spiritually present with us; and still more will the empty forms, which were once full of his rejoicing presence, continue to rule our manners. We shall draw our chairs together, as we and our forefathers have been wont, for thousands of years back, and sit around some blank and empty corner of the room, babbling, with unreal cheerfulness, of topics suitable to the homely fireside. A warmth from the past -- from the ashes of by-gone years, and the raked-up embers of long ago -- will sometimes thaw the ice about our hearts. But it must be otherwise with our successors. On the most favorable supposition, they will be acquainted with the fireside in no better shape than that of the sullen stove; and more probably, they will have grown up amid furnace-heat, in houses which might be fancied to have their foundation over the infernal pit, whence sulphurous steams and unbreathable exhalations ascend through the apertures of the floor.  There will be nothing to attract those poor children to one centre.  They will never behold one another through that peculiar medium of vision -- the ruddy gleam of blazing wood or bituminous coal -- which gives the human spirit so deep an insight into its fellows, and melts all humanity into one cordial heart of hearts. Domestic life -- if it may still be termed domestic -- will seek its separate corners, and never gather itself into groups. The easy gossip -- the merry, yet unambitious jest -- the life-like, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way -- the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word -- will disappear from earth. //p. 136 Conversation will contract the air of a debate, and all mortal intercourse be chilled with a fatal frost.

In classic times, the exhortation to fight "pro aris et focis" --  for the altars and the hearths -- was considered the strongest appeal that could be made to patriotism. And it seemed an immortal utterance; for all subsequent ages and people have acknowledged its force, and responded to it with the full portion of manhood that Nature had assigned to each. Wisely were the Altar and the Hearth conjoined in one mighty sentence! For the hearth, too, had its kindred sanctity. Religion sat down beside it, not in the priestly robes which decorated, and perhaps disguised, her at the altar, but arrayed in a simple matron's garb, and uttering her lessons with the tenderness of a mother's voice and heart. The holy Hearth! If any earthly and material thing -- or rather, a divine idea, embodied in brick and mortar -- might be supposed to pattern the permanence of moral truth, it was this. All revered it. The man who did not put off his shoes upon this holy ground would have deemed it pastime to trample upon the altar. It has been our task to uproot the hearth. What further reform is left for our children to achieve, unless they overthrow the altar too? And by what appeal, hereafter, when the breath of hostile armies may mingle with the pure, cold breezes of our country, shall we attempt to rouse up native valor?  Fight for your hearths? There will be none throughout the land. FIGHT FOR YOUR STOVES ! Not I, in faith. If, in such a cause, I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader's part; and Heaven grant that it may shatter the abomination all to pieces!

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In case anybody reading the above would like the assistance of modern literary critics in interpreting its meaning, two are quite helpful.  Duncan Faherty provides some context for it, explaining that in his short fiction of the 1830s and 1840s Hawthorne often "explored the social meaning of architecture as a means of considering the current state of the Republic's social nexus." [Remodeling the Nation: The Architecture of American Identity, 1776-1858 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2009), p. 176.]  Joel Pfister thinks of "Fire-Worship" as "more than just a charming sketch about the increasing popularity of parlor stoves. ... The stove facilitates and symbolizes industrial America's colonization of the home." It "helps produce a new form of air-tight domestic selfing characterized by mutual emotional privatization." ["Hawthorne as Cultural Theorist" in Richard H. Millington, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 39.]  

In this respect Hawthorne was really just echoing the sentiments of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Old Manse's previous occupant: "In America, out of doors all seems a market; in-doors, an air-tight stove of conventionalism.  Every body who comes into our houses savors of these habits..." ["The Young American: A Lecture Read before the Mercantile Library Association, Boston, February 7, 1844," pp. 351-83 at p. 376, in Nature: Addresses and Lectures (Boston: Phillips, Sansom & Co., 1850),  This was the same Emerson who, a dozen years earlier, had written from Boston to his brother William in New York that he thought "I ought to have a Nott stove by your description of its beneficence." [R.L. Rusk, ed., The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 1 (New York: Columbia U.P., 1939), p. 342,]  It is not clear that Emerson followed through on his intention; his correspondence and other works are not lacking in stove references [], but they cannot be said to have been among his main interests.

Holy Smoke: Warming Churches

Churches and meeting houses were the commonest public buildings in the United States, and presented particular challenges to any congregation wishing to improve their comfort (area and ceiling height, and therefore volume, number of windows, need to heat from cold for one day a week, lack of chimneys).  Despite these problems, as well as issues of cost and also cultural or quasi-theological reservations (notably the common association between the uncomplaining acceptance of discomfort while at worship and evident seriousness of religious conviction), churches and meeting houses began to be heated in increasing numbers in the post-revolutionary years, and by the time this article was written stoves and furnaces were pouring into New England, the most laggard and/or resistant region in the northern states in this respect.  This 1822 article is the longest and most detailed that I have found, addressing most of the common arguments of the opponents of change.

(For more about this topic, see the preprint of my "Conquering Winter" article, pp. 12-14, and items cited therein, particularly Gretchen T. Buggeln, Temples of Grace: The Material Transformation of Connecticut's Churches, 1790-1840 (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2003); also my online map of recorded dates of stove installations in American churches, and the underlying spreadsheet.)

