How To Start The Day: The Coal King

Clare Briggs

Clare Briggs

Clare Briggs is a famous cartoonist who lived from 1875 to 1930. Poems by Wilbur Nesbitt.

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29 Responses

  1. Avatar PD Shaw says:

    Kind of took a dark turn there. Some people claim there’s always a woman to blame.Report

  2. Avatar JoeSal says:

    [-woman shivering at the sink
    -shivering while washing her face
    -shivering in a bathtub
    -going without coffee
    -Socialist dictator providing her with heating oil, because ‘who’s your daddy!’
    and heating oil just somehow doesn’t pollute.]Report

  3. Avatar Kolohe says:

    online inflation calculators say that’s over $2,300. Even quarterly – or for an entire winter – that’s not a small amount for a utility bill.

    (according to the IRS, the median annual income in 1925 was somewhere around 3 to 5 thousand dollars.(pdf) (in 1925 dollars)Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      My great-grandparents had a relative living with them in 1915 who offered to pay $6 for rent and they felt it was just too much to ask because she was family.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw says:

      I found this reminiscence yesterday:

      We had our coal delivered by truck, four tons at a time. It cost $4 a ton delivered, plus an extra dollar a ton if Mr. Schneider also shoveled it into our coal cellar. Once I got old enough to do odd jobs, shoveling the coal into the cellar became an easy way for me to earn $4.

      I wonder if $165 was an amount chosen for comic effect, or if the artist knew his most dedicated and studied audience was a hundred years away.Report

      • Avatar Kolohe says:

        I can see a path for a very high but legit bill. Especially for someone who finds themselves newly affluent in the roaring twenties and doesn’t quite get the marginal cost of all this newfangled technology. The modern example is those people that don’t realize they have auto-pay on for in-app purchases of a tablet game. Or, alternatively, I had some renovation on a house done this past month, and the work left open the access to the attic from the second floor (normally covered and insulated) for about two weeks – during the coldest snap we’ve had all year. So the gas bill this past month was over twice what the baseline is.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin says:

          I agree. What if they’d just gotten central heating and/or hot water on demand (rather than having to heat the water for that bath)?? I feel like there’s something we’re missing here, and it’s that the hot water from the tap/radiator was a novelty for the guy.

          I know several people who got that newfangled device, the “cellular phone”. They called everyone they knew to brag about it and ended up with phone bills into the thousands of dollars because they hadn’t realized how the billing worked or how fast minutes would accrue.Report

        • Avatar PD Shaw says:

          I think the two most likely reasons the cost would be higher than the example I gave, would be (1) Distance to coal mine — In places like Pennsylvania (and Illinois), a town probably had a small coal mine developed off the face of a creek bed, which didn’t need to be hauled very far. Coal is heavy and even in my example, the cost of simply hauling it in the house was equal to 25% of the cost of coal delivered to the property. (And the higher the cost of delivery, the more likely a prudent person would try to take advantage of buying bulk)

          (2) Automatic stoker technology appears to have started in the 1920s, so however they used to be able to check coal usage didn’t work anymore.Report

          • Avatar Michael Cain says:

            It’s amazing how many places have a local coal seam that used to be mined. My Grandparents Cain lived in Seymour, IA which was a place largely because of the coal seam. It was just about half way between Chicago and Kansas City and two different railroad companies kept coal yards in Seymour. At the peak, the mines produced almost 100,000 tons per year. The last of the mines closed down ~1970.Report

  4. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    So this is actually an electric bill, but they called it the coal bill because it came from a coal-fired power plant?Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      No, many early 20th century homes had a coal furnace in the residence itself. (which through come combo of heat exchangers and radiators, provided heat and hot water to the residence)

      Coal deliveries would come every so often; homes that used coal heat would have an access hole (almost always to the basement) where the deliveryman could dump a load down a chute into the hopper. It would be up to the homeowner to stoke the furnace, or get his servants or his kids to do it (or his servants’ kids, I suppose)

      More for that labor intensiveness, vice just the pollution, right around the time this cartoon was drawn, the switch was starting to be made to oil heat, or electricity (or if it were done a bit later, natural gas)Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was still the norm in 1925. You read a lot of memoirs about kids who hated having to go down to the basement for coal. Maybe that was the origin of bad kids getting coal from Santa in their stocking.Report

        • Avatar DensityDuck says:

          Like, there are entire bits in “A Christmas Story” about Ralphie’s dad messing around with the coal furnace. (When black smoke starts shooting out of a vent and he yells “we’ve got a clinker!” and runs into the basement.)Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          My Grandparents Cain had a coal-fired furnace up until about 1961. That’s when I was eight, and deemed big enough to be the one to get up on winter mornings when we were there for Christmas and shovel in a load of coal. By the next year they had replaced the coal-eating monster with natural gas.

