One of the many luxuries of contemporary life is the ability to heat homes at the flip of a switch or the turn of a dial. Modern utilities allow us to draw instantly on gas, electricity, and in increasingly rare cases, heating oil, in order to soothe winter’s bite. Various outlets from the modern forecasters at AccuWeather (map above) to the more traditional Farmer’s Almanac are predicting a repeat of last year’s brutally cold winter in 2014-15. The editor of the Farmer’s Almanac warns us that there will be a “a frosty bite” in a few months, and that we might be living in a “refriger-nation.”
Although severe winters have always been a part of human history, the ability to survive them with minimal planning is a relatively recent development. When Americans burned wood or coal a century or so ago, the laying up of fuel in late summer or autumn was not just a ritual of the season’s passing; it was a necessary survival strategy. For poor families, though, the challenge was not only buying fuel, but storing it. If you could afford to purchase a couple cords of wood or tons of coal, that was great. Being able to have it on hand to feed your fireplace, stove, or furnace was even better. But, as American cities grew more densely packed, less affluent American found themselves squeezed to the margins. Without the cash up front to buy fuel at lower prices in the “off” months of the summer or early fall, and without the space to store it conveniently, the working poor in 19th century American cities were forced to buy small parcels of fuel at the most expensive time to do so. As early as 1850, the journalist George Foster described poor residents of New York City as “living literally from hand to mouth” as they “buy the food they eat and even the fire and whiskey that warms them, not only from day to day, but literally from hour to hour.” Families scrounged for scraps of wood or small lumps of coal, feeding their small home fires in any way they could. When those methods failed, they sometimes relied upon charity.
Thankfully, the hard work of staying warm is only a distant memory for most of us. Nevertheless, if you’re cranking up the thermostat this winter, consider yourself lucky!