"In Side of the Old Lutheran Church in 1800 in York, Pa.," Watercolor with pen and ink by Lewis Miller, c. 1800,
The Historical Society of York County, Pennsylvania,
from Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (online exhibition, Library of Congress),

E.F., "On Warming Houses of Worship," The Christian Spectator [New Haven, CT] 4:12 (Dec. 1822): 640-2,

p. 640 As the season of cold weather is approaching, you will permit me to make a few remarks on a subject which concerns the comfort of many. I belong to a congregation which has one of the finest houses of worship in the United States. No pains nor expense have been spared to fit it up in the best style, and to render it as convenient as possible for //p. 641 both the preacher and his hearers. One or two thousand dollars have been expended to delight the ear and elevate the devotions by the combined power of vocal and instrumental music. Now, all this is as it should be, and certainly redounds greatly to the credit of those through whose instrumentality so much has been accomplished. But you will be surprised, when I inform you that no provision is made for warming the house and rendering it comfortable during the cold inclement season of winter.

Stoves are regularly found in the churches in nearly all of our populous places, even in those much further South than we are. They are also very common in most of the country churches in all the Northern States. And I cannot myself, see any substantial reason, why they are not used in every house of worship in New-England. In cases where the congregation cannot afford to be at the expense of purchasing stoves; (sic) they can be hired for a trifle. The amount of the rent and the necessary fuel would, when merely nominal, and a contribution of a few cents from each individual would defray the whole expense.

Should it be said that stoves are unsafe and dangerous; the objection applies with equal force to our ever lighting a fire in our private dwellings: great care should be used in both cases, but no greater in the former, than in the latter.

Is it objected that possibly the pipes might not be perfectly tight and that thus the whiteness of the walls would be tarnished by the smoke? Why, I ask, is there more probability of a stove's smoking in a Meeting House, than in a Legislative Hall, a Court House, a School Room, or any other large building? But suppose a little smoke should now and then unavoidably escape and find its way to the walls, and that they should indeed become slightly soiled in the course of a winter; who that knows how to balance evils--who that regards substantial comfort more than mere outside appearances, would on this account hesitate to try the experiment, at least? But it is not however a fact that stoves in churches usually smoke; I have myself been present in many where it is not the case, and know of several* {footnote} where the stoves are so located and the pipes are so fixed, that it is scarcely possible for them to smoke.--But if the fear of smoke is the only objection, this can be entirely removed. Houses of worship are often warmed by means of heated air. This is the case in some of our large towns; and the expense is said not to be greater, if as great, as that attendant on the mode ordinarily pursued. The very possibility //p. 642 of inconvenience from smoke, is in this way wholly prevented.

p. 641 * {footnote} I was much pleased with the winter arrangement of one which I lately visited. The stoves were placed in the anteroom or entrance to the building. The pipes, after rising a few feet perpendicularly, pass horizontally through the wall into the main body of the church and then pursue a course parallel with the lower edge of the gallery at a suitable distance to be supported by rods projecting from it, until they reach the opposite side of the house, and by means of a chimney on the outside, communicate with the external air. The different sections of the pipes are so inserted into each other, and so fastened by correspondent elevations and depressions on their surface, that they cannot get out of place, nor can any smoke possibly escape from them. This plan of having the stoves in the ante-room is on several accounts preferable to having them within the body of the church, where it is often very difficult to find a suitable place for them. They can when thus located always be regularly supplied with fuel as often as occasion requires, without the least interruption to the services of the sanctuary. In this situation too, the stoves are more convenient for those who come from a distance and have need of warming themselves before church opens, and during intermission. Again, the ante-room if it be thus warmed, and if it be of a sufficient size, furnishes, when the outer doors are closed and the room is supplied with seats, a very convenient place for occasional meetings during the cold weather; especially for Conferences, and Sunday Schools which can then without inconvenience be kept the whole year. It is devoted to this use in the Society to which I have referred.

[p. 642 cont'd] There is no more reason for being without fire and exposed to the cold two or three hours together, when worshiping God and attending to the all-important instructions of his house, than when attending to our secular concerns, or when visiting in parties of pleasure. We should think pretty lightly of the hospitality of the friend, who should invite us to spend an hour or two with him at his house in a pinching winter's day, and then keep us without fire; and we should with equal reluctance wait on the man of business with whom it might be necessary to spend some time, were he to show a similar disregard to our comfort. There is every reason why the house of God should be made as convenient, as dwelling-houses, and the situation of those who visit them be rendered as comfortable as it would be, were they seated by their own fire-sides. Men are naturally ready enough, to absent themselves from religious services, even when there is no sufficient reason for so doing. [See at end -- HJH] It is the bounden duty of those who duly appreciate this consideration, to lay aside their prejudices, and to endeavour to prevent the effects of this natural aversion, by removing every excuse for absence from public worship, that can be pleaded with reason and with justice. They should recollect that though they, being in perfect health, can endure the utmost severity of winter without injury; there are others who cannot. The feeble aged individual--the man in delicate health who is easily chilled by cold--and especially the person whose lungs are already affected and are consequently keenly sensible to every change of air,--all these and many others, must, for several months in the year, unless suitably accommodated, be deprived of the privilege of waiting on God in his hbouse. There are also many others who live so far from the place of worship that they cannot go home and return again during the intermission; such persons will of course usually be present at only one service. And not unfrequently they will absent themselves from both; for those only who have tried it, know how unpleasant it is to travel several miles through the cold, and then sit without fire during the whole of public worship.

