Firewood Cures the Winter-Time Blues

The Lowcountry of South Carolina has recently witnessed many days of record cold temperatures, and we even had a serious dusting of snow that lasted for several days.  On icy, gloomy winter days such as these, you’ll find most folks huddled indoors just trying to stay warm.  What could be more inviting and comforting on a cold winter’s night than a warm fireplace, filled with a blazing and crackling pile of firewood?  Just the mental image of such a scene is enough to lower one’s blood pressure and relax the mind.  Even though most of us can now heat our homes with the simple push of a button or the turn of a knob, the very idea of a wood-burning fireplace conjures up nostalgic feelings of well-being and security.  In the age of the Internet and our increasingly virtual lives, the popularity of high-definition videos of crackling fireplaces testifies to the enduring primal appeal of this cozy scene.

Firewood Cures the Winter-Time Blues


The wood-burning fireplace is a rare, somewhat eccentric phenomenon in modern America, but it was once ubiquitous.  From the earliest days of South Carolina through the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, firewood was our principal fuel for heating, as well as for other domestic chores like cooking and washing.  The same was true for all of the ships that sailed in and out of Charleston harbor.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, firewood was also essential for all sorts of manufactures, like tanning leather, boiling soap, felting hats, making lime and bricks, blowing glass, and so on.  Firewood was also the principal fuel for the new-fangled steam engines that began to appear in Charleston in the 1810s.  Without firewood, our antebellum industries would not have been able to operate steam-powered sawmills, printing presses, pile drivers, fire engines, or locomotives on the new railroads.

In short, firewood was once one of the most basic necessities of life.  It was required for daily use in all seasons of the year, in all classes of society.  It was also very much a business of some economic importance.  From forest to fireplace, the harvesting, processing, and delivery of firewood was once a bustling industry in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.  Because of a dearth of historical documents that record and describe these activities, however, it’s nearly invisible to the eyes of modern historians.  So, in an effort to re-imagine the labors and risks associated with the consumption of firewood, let’s think about some of the practical and logistical aspects of that ancient business.

How did people acquire the copious amounts of firewood needed for their daily activities?  The answer to this question depends on whether you lived in the country or in the city.  People living in the country generally had easier access to trees, so they chopped down what they needed, split the logs into smaller pieces, and stacked them to dry before use.  Such work was both relatively simple and inexpensive.  Even if a country squire didn’t wish to bother with chopping his own fuel, he could contract with someone in the neighborhood who would bring the firewood to his plantation.

For folks living in urban centers like Charleston, however, without easy access to trees and forests, the task of acquiring firewood involved several additional steps, each of which drove the price higher and higher.  After the trees were felled and the logs chopped or sawed into smaller pieces, the wood was loaded in to small watercraft—flatboats, pettiaugers, or schooners—and floated through the coastal rivers to one of the wharves of Charleston.  After being unloaded onto the wharf, the firewood was then re-loaded onto delivery carts, driven through the streets of the town, and delivered directly to the customer’s house or kitchen or workshop.  Delivery fees were set by the Commissioners of Streets (beginning in the 1750s), and were calculated by the distance from the wharf to one’s doorstep.

The sight of horse-drawn carts trucking loads of firewood through the streets was once a very common and regular feature of life in early Charleston.  It was such a routine practice, in fact, that today we have very little documentary evidence of its existence.  This is one of my greatest frustrations as a historian: the details surrounding the most routine of daily activities generally aren’t described in surviving historical documents.  Almost no one wrote diary entries or letters or reports about how their firewood was delivered, or how they brushed their teeth, or a million other small activities.  Nevertheless, surviving newspapers and legislative records from early Charleston contain a few clues that can help us to re-imagine the scene.

