1920 Directions for Building a Fire in a Coal Stove

drawing of coal range showing a direct draft
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

A hundred-years-ago many people used a coal stove for cooking. Here are directions in a 1920 home economics textbook for building a fire in the stove:

Fire Building in a Coal Range

It is necessary to have the fire box, ash pan, and other parts of the stove clean before building a fire. After cleaning, place a generous layer of loosely crumpled paper over the bottom of the fire box, then about four layers of kindling wood, placed so that there are air passages between the pieces, and on top of the wood put two shovelfuls of coal. Regulate the dampers for a direct draft, replace the stove lids, and brush the surface of the stove. 

Before lighting the fuels, polish the range in the following manner: 

To the nickel of the stove apply whiting and ammonia or any satisfactory metal cleaner. 

To the iron of the stove apply oil. Light paraffin oil may be used for this purpose. Apply the oil with cotton waste, or a soft cloth. (Care should be taken not to apply an excess of oil.) Polish with soft cotton or woolen cloth. One should remember, however, that oils must be used with caution. It should never be applied to a stove containing burning fuels. If the stove cloth, saturated with oil, is not destroyed after using, it is well to keep it in a covered tin can or stone jar. 

After polishing the stove, light the fuels. When the wood is reduced to glowing embers and the coal is burning, add more coal. If this burns well, change the dampers to make an indirect draft. 

School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

drawing of a coal range showing an indirect draft
Source: School and Home Cooking (1920) by Carlotta C. Greer

The direct draft makes it easier to get the fire started, but once it is burning well, the damper is changed to allow the hot air to circulate throughout the oven and cook the food.

I’ve never used a coal stove so I have little knowledge of this topic – yet the order of steps didn’t seem right to me. I understand that the only time that the fire is typically allowed to go out is when the stove is cleaned – but why are the paper, kindling wood, and coal arranged in the stove prior to polishing the stove’s surface? I would think that all cleaning and polishing should be completed before putting the paper, wood, and coal into the stove – but I’m probably missing something. Does anyone know whether the steps in old book are the typical order for preparing a stove for lighting?

55 thoughts on “1920 Directions for Building a Fire in a Coal Stove

  1. I don’t think the instructions about polishing the stove are meant to suggest that this must be done after the stove is loaded, so to speak. Rather, the way I’d take it is the way a lot of things read now, in that “before using your brand new . . . ” with instructions about how to clean it, etc., even though a lot of people just skip those instructions and go right to use. In other words, what I think they’re trying to tell us is: 1) the really important parts of the stove need to always be clean before you load it, and here’s how you do that and load it; and 2) here’s how you clean the stove in general.

    1. You’re probably right. I can get really focused on trying to follow the “steps,” when the author probably didn’t mean it that way.

  2. Oh my how funny! Sounds like Martha Stewart wrote the cleaning instructions ; )
    I have a similar stove in basement, it was from my Dad’s family. Mom & I tried to light it one cool day, but forgot to open the correct damper. Lots of fans needed to clear the smoke : )
    If I could find some really strong people, I would move it outside to use occasionally, “summer kitchen” style. They would probably charge me a small fortune! It is heavy.

    1. Oh dear- it sounds like a real mess to have all that smoke in the house. It would be fun to have a “summer kitchen” stove – though you’re probably right that it would cost a lot to get someone to move it.

      1. That too. I liked the days the coal truck showed up and put a chute into the cellar window to deliver the coal into the coal bin. It seems like such a long time ago. We eventually converted to gas and then life was easy.

  3. What an interesting directive this is, Sheryl. I was following along with the fire-burning part, just like setting a fire in a fireplace or campfire pit. But I agree with you, the cleaning after that seems curious to me. Maybe it should’ve been written as two separate tasks, lighting the fire and cleaning the stove top. I found the diagram espec. wonderful, with the two different oven sections and the little arrows pointing the direction of the draft.

    1. It does sound sort of like starting a fire in a fireplace or a fire pit. I also really liked the diagrams. The artist who did them was very skilled at creating visuals that are easy to follow.

  4. I think it could be related to not wanting any left over ash dust or coal residue anywhere, since even flour or grain dust will ignite under certain circumstances. Or maybe the fact that all that handling of the fuel prep could result in coal dust or wood dust or regular dust on the cooking surface, it would not be clean for cooking. It might have been similar to applying a light bit of oil or lard/shortening to cast iron cookware and polishing prior to cooking.

  5. I followed along with building the fire, but cleaning it was TMI. I’m glad someone suggested the cleaning might have been before the first use. I’m an instruction reader, so I world have followed those words carefully. I hope I won’t ever have to.

    1. I get very confused when written directions don’t seem quite right. I want to not follow them – yet when I’ve done that in the past – I later tend to be sorry. But, as you said, I hope that I never have to get a fire started in a coal stove.

  6. I agree that the cleaning instructions might apply to ‘before first use’, although you’d think the oven would arrive clean. I have a wood stove that I love. Don’t use it much these days, so I thoroughly clean the outer surfaces about once a year. Would be much more often if I still used it regularly.

  7. Very cool! I agree that it makes sense to load up the fuel first because coal is very dusty and would make a mess – contaminate the cooking surfaces… Or it could be that you have to load the fuel a specific way and clean as well just not in any specific order.

    1. Either of the things you suggested make sense. We’ll probably never know exactly what the author intended when she wrote the directions.

  8. Not sure we used wood to start the coal stove. But it makes sense to me to place the wood, paper etc in the firebox before polishing outside. You see it is a dirty area, no matter if cleaned. Some of the black from cleaning could get on the cleaned outside if done after cleaning the outside. Hope that makes sense Sheryl.

      1. Great post – I’m learning so much about coal stoves (as well as other types of cooking methods) used in the early 1900 hundreds as a result of your wonderful research.

    1. I’m guessing that it varied by region. For example, in Pennsyvlania where there were anthracite coal mines, I think that coal stoves were very common.

  9. The directions were definitely rambling. I got the point though.. clean the stove first. I have never used a coal stove but it probably isn’t much different than a wood stove…. at least carrying out the ashes part is.😁

  10. On cleaning:

    “Still, coal stoves were far from trouble-free. A study of coal stoves done in 1899 found that during a six-day period, “twenty minutes were spent in sifting ashes, fifteen minutes in carrying coal, and two hours and nine minutes on blacking the stove to keep it from rusting.” During those six days, “292 pounds of new coal were put in the stove…, 27 pounds sifted out of the ashes, and more than 14 pounds of kindling” were hauled. To keep one fire burning through the winter required 3-4 tons of coal. Needless to say, you wouldn’t fire up the stove simply to heat a cup of hot chocolate.”

    From: https://cookstoves.net/articles/cookstove-history/foodways-1910/

    1. Whew, I’m feeling exhausted just reading about all the time and work required to keep a coal stove operational. Thanks for finding the link. It has lots great information.

  11. I was just discussing with my husband how people long ago actually lit the first, as in where did the fire to light the fire come from- were there matches back then?

  12. We heat with antique coal stoves and I could never ever get a fire started this way. Anthracite coal wouldn’t be ignited by burning paper and kindling, you need an actual wood fire built with a whole bed of coals to light the coal.
    I polish mine once per month with windex for the nickel plating and avocado oil for everything else. It does smoke when you first light it afterward, but only for a bit.

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