But the most weighty consideration connected with this subject, is yet to be mentioned. Our object in visiting the house of God, is to be instructed in divine things, and to have our hearts suitably and profitably affected by religious truth. That these ends may be accomplished, it is necessary that we should fix our minds closely and constantly upon the subject presented to us. This it is impossible to do when we are suffering from the inclemency of the weather. The preacher cannot then speak with animation, nor the hearers listen with patience. The clearest and most conclusive trains of reasoning then fail of their effect; and the most moving strains of eloquence are spent in vain upon the audience whose limbs are shivering with cold.

I should not, Mr. Editor, have troubled you with these remarks, were it not for the hope that, through the medium of your work, they may possibly produce a salutary effect upon other congregations in a similar situation with the one of which 1 am a member. Yours, &c

"Excuses for Not Attending Public Worship," The Christian's Pocket Magazine (and Anti-sceptic) Vol. 9, n.s. 3 (1823): 498,

(From an American  Paper.)--"Overslept myself--wasn't shaved in time--too cold--too hot--too windy--too dusty. Too wet--too damp--too  sunny--too cloudy--don't feel disposed. No other time to myself.  Look over my drawers. Put my papers to rights. Letters to  write to my friends. Taken a dose of physic. Been bled this  morning. Mean to walk to the bridge. Going to take a ride.  Tied to the store six days in the week. No fresh air but on Sundays.  Can't breathe in the church, always so full. Feel a little feverish--feel a little chilly--feel very lazy. Expect company to  dinner. Stumped my great toe. Got a head ache. Caught cold  last night at a party. Must watch the servants. Can't leave the  house for fear of fire. Servants up to all mischief when I go to  church. Intend nursing myself to-day. New bonnet not come  home. Tore my muslin dress coming down stairs. Got a new novel, must be returned on Monday morning. Wasn't dressed in  time. Don't like a liturgy--always praying for the same thing.  Don't like extempore prayer--don't know what is coming. Don't  like an organ--it's too noisy. Don't like singing without music -- makes me nervous. Can't sit in a draft of air--windows or  door open in summer. Stove so hot in winter, always get a  head-ache. Can't bear an extempore sermon--too frothy. Dislike  a written sermon--too prosing. Nobody but our Minister.  Can't always listen to the same preacher. Don't like strangers--too bombastical. Can't keep awake when at church. Snored  aloud last time I went there--shan't risk it again. Tired to death  standing to pray. Hate to kneel--makes my knees stiff. Mean to inquire of some sensible person about the propriety of going to  so
public a place as a church. Will publish the result." [Emphases added.]

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hot-Air Furnaces and Air-Tight Stoves, 1848

[The point of this and the preceding article is to give examples of something quite common in magazines for progressive country-dwellers from the 1820s onwards, i.e. detailed, practical, and very opinionated  discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of the new technologies of comfort and convenience.  These provide valuable evidence of how consumers used and experienced stoves and furnaces.]

X. "Hot-Air Furnaces and Air-Tight Stoves," The Cultivator [Albany, NY] 5:2 (Feb. 1848): 51.

Editors Cultivator—I have noticed the remarks in the Cultivator during the past year, by Geo. Geddes and others, on the advantages of Hot-Air Furnaces. Having used one in my own house for the past seven or eight years, constructed in a manner precisely similar to those described, I can endorse with confidence all, or nearly all, that has been said in their favor. There are, however, some defects which should be known. These defects are not merely attached to poorly constructed ones, for mine was a good one with a large stove and eight drums, well put together so as not to smoke.

The advantages, as have been before stated, are chiefly, the facility with which large wood, four feet long, may be used without cutting or splitting; keeping up only one fire for several rooms; freedom from dirt and ashes, from stoves and fire-places; saving in room; freedom from cold currents through door-cracks, &c.; and uniform temperature day and night.

The disadvantages are, the furnace, unless in a very large cellar, so as to be entirely separated by partitions from the rest of the cellar, heats it too much, usually causing the speedy decay of apples, &c.; it occupies as much room below as it saves above stairs; the wood being heavy, but few women can lift it, and hence a man must be at hand; the fire being away, out of sight, is apt to be forgotten and neglected till too low; after standing and absorbing moisture during summer, the plaster and brick-work throw off an unpleasant and damp smell into the rooms for some days after the fire is first commenced in autumn; the cost, in no case, of a good furnace, can be much less than a hundred dollars. Not one of the least objections is the difficulty of regulating the heat properly in rapidly changing weather, as from cold to warm, from warm to cold, or from calm to windy. Large sticks six inches to a foot in diameter will be an hour or two in getting thoroughly on fire; and when once on fire, continue burning half a day or more. In the meantime there may be a considerable change in the weather, in which case the rooms may be greatly overheated, or become too cold to be comfortable. It often happens that a fire is built up for the night, while the weather is calm; a fresh wind springing up in the night will rapidly diminish the heat of the rooms; or, if the weather is windy when the fire is made, and the wind then subsides, the heat soon becomes oppressive. It is found to require twice as much wood in a high wind, at 25 degrees, as in a calm at zero. Wind also changes the course of the ascending hot air in the pipes, warming those rooms chiefly which lie in a direction from the wind, often sweeping the air from the windward rooms down the hot-air pipes, and out of the air chamber through the feeding pipe. This is a serious inconvenience. It may indeed be obviated by properly adjusting the registers, and by two or three cold-air feeding pipes on opposite sides of the furnace, to be closed or opened as the case requires; or a new fire may be built of small wood, if the weather suddenly becomes windy; or, on the other hand, if it suddenly becomes calm or warmer, the fire may be smothered with ashes, or lessened by shutting the fire draft. But all these require much attention; more than farmers generally are willing to give; and would be a grievous tax on a housekeeper where no man is at hand.

