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Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

Boomers Knew What Coal Bins Were

It’s winter, and that can only mean one thing to a vast swath of the country — time to pay the heating bill. However, the fuel we use to generate our home heating has changed dramatically since the dawn of the Boomer Era. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the pre-boomer year of 1940, three out of four households used coal or wood as their primary heating source. By year 2000, that dropped to only 1.8 percent of U.S. homes. That means baby boomers were the last generation to live in homes heated primarily by burning coal.

Though an abundant resource in the U.S., coal wasn’t used much as the primary heating source until the Industrial Revolution. Factory steam-engine machines and steam locomotive transportation helped to change the source of heating fuel for Americans. Around the same time, coal had become an important source of fuel to generate electricity as well. Up to that point, water wheels powered factories and wood was the primary home fuel source. Wood was still the dominant fuel source in 1940 for the Pacific Northwest and the South.

In contrast, gas — both natural gas and propane — began making inroads into the fuel heating source market after the war. By 1960, one third of households used some form of gas as their primary heating fuel. Its use steadily rose until 1970, when 50 percent of U.S. households used gas.

Boomers, like Mister Boomer, were on the cusp of the home heating revolution. They saw two or more types of fuel used in their home heating systems during the 1950s through the 70s as many boomer homes converted from one type to another. The fuel favored also varied by region of the country. While Californians were mostly using utility gas, people in the Northeast used heating oil. Coal, though used across the country as a heating fuel for decades, was found as the dominant heating fuel mostly in the Midwest and South at the dawn of the Baby Boom. The coal bin was then referenced in popular culture as the source of the coal Santa could use to drop into the stockings of badly behaved children at Christmastime.

Based on population, then, when a high percentage of boomers were born, they were brought home to houses heated by coal. In order to generate the heat for growing boomer families, massive furnaces inhabited the basements of their homes. Near each furnace was a bin filled with solid chunks of coal. Unlike earlier days of chopping firewood and carrying it into the house, coal could be delivered in large batches by truck. That meant a method of delivering the coal to the basement bin was needed. For most houses, this meant a chute on the back or side of the house that dumped directly into the basement coal bin. Delivery men could shovel coal into wheelbarrows and transfer it directly through the chute.

Mister Boomer was too young to recall the time when his family lived with a coal-burning furnace. Mister B was told that around the time of his birth, his father was a coal delivery man for a short time. The family used his father’s coal shovel to shovel snow for decades. When his sister was born the family moved to a nearby suburb and the house was fueled by natural gas. However, an aunt and uncle who lived a few miles away still had coal — and a coal bin — until the 1960s.

Mister B remembers playing in his aunt and uncle’s basement with his cousin and Brother Boomer near their coal bin. It was a dark place, made even scarier by the mammoth furnace that occupied most of the basement. Lit only by the furnace flames, it looked like a giant robotic octopus, as arms jutted out from it to feed the heat to all the rooms of the house. Once or twice a day, Mister B’s uncle would have had to shovel coal into the belly of the beast. The boys were warned to stay away from the coal bin, not because anyone knew of any possible environmental hazards, but rather, to avoid getting the black dust embedded into their clothing, face and hands. However, piles are an inherent attraction for boys, whether they are composed of dirt, discarded lumber or coal. Mister B recalls one instance when his cousin was determined to climb the pile and exit the basement through the coal chute. Mister B and Brother Boomer, perhaps petrified from parental ramifications, chose to stay put. Failed attempts at opening the chute limited his cousin’s progress to the top of the pile.

All of Mister Boomer’s other aunts and uncles had houses that used natural gas. By the mid-60s, there wasn’t anyone inside Mister B’s circle — family, school friends or neighbors — who still used coal as a heating fuel.

The Boomer Generation has seen its share of change over the past half century, and home heating is another category to add to that list. Coal, though not completely gone as a home heating source — especially near the areas where coal is mined — appears destined to become another boomer-era item that will remain the stuff of memories.

Did your house — or anyone’s in your family — have a coal bin, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Pop Culture History,Seasons and have Comment (1)