Tired of that Tired Old Furnace?

As Americans in northern states prepare for another frosty winter, the issue of home heating–usually resigned to “I never think of it” status–is once again in the news. The New York Times published this article chronicling the struggle of NYC residents with their antiquated oil heaters. The adaptation of heating oil began in the 1920s and blossomed in the post-World War II years, when cheap petroleum and a series of pipelines made it an attractive alternative to coal furnaces. Eventually, the same system of pipelines and low prices gave rise to gas furnaces. The oil shocks of the 1970s put a major crimp in the growth of oil furnaces, and quite honestly I was surprised to see so many of them in operation today.

Fuel of the Future?

I have written about crisis-driven changes in New York’s home heating systems in the past (sorry about the paywall) in regard to the 1880s and the failure of district heating to solve the recurrent problem of coal shortages during winter months. At that time, New Yorkers found the Great Blizzard of 1888 a major test, as cold temperatures and massive snowbanks blocked coal shipments into the city. District heating, a system that directly piped hot steam into homes from a central boiler, allowed the small and particularly wealthy clientele of the New York Steam Heat Company to pass the blizzard in relative comfort while their fellow New Yorkers shivered and burned furniture in order to stay warm. District steam heating passed the test, but failed the overall course, as nagging technical issues with high pressure steam pipes in the 1880s–most notably their tendency to explode–caused city officials to eventually declare centralized steam heating a public nuisance.

Consumers of home heating often try to nurse their older furnaces or heaters well beyond their utility. It makes sense, as heat from a rickety old oil burner is the same product as warm air from an electric heat pump. It usually takes a massive increase in prices or, more likely, a physical breakdown of the heating system to provoke a change. Of course, this doesn’t stop dealers from trying to sell new systems and promote technical upgrades. This 1948 advertisement, for example offers the flexibility of using three kinds of fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas; sort of like a bar that hosts both types of music, country and western.

Mr. B Wise was cutting edge in 1948; his furnace is probably still chugging along somewhere.

About Sean Adams

I'm the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of History at the University of Florida. At UF, I teach courses on the Early American Republic and the History of American Capitalism. I've published books and articles on the history of the coal trade, and recently completed a book that examines the origins of America's fossil fuel dependency in the 19th century.
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