Every establishment, therefore, which cannot keep an attentive hired man always at hand, should not be encumbered with a furnace. But in a large house, where such care can be constantly given, and where there are as many as five or six rooms to be constantly heated, a good furnace will be found altogether the most convenient mode. It is also just the thing for large schools, where many apartments are in daily use, obviating the care and interruption of replenishing fires in the separate rooms; or for hotels, and large public buildings generally.

For small houses, nearly all the advantages of the hot-air furnace are secured by the use of the best airtight, self-regulating sheet iron stoves. The cost of two or three of these is much less than of a furnace; they are always at hand and easily fed; they consume less wood by nearly one-half, as I have amply proved by long experience with both; and they will maintain a fire as long during the night as a furnace. The very common objection to the furnace, that every part of the room is heated alike, and that every person whether thinly or warmly dressed, must endure the same heat; or those who have been all day riding in the cold can have no warmer fire than others, is wholly obviated by the air-tight stove. So rapidly may a room be heated with one of these, that five minutes are scarcely needed in any case; while the self-regulator, properly adjusted, will preserve an equable temperature for a long time. With an additional improvement — that of inserting a transparent plate of mica in the regulating valve, the light from the fire would be thrown into the room, and the advantage so much prized by many, of seeing the "cheerful blaze,"would be at least partially attained.

With one of the larger sized air-tight stoves, (Race's $14 ones,) I am enabled to heat a family room and three adjacent sleeping apartments, more comfortably than I could formerly with a furnace; for which one cord of good wood will last about one month of average winter weather; and my fruit and vegetables now keep well in the cellar.

But airtight stoves have their difficulties. These are two in number, namely—the sudden puffs of smoke or explosions; and the inconvenience of pipes choked with soot, or dripping with pyroligneous acid. The first never takes place except when the stove is closely shut. Impure carburetted hydrogen from the burning wood mixes with the air in the stove, and then taking fire causes the explosion. This is usually only a puff of smoke, but sometimes it has been sufficiently strong to lift the small cast iron plate which covers the hole in the top of the stove. The explosions may be obviated by adjusting the regulator so that it shall not entirely close, till the wood is half consumed. The carburetted hydrogen will not collect while a slight current of air is sweeping through the stove, and rarely except when the wood is in its early stages of combustion. The dripping of pyroligneous acid is prevented by reversing the joints of the pipe, those above being inserted into the next ones below, rendering it impossible for the liquid to escape. To prevent the pipe becoming soon choked with soot, nearly all should be perpendicular or nearly so, so that by knocking on its sides, the adhering soot may fall. One of my stoves was at first fitted with seven feet of horizontal pipe; but in five weeks it was perfectly choked with soot. The stove was then moved, and the pipe made vertical. By knocking down the soot once a fortnight, no difficulty from this source is now experienced. Where the draft is considerable, the soot does not so rapidly accumulate; hence in using another stove, less perfectly made, no inconvenience was found either from dripping or soot, for some months.

A self-regulating stove, made of Russia sheet-iron, will last, it is believed, under ordinary circumstances, not less than fifteen years. X.

Quercus, "Warming Houses," 1834 [furnaces, Nott stoves]

Quercus, “WARMING HOUSES,” The Genesee Farmer 4:2 (11 Jan. 1834): 13-14.

In one of my communications last winter, [vol 3, p. 30,] on the subject of fuel, I attempted to show that the ordinary cost of wood in the western villages of this state, was very little, if any, short of the price paid in New England for the same amount of acquired heat; for although the price of wood in this state was less by the cord than in New England, yet its more porous and gaseous qualities, rendered its specific gravity so much less, that it required more than double the quantity to produce the same effect. I also suggested the expediency of adopting more extensively the use of anthracite coal, as being not only more economical, but far less troublesome.

Circumstances have placed me this season in a different sphere of action, and where I have had a better opportunity of observing the use, and the effects of coal, in its various applications.

The grand desideratum in housekeeping, as well as in the arts, is to obtain the greatest amount of heat with the least expenditure of fuel and money; and notwithstanding the prejudice which has so extensively existed against anthracite coal, it must soon be universally acknowledged, that we have no means of combining so fully these desirable objects, as by its use. The enormous increase of our population too, is fast leveling our forests, so that ere long the use of coal will be absolutely necessary in our larger cities and villages. The sooner, therefore, we adopt it, the sooner we shall learn its use, and experience its happy effects upon our comfort and our purses

At present, I propose to confine myself wholly to the subject of warming dwelling houses ; and in so doing, I would suggest only two modes,which meet my views of comfort and economy.

The first is the "Hot Air Furnace," to which I alluded in my communication of last winter. The principle of this is simply a cylindrical iron furnace, with a grate at its bottom for draught and the transmission of ashes, and an opening on its side for feeding it with coal. This cylinder is then surrounded with either brick or sheet iron, so as to form an air chamber around the furnace, from whence the heated air is carried to any desired location, by means of tin tubes. Such a furnace, placed in a convenient situation in the cellar or lower apartment, renders all fire above stairs wholly unnecessary. To secure all the advantages of this plan, it is essential that the smoke pipe from the furnace should pass through a series of dumb stoves, placed in each story, either in the hall, or other rooms, as most convenient; while the heated air from the air chamber, is conveyed by lubes to such other rooms as are in constant use. By such an arrangement, a most delightful heat is disseminated through an ordinary sized house, from the cellar to the garret, by means of only one fire.