Following centuries of English tradition, firewood in early South Carolina (and even today) was sold by the cord, a unit of measure that describes a tight stack of firewood four feet high and eight feet across.  By law, each stick or log of firewood in a cord had to measure four feet in length.  Our legislature established the office of “Measurer of Firewood” as early as 1738, but the position was allowed to lapse until the City Council of Charleston reconstituted the position in 1785.  The measurer’s job was to ensure that customers received the full measure of firewood for which they had paid.  Well into the nineteenth-century, the City Government maintained officers of “Weights and Measures” in the city markets and on the wharves.

The South Carolina Gazette, Charleston’s first newspaper, commenced in January 1732.  From that point onward, I’ve found a few helpful clues about the firewood business.  It turns out that a man named John Braund (also spelled Brand) was a principal figure (perhaps even the principal figure) in the carting business in Charleston in the early 1700s.  He was also the sexton and bell-ringer at St. Philip’s Church, and the proprietor of a public stable.  John Braund, who died in 1740, was neither wealthy nor erudite, but he was apparently a very hard-working man who was well-known in Charleston.

As the population of urban Charleston increased in the 1760s and 1770s, so too did the firewood carting business.  John Braund Jr. continued the family business, and formed business partnerships with a few other men, including Edmund Egan, John Marley, and Michael Kalteisen.  After the American Revolution, it appears that the firewood business was dominated by factors; that is, middle-men who connected suppliers and purchasers.  Looking for random examples of this phenomenon, I recently browsed through one of Charleston’s newspapers,  the Columbian Herald, for the month of November 1795.  There I found advertisements for two firewood factors: Francis Robertson, with an office on Gaillard’s Wharf, and Jacint Laval, a Frenchman with an office on Prioleau’s Wharf.

Firewood factors, like factors specializing in other commodities, were logistical experts who arranged for materials to be transported from their source directly to the customer.  They contracted with the foresters, the boatmen, the sawyers, and the carters.  Factors charged a healthy commission for their services, of course, but firewood was a vital commodity that everyone needed.

Even after the rise of the firewood factors in the late eighteenth century, there survived another common position in urban Charleston: the ambulatory wood sawyer.  He was the man who came you your house or yard and sawed your four-foot-long sticks of firewood into smaller pieces that would fit in your fireplace.  This was a day-labor sort of job performed by a number of black men in the city, who went from house to house performing a very necessary task.  As the era of firewood declined in the post-Civil War years, so too did the wood sawyer.  By the mid-1880s (says the Charleston Courier, 15 September 1885), the door-to-door sawyer was all but extinct.

How much firewood did the average person consume in a year?  That’s an excellent question, and you can find clues by combing through the financial records of planters and merchants, as well as the government.  On 19 June 1761, for example, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly resolved that the Barrack Master of Charleston would receive an annual salary of £200 (S.C. currency) and twelve cords of firewood.  From this small piece of evidence, we can conclude that a person (or perhaps a small family) consumed an average of one cord of wood a month for heating, cooking, and washing (though there were certainly seasonal variations).

How much did a cord of wood cost?  Wood was very plentiful in the early days of Carolina, of course, but remember that it was also being consumed at an ever-increasing rate.  During the American Revolution, for example, both the American and British armies chopped down trees for fuel with such alacrity that some property owners complained to the authorities and demanded compensation.  If we could travel back in time to visit the South Carolina lowcountry during the era when wood was the principal source of fuel, I think we’d all be surprised at how bald the landscape might appear.  Yes, there were fewer people and far less development back then, but a great deal of land was cleared for agriculture, and few people thought about the need replant forests or to harvest them in a sustainable manner.

In general, the price of firewood varied according to the distance between the forest and the customer, and the degree to which the wood was processed.  Just think of the charges we pay today for “shipping and handling.”  The price of firewood, being such a mundane part of life in early Charleston, isn’t easy to pin down.  Fortunately, however, I found a complaint about this matter printed in the South Carolina Gazette on 5 March 1763.  On that date, an anonymous correspondent calling himself “John Carpenter” complained that in urban Charleston, “the sale of firewood has fallen into the hands of three or four persons, who command whatever price they please for it, so that a cord now costs almost, if not quite, six pounds by the time it is brought to one’s door, and at exceeding[ly] bad measurement too.”

