Tree Streets Neighborhood

Johnson City, Tennessee • Southside Neighborhood Organization

Heating our homes, the old fashioned way

Posted on June 6th, 2008 by Ken Harrison in History

Until the mid 1950’s, coal was the predominant heating fuel for most houses and apartments in our neighborhood. After all, it was abundant and easily mined from nearby. It was an extremely dirty way to heat. Every chimney spewed thick, black, sooty smoke all winter. That made it difficult to dry clothes on lines in the backyard!

Many houses still used fireplaces to heat in the 1920’s. However, central furnace heating became popular providing hot air. Larger houses required steam or hot water boilers and radiators. Firing the furnace meant hand shoveling small lump coal into the furnace, sometimes every 2 hours or so. Hand adjustments of the draft and damper on the furnace regulated the amount of heat provided to the house, which, in turn set the coal shoveling frequency. A considerable amount of smoke, gasses and dust worked its way thru the hot air ducts directly from the furnace to the floor registers in each room. “Clinker”, or the burnt remains of coal had to be removed almost daily so the furnace would continue working.

A half winter supply of coal was delivered to a home thru a coal door at the side or rear of the house. The coal truck would get close, extend a metal chute thru the coal door and into a coal pile in the basement. From there, the coal was hand-shoveled into a furnace. Starting in the 1920’s and 1930’s some more affluent homeowners could afford a new invention called a “stoker”, a small metal coal hopper that sat over a metal feed screw, which fed small pieces of coal to the furnace. An upstairs thermostat activated the coal feed which increased the house heat.

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