This plan combines several important and essential objects. First, the saving of fuel. A furnace of this description will not consume over one ton of coal per month, keeping fire night and day; and unless the weather is very severe, it need not average over half a ton per month. The best of Lehigh coal can be delivered in Buffalo in the summer season at $12 per ton, and in the same proportion at the intermediate places. Even then, at Rochester or Buffalo, the expense of supplying such a furnace, together with the comfort of an entire warm house, would not exceed $40 or $50. Where is the man, in either place, who lives at an expense of $800 or $1,000 per year, who does not pay nearly double the amount, for the privilege of healing the air above the top of his chimney!

Second—It is a great saving of comfort. Instead of having only one room warmed by a common fire place or stove, and that indifferently well, you have your whole house comfortable, so that you can pass from one room to another without the. danger of being chilled; and at night, your family may retire to their several apartments, to enjoy the luxury of a summer temperature, without either the hazard of colds and catarrhs, or the enervating influence of a load of bed clothes.

Third—It is safe and cleanly. No damage can accrue to children or others, from the burning of clothes or skin; nor are your carpets or furniture continually exposed to the depredations of sparks and coals; and as nothing but pure air is transmitted from the open atmosphere through the air chamber into your rooms, so neither dust nor ashes will arise to annoy your family or friends.

Fourth—You are not exposed to colds and catarrhs, and to the innumerable train of evils which follow as a consequence, from the currents of cold air which are continually forced into a common room, to supply the place of the heated air which passes up chimney. It will readily be perceived, that as hot air is by this plan forced into the room, and no draught out of it, the accumulation of this hot air will not only produce a uniform heat throughout the room, but by its constant accession heat must escape through the cracks and crevices of the building, thereby reversing the present course of currents. Hot air will force its way out of the room, instead of cold air into it.

Since using a furnace upon this plan, I have seen a suggestion in Silliman's Journal of Science, from Prof. Johnston of Philadelphia, which adapts the "Air furnace ' to culinary purposes, as well as heating the house. His principle is precisely the same as the one I have described, but using the same heat which ascends into the rooms above, for culinary purposes below. This is certainly a consummation greatly to be desired to the economy of families, for as the Professor justly //p. 14 remarks," the culinary operations of almost every family involve an immense waste of heat, and of beat too, which might be turned to valuable account, were but a small portion of the ingenuity bestowed on less important subjects, turned toward that much neglected branch of domestic operations." For a particular description of his apparatus, I would refer the reader to the 23d volume of the American Journal of Science and Arts, No. 2, January, 1833.

The other mode of warming dwellings to which I shall refer, is by means of Dr. Nott's Stoves. This is the very acme of stove invention. No one who has experienced the pleasure and comfort arising from the use of these stoves, will be disposed to deny the Dr. the full meed of praise, which this exhibition of his talents has called forth.

It has often been remarked that great minds, which are constantly engrossed with the contemplation and study of first principles, with their various ramifications through the arts and sciences, seldom descend to minute particulars; but in Dr. Nott, we have an instance of an intellect, which after having traversed the whole range of science, and for years investigated the principles of heat and caloric, at once descending to put these principles in practice, and bending its gigantic resources to the mechanical arrangement of furnaces and castings, and even to the formation of screws and rivets.

It is unnecessary here to enter into an analysis of these stoves. Suffice it to say that they combine the following great principles. Saving of fuel; saving of expense; saving of time; and saving of comfort. stove which will cost $25 or $30, will abundantly heat two rooms with folding doors, besides two chambers with dumb stoves. And with all this heat, the consumption of fuel is so small, that one stove of the above price will not require to exceed one and a half tons of coal from November to April; and where the fire is not kept up at night, one ton will be sufficient. Now contrast this statement with the enormous expenditure of wood, in our inland villages. Take for instance Rochester or Buffalo, and compare the difference of expense, between burning wood in the ordinary way by stoves and fire places, and of coal, in Nott's stoves.

A ton of coal in the village of Rochester will be worth, say $11,00; and by the use of Nott's stoves, a ton and a half will abundantly supply a family through the winter. In the village of Rochester there are at lest 1,000 families who require, and actually use, stoves or other substitutes more expensive than Nott's stoves. These one thousand families burn on an average, (aside from their kitchens) twenty cords of wood each; for though some burn not over five or ten cords, yet others bum thirty or forty. We will say, however, that the average does not exceed fifteen cords per family, which when cut and ready for the fire will average $2 per cord. At this estimate, the value of wood burned by the 1,000 families, will amount to $30,000. Now for the coal. Averaging the quantity to each family at a ton and a half, and the price at $11 per ton, the whole cost for 1,000 families will be $16,500; to which you may add if you please, for cartage and extras, $3,500, and you then have the enormous saving in the village of $10,000, in a single winter, by the use of anthracite coal and Nott's stoves.— Now in all this there can be no mistake, for I am a daily spectator of similar results.