In 1763, the sum of £6 (S.C. currency, or about 14 shillings sterling) was a healthy sum of money.  Even if John Carpenter was exaggerating about the price of firewood (and he was probably was, in order to make his point), we’re still talking about a significant portion of a man’s monthly income.  For example, I’ve found wage figures for various trades among the accounts paid by the Commissioners of Fortifications in Charleston in the late 1750s and early 1760s, right around the time of John Carpenter’s complaint about the price of firewood.  According to these records, a white man earned 7 shillings and 6 pence (S.C. currency) for a day of unskilled labor (like shoveling mud or loading the ballast barge).  At that rate, he’d have to work about 12 days to afford a cord of wood, which might last him a month.  A carter, like John Braund, earned between £15 and £25 for a month’s work.  An overseer at a job site, who kept his eye on laborers and slaves, earned about £26 pounds (S.C. currency) per month, or a £1 a day.  At that rate, nearly one-quarter of his monthly income was spent on fuel.  Skilled tradesmen like carpenters and blacksmiths earned a bit more, between £1 and £2 (S.C. currency) per day, but the high cost of firewood consumed a sizeable portion of his regular income.  In short, city life was expensive, even during the colonial era.

Imagine walking the streets of urban Charleston during the golden age of firewood.  Prior to the arrival of electric power in Charleston in the late 1880s, the city, and the Lowcountry in general, would have been awash in the acrid smell of burning carbon.  The smell would have saturated the air, and a veil of smoke would have hung over and around the city, even during the sunniest of days.  The city once hosted an army of chimney sweeps—petit black boys paid to scurry up and down chimney stacks—to keep flues clear.  Despite their sooty labors, however, minor chimney fires were once a common occurrence in Charleston.

While we’re thinking about the hundreds, perhaps thousands of fires that might be burning on a cold winter’s night in early Charleston, let’s consider a related question: where did the ashes from all those fireplaces and ovens go?  In all my years of trolling through archival documents, I haven’t found any references to the collection and disposal of wood ash in early Charleston.  I suppose most people simply shoveled the ash from their domestic fireplaces into their backyards.  It is possible, however, that ash was collected by the municipal scavengers (along with other household “trash”) and then dumped on the marshlands on the fringes of the town, but I have yet to find any explicit references to such a practice.  That’s a topic for a future program, perhaps.

Firewood was not necessarily the only fuel available in early Charleston.  Coal from Scotland and Newcastle, in the northeast of England, was imported into colonial South Carolina in relatively small quantities, so only the richest of the rich could afford to use it for heating.  Shortly after the American Revolution, our coal imports were augmented by shipments from the mountains of western Virginia.  The use of coal expanded in nineteenth-century Charleston, to be sure, but it continued to be a relatively expensive, imported alternative to local firewood.  Manufactured gas, which is a noxious by-product of burning coal, came to Charleston in 1846, but its use was initially restricted to street lamps and interior lighting in the richest of households.  Natural gas, in case you’re curious, didn’t arrive in urban Charleston until 1954.

As urban Charleston and the Lowcountry gradually turned to electric power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the use of firewood and coal slowly declined.  As our society moved away from this ancient fuel, we lost touch with sensory experiences that I believe help connect us to the past.  Once upon a time, all of our ancestors, rich and poor, shared the experience of gathering by a roaring fire with their families and friends.  We in the twenty-first century rarely have a chance to indulge in this primitive, intimate ritual.  It’s no coincidence that we get nostalgic while watching a high-definition video of a wood-burning fireplace.  Transfixed by the crackling virtual flames, our minds instinctively time-travel back to an epoch when life revolved around the warm glow of the family fire.