          Anyone else here who’s actually shoveled coal into a furnace?Report

          • Avatar Maribou says:

            Yep. The old ramshackle fixer-up Victorian we moved into when I was a kid had a coal-fired furnace.

            So all my memories of such come from before the age of ten, but I do remember doing it.

            My dad fairly quickly switched it over to a wood-burning one, because he was a silviculturist at the time (he taught at the college and everything) so we had as much wood as he could chop out of his own managed woodlots.

            We had a freaking ginormous wood cookstove too; my mom still has nightmares from time to time about that thing. I thought it was fun and exciting, no matter how many rules I had to follow when I stoked it, cooked on it, etc. (I was, as previously noted, less than 10). We had 2 flue fires when I was a kid, one bad enough that we were out of the house for a few weeks while things got fixed up.Report

      • Avatar Road Scholar says:

        I’ve lived in a house, probably built in the 1920s, that had a bigger basement window that was originally for the coal chute. Also, my elementary school was a WPA project* and was originally outfitted with a coal-fired furnace/boiler steam heat system. It was converted to oil or propane at some point but still had the steam radiators. The ground around the area adjacent to the chute still had a lot of stray chunks of coal litter.

        * Pretty much every small town in my neck of Western Kansas has an identical WPA school building. Brick construction, two wings, two story, for eight main rooms. Not sure if the gym with a stage on one end was original or added later. The cafeteria, music room, and girls/boys locker rooms were definitely later additions.Report

        • Avatar Michael Cain says:

          It’s hard to get permission to see them, but there are a bunch of underground tunnels that connect the Colorado Capitol to a number of the other older state buildings nearby. They were originally dug because the local coal supplier would only deliver to one address per customer. Some of the tunnels still have the old steel track for the coal carts used to move coal from where it was dumped to where it would be burned. Today there are water and steam pipes, plus lots of telecommunications, both wires and fiber optics.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        I was trying to figure out how you could get blindsided by a coal bill. It’s not like it comes in via a metered pipe—you actually have to shovel it, so you know how much you’re using, and you know how much you’re paying when you order more.

        Then I noticed that the radiator looked an awful lot like an electric radiator, and I figured that it must be electricity.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          On second thought, Google’s giving me similar pictures for coal radiators. I guess the fins make sense no matter how you heat them.

          Re-reading your comment, you’re saying that it is kind of like a metered pipe, since you’re pulling the coal out at one end of the hopper and the delivery guy is topping it off at the other end and billing you later, so that you don’t automatically get a good intuition for how much a certain amount of coal costs?Report

          • Avatar Road Scholar says:

            I assume it was like the arrangements I’ve had for automatic delivery of propane or heating oil in various homes I’ve rented over the years. It’s possible to keep track of your usage (via a gage of some sort) but also very possible to get blind-sided by a big bill you weren’t expecting.Report

        • Avatar atomickristin says:

          I think he just got the hot water installed. He doesn’t yet know how much it costs to heat water for a bath, how much coal it will take, etc. It’s new to him so he can easily get ahead of himself.

          A lot of people had coal chutes that would autofeed, and would not necessarily know how much they’d used in a day.Report

          • Avatar George Turner says:

            Looking at historic coal prices from the 1920’s, he was probably paying about $3 a ton. I don’t think he could shovel 50 tons and not know it. That’s the kind of usage it would take to heat Al Gore’s outdoor swimming pool in Tennessee, but no ordinary house could burn that much. Going by energy content, using that much coal would be like getting a $40,000 electric bill today.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    Interestingly, you can still buy new coal-fired boilers to provide heating and hot water for your house. Wonder how hard it is to buy coal in small lots?Report

  6. Avatar atomickristin says:

    There’s been an ongoing theme in several of these cartoons where the husband spends a lot of money and then blames the wife for small and necessary expenses. I find that theme really realistic, probably even more so back then than nowadays.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      I noticed it too and feel myself bristling at it even though, in portraying it, I feel like the author was actually being very progressive on the matter.Report

      • Avatar atomickristin says:

        I like it. I feel sometimes like we’ve gone so far towards showing what we want the ideal world to look like that we fail to represent the reality that a lot of people actually live with.

        Now some of his other cartoons verge into “mom bashing” and I don’t love those, but these ones I do like.Report