In conclusion, I would barely say to those who are sceptical, try it, and be satisfied; to those who love comfort, try it, and be ye warmed and filled; to those who love money, try it, and save your pence; but to those who prefer the old and frigid path, I must also say, go on, if you will, to your heart's content, but remember it will be at the expense of money, comfort, and health.

For the Genessee Farmer.

[“Economy of Fuel,” The Genesee Farmer 4:8 (22 Feb. 1834): 57-58 -- MARCUS BULL's pamphlet  “a matter of interest to every householder.”]

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why the **** are you doing _that_?

[Written for Symeon, alumni magazine of the Durham University History Department, and published in their third (July 2013) issue, pp. 41-47 -- slightly revised, shortened, but also illustrated,]

“Why the **** are you doing that?”  
Researching the American Stove and Its Industry

By the time that this issue of  Symeon goes to press, I will have given the last lecture in my thirty-eight (or maybe forty)-year teaching career, and will be preparing for the final bit of examining (hooray!) and then, alas, the terminal paycheque.  When you reach this stage in a job, and indeed in life, it’s natural to become reflective.  I find myself at a curious point in time, the first I can remember since adolescence, when I no longer have any career plans, other than to stop having a career a few years earlier than I need to.  Shifting my attention from work to life, there at least there is, I hope, something to look forward to, apart from an absence; but, to be realistic, a lot less than there is to look back on.  I am in transition between one form of existence -- I have been at university in one capacity or another since I was seventeen, in 1969 -- and the next, which is much less structured and familiar: retirement!  In this circumstance, I have begun to try to retrace my steps and wonder why I have done some of the things that I have.  This has already led to a memoir of my years as a postgraduate, which has been published in a management journal this summer (as a lesson in how not to be an efficient research student).  I enjoyed writing that so much that I used my research blog to do something similar and answer a question that quite a few people have asked me in the last few years, and which I have chosen as the title for this essay.

All academics with jobs like those we are privileged to have in Durham, where there is an expectation that we will always be engaged in research leading to high-quality publications, have to be able to answer their own version of the “why the ****” question.  We have to be able to account for ourselves -- to ourselves and our students, but also to our colleagues, our immediate superiors in the department and then up the managerial line inside the university, our peers in other places, and the national bodies (research-funding agencies, the Higher Education Funding Council in its regular national research assessments) on whom our careers also depend.  

If you can’t answer this question, and keep answering it, and provide the evidence (in the shape of a continuous stream of good publications and other research outputs) to prove that you are telling the truth, then you will not enjoy a very jolly experience in the modern university -- indeed, you won’t even get your foot on the first rung of the job ladder.  Annual appraisal meetings will be embarrassing.  Career reviews will be awkward.  Promotion will not happen.  Your salary will get stuck, and then decline slowly in real terms.  You will have a hard time justifying getting the time off teaching and everything else that you claim to need for undertaking the research that, the evidence of your non-publications suggests, you are not doing.  Nobody else will want to offer you a job, or a nice visiting fellowship, or even an invitation to come and speak (naturally enough, if you have nothing much to say), and in due course your own university won’t want to keep you around either.  You will have become “dead wood” -- not a happy fate, good neither for the self-esteem nor the bank balance.

This is one of the hardest parts of the academic career, and also one of the traditional justifications for the immense amount of freedom we still have to control our time and to set our own agendas. The assumption has been that we need these privileges in order to be self-motivated and, in our own modest ways, creative, and that we can be trusted to use them wisely.  But, just in case this assumption is too optimistic, our colleagues and our employers have decided to check up on us, increasingly closely since the Good Old Days of the 1980s, when lunchtime in “The Shakespeare” could last three or four hours and involve little solid sustenance apart from the yeast residue in the bottom of the beer glass, and some of the department’s (then) star teachers never had finished and published anything significant, and some of them never would, and they were not thought much the worse of for it.

Students, including some of the most able, who can write excellent essays when asked a question and given a reading list, often find themselves stressed or even completely stumped when we take away their comfort blankets, and ask them to set their own questions and decide, more or less by themselves, what they will read, and why, and what tools they will use to analyze it.  Independent research is meant to be difficult.  But what students don’t always appreciate is that we (or at least some of us) find it difficult ourselves, not just at the outset of our careers, but throughout them.  In my experience, deciding what to do, and why, has always been much harder than actually doing it, which has usually been quite straightforward and even enjoyable -- giving me the sense that I have been fantastically lucky, getting paid increasingly well for pursuing a hobby (reading and thinking and, to a lesser extent, writing about history).

My doctorate kept me busy through most of my twenties, and even when I had published it as a book, The Right to Manage, in 1982, I still had bits and pieces left over that I could turn into lesser publications over the next few years.  I also had the ideas suggested by my own research and the other people’s I had read that helped me the first time I really had to answer the “what the **** next?” question, around my thirtieth birthday, soon after I got my job in Durham.  I floundered around for a while, pursuing not-so-good plans before I found one with more promise, and then I made that good idea last me as long as I could stretch it.  Too long, in fact -- research is the fun part, writing is harder, getting what you write published hardest, and if you do too much research you may end up writing too much (as I did on my second book), and then taking yet more years unwriting (editing, cutting) in order to produce something publishable.  I didn’t want to be quick with my second book, I wanted to be thorough, but I overdid it.

Well, by the time I had reached the end of that long road I was fast approaching fifty.  I had always published just enough other stuff along the way (articles, chapters in books, an edited book with collaborators), and good enough, to keep my nose clean and, in due course, earn me promotion. But when my second big book, Bloodless Victories,  was finally out (in 2000) I found that I had fired off almost all the shots in my locker, and had to answer the “what the **** next?” question again -- not as a Lecturer, but this time as a Reader (a title that is supposed to reflect research achievement) and, after 2001, Professor -- someone to whom more is given and from whom it is only fair that more should be expected.

What to do?  The good thing about a lengthening career is that you accumulate knowledge, ideas, questions, a sense of what is do-able and how to go about it.  Much of this intellectual capital is quite specialized, and it can lock you into doing more or less the same thing over and over again.  Most of us follow this line of least resistance -- modern academic research is organized into proliferating sub-fields, and most of us are quite comfortable staying within our little boxes -- though it can become increasingly boring, and feel rather pointless.  I had done that for almost thirty years, turning myself into one of the go-to guys for the history of relations between American employers and their workers throughout much of the industrial era, between the 1860s and the 1950s.  But  a dozen years ago I felt that I had exhausted that once-rich but narrow vein, or at least done about as much digging in it as I ever wanted to.  

So how to find something new to keep me busy?  I have always made a habit of following any interesting leads within my research even if they don’t seem to be very closely related to what I’m supposed to be doing at the time, and even if I can’t think how to use the off-topic stuff I find. This isn’t a deliberate strategy; actually, it’s a form of self-indulgence, or a symptom of my lack of single-mindedness.  But the upside was that, when I decided to do something a bit different, I found that I already knew enough about it to be able to proceed quite swiftly along a new track. [See Endnote]

Why stoves?  I knew that the industry had been important, its past intersecting with a number of themes in the history of business and technology in which I and other scholars were interested, but I also knew that it was almost completely neglected.  So there was an opportunity, a gap for me to fill. I knew that its history was researchable -- there was primary source material in half-a-dozen major US research libraries -- but not overwhelming, perhaps a dozen archive collections in all, some of them quite small, so I could hope to cover the lot.  I did not want to spend forever on another big project -- having frittered away much of my thirties and forties on Bloodless Victories, I figured that I only wanted a question big enough to keep me busy for the rest of my fifties.  I didn’t embark on it immediately after finishing the other project -- I was tired and disillusioned, partly with a sense of the futility of putting so much effort into a book that, as it turned out, few people could be bothered to buy, read, or use, partly because of the tide of charmless and incompetent managerialism sweeping into the university at the time. But once I had decided that I wanted to stick around Durham for a while longer rather than retiring immediately, I knew that I would have to answer the “what are you doing?” and “why are you doing it?” and “what is the outcome?” questions again, and I would have an answer: stoves!

What has surprised me is how much there has been to find out, and how interesting it has all been. In the beginning, perhaps, this new and final research project was more than a bit instrumental: it would meet some of the job-related needs of a middle-aged professor approaching the end of the paid part of his career.  But it quickly became much more than that.  It became fun.

Part of the fun was just the field research.  Between 2005 and 2009, I spent about three weeks a year in the United States -- in Detroit, Troy, Albany, New York City, Philadelphia, and the outskirts of Wilmington, Delaware, where there are two wonderful specialized research libraries. As well as the enjoyment of reading and discovery, there was also the pleasure of reversion to the simple and solitary life of the graduate student on the road, eating in downmarket neighborhood restaurants and staying in B&Bs that sometimes contrived to be quite nasty though not particularly cheap.  The bare-bones lifestyle was partly a matter of lack of choice for the visiting researcher dependent on his feet for local transport -- for three days in Detroit I survived on coffee and Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, because there was nowhere to eat that I could safely walk to from my nice B&B after darkness fell (Question: "Where's it safe to walk?" Answer from bored, knowing receptionist: "Maybe across the parking lot out back"), and coffee and Otis Spunkmeyer was all they provided in the rooms -- but it was also a consequence of trying to live on the lavish research expenses a generous department and faculty were happy to provide.

Another part of the fun was the character of the archival materials I was reading.  All of my research career up until this project has been spent in the Age of the Typewriter, and even when my primary sources have been manuscript, not printed, they have mostly been the products of college-educated professionals working in and for bureaucratic organizations -- in other words, boring people not unlike me.  But the last few years have taken me back to the 1810s (and, for printed sources, well before).  I have had to learn at last how to cope with handwriting of differing kinds and qualities. Years of reading exam scripts turns out to have been good preparation.  Any problems deciphering fading ink on yellowing paper have been heavily outweighed by the pleasures of unmediated contact with the minds of early-nineteenth-century men, some of them barely educated, others (recent German immigrants) operating in a language that was new to them, almost all, it seems, writing straight from the heart and the gut, sometimes with great wit and eloquence.  Business correspondence where, for example, partners accuse one another of being unChristian thieves, murderers, liars, assassins, drunks, and cheats, is far more enjoyable to read than the much more pallid, considered phrasing of later generations.  

I have moved far away, not simply from the Age of the Typewriter, but from the world of managerial capitalism.  The history I used to write was mostly a history of organizations, and few even of the most important historical actors that I came across ever became familiar to me as fully realized individuals -- they were almost all one-dimensional men, only knowable through some of their public, work-related words and deeds.  But within the last few years I feel that I have encountered a bunch of interesting, very old acquaintances, inventors and entrepreneurs in a world of small-scale, informal, very personal business, about some of whom I now know and understand far more than I ever did about the people whose lives have ever crossed my path in other, much more recent, archives.

Then there is the pleasure that comes with working on any new topic -- the lack of familiarity with sources, issues, appropriate analytical techniques, etc.  The research on the history of industrial relations that occupied me for almost thirty years didn’t prepare me to deal with, for example, the design of consumer goods, or nineteenth-century systems of commercial credit, so I had several years of almost continuous learning of stuff that was new to me, and usually I couldn’t even turn to existing scholarship and take a shortcut to understanding it, because there wasn’t any.

Finally, there has been lots of enjoyment from having been fortunate enough to work in the Age of the Internet.  For most of my career, I have had to adjust to the fact that most of my research sources -- not just the archival materials, but even many of the contemporary public documents, books, magazines, and newspapers -- are thousands of miles and hundreds of pounds (in airfare) away, so “research” was something I could only do from time to time.  A few weeks or at most a few months in the United States would enable me to accumulate a pile of stuff that I could take home and think about, but if that thinking told me I wanted more, I had to wait until I could go back again.  

Now the situation is transformed.  Thanks to the Making of America project, the Library of Congress’s wonderful “American Memory” website, and then Google Books, the Internet Archive, the Hathi Trust, and other American information enterprises that are either not-for-profit, or free to use, and generally both, I can now access a wider range of printed primary sources than is available in all but a handful of the best research libraries in the United States.  And I can do this from any web-connected laptop, anywhere, anytime, and at no cost (to me, at least).  Research has turned into an activity I can simply weave into my ordinary life, and do whenever I have the free time and the inclination.

Of course, not a lot of archival holdings have been digitized, and there is still plenty of nineteenth-century printed material that needs to be visited and read in the few (in some cases, the only) American research libraries holding a copy.  But even here the information revolution makes new ways of working possible.  Gathering material on research trips has become much more efficient, and cheaper, now that most archives and research libraries allow users to take their own digital photographs rather than having to rely on photocopying.  I have gone a step further than that, by hiring researchers (usually local postgraduates, recruited by email) to go into archives for me and to do either intelligently selective or in some cases all-inclusive digital photography jobs, so that I can acquire thousands of page-images for just a few pennies each.  Free file-sharing sites enable my researchers to upload the stuff as they do it, and I can strip it off, download it, and work on it at my own pace, on my own screen.  Work that would have taken me several weeks away from home, thousands of miles, and almost as many thousands of pounds, has been done for a few hundred, from my desk.

The result of the information revolution is therefore that gathering material for my project has been much more efficient, less interrupted and frustrating, and much cheaper than it would have been even a decade ago.  Of course, one still has to make sense of all the reading and shape it into some kind of coherent package -- a talk, an article, eventually a book.  But even here there are new ways of working that I find very rewarding.  For example, something that I  have done for years (ever since I bought my first primitive computer in 1987) is to organize masses of scraps of information, some of it quantifiable, some of it not, about organizations, industries, companies, and individuals, whatever I have been working on at the time, into databases.  I was always aware that much of this information was tied to a particular place as well as to a specific time, but even when Geographic Information Systems became available, they were much too complicated for an amateur to use.  But now I can use Google as a sort of poor man’s GIS, and see the shape of my data in a new way, and also communicate the results via simple maps.  

I can also share some of what I find and think about, without having to wait for or depend upon formal publication.  I can write an informal report on work in progress, or take a particularly nice document or piece of data, and “publish” it myself -- on my research website or here on my blog.  I wouldn’t pretend that either of these has much of a readership, but the quality of some of the people I have come across through them makes up for their lack of quantity.  Research is quite a solitary business, and particularly when you are working on such a peculiar, neglected topic as I am, you are bound to think from time to time “Why am I doing this?  Am I nuts?  Will anybody, anywhere, ever find it at all interesting?”  Publishing stuff myself, as I go, has answered the third question, at least, in the affirmative, and has put me in touch with people who are happy to read my work in draft and share their own work with me in return.

Finally, my stoves have served the crude, basic purpose a modern academic’s research effort is supposed to.  They have resulted in four good articles, three of them rather long, in three good journals with an international circulation, and a bit of recognition (one prize, and quite a few citations). In other words, they’ve provided me with something to talk about in my annual staff reviews, something to point to when asking for a pay rise, and something for my department to enter into the next national assessment of the quality of the research outputs of British universities, which takes place later this year.  They will translate into a modest but worthwhile stream of income for the department from 2015 until 2020, years after I have retired, and everybody, including me, will I hope be happy.

-- o -- 

[Note: this version is a bit too neat and tidy. What it omits is that there was an intermediate stage between the Philadelphia book and the stoves project, just as there was between the end of work on my first book, c. 1981, and my firm commitment to the Philadelphia project in the mid-80s.  In both cases, I made a sort of false start in a different direction.  From the mid-1990s, when I wasn't revising the Philadelphia manuscript or doing other bits and pieces of research and publication as opportunities presented, I thought my next project would be a history of the US metal-casting industry, about which I wrote and published a couple of articles.  But I couldn't see a way of giving it much shape -- no clear narrative, few identifiable players.  A growing interest in stoves and the stove trade came out of that work -- focusing on one important and distinctive branch of the larger industry was intended to be a way of finding the structure my broader research hadn't provided, and so it turned out; though the dimensions and shape of the work have been very different from what I expected.]