This Was Then: Keeping warm

Old notes from a Vineyard Haven plumber.


My grandfather, Stan Lair (1902–87) of Vineyard Haven, worked a lot of jobs in his life — helping tear down the brickyard in Chilmark, catching lines on the wharf at Woods Hole, building model ships at Van Riper’s shop for the admirals to push around their maps. Like a lot of boys in his class, he dropped out of Tisbury High before he could earn his diploma. Later in life, he peddled postcards at Illumination Night, built radios, edited videotapes, and labored in his darkroom. He collected and printed most of the photos that have accompanied these columns.

But mostly, he was a plumber. Over more than half a century, Lair worked for plumbers A.C. Tuckerman, Lester Bumpus, H.N. Hinckley, Jack Hughes, and, finally, Manny Maciel — clearing clogs, inspecting pipes, and closing summer homes. Until the Great Depression sank his business, he briefly had his own plumbing shop at the bottom of Drummer Lane, too.

One thing he didn’t do much of was: Write. That’s why, recently, it was a nice surprise to find five handwritten pages he prepared on a legal pad, titled “Methods of Keeping Warm in the Early 1900s.” What his intentions were for this essay we don’t know, but the following is a unique record of home heating on the Island in the early 20th century, by a guy who knew a thing or two about the subject. It has been only lightly edited.

“Methods of Keeping Warm in the Early 1900s”

By Stan Lair

Coal was the fuel used the most, and also some wood, in the early 1900s. House heating was all from these two methods, except for a smelly portable kerosene stove that could be carried from room to room. Also, kerosene was used in some homes for cooking, with a wick-type burner and a portable sheet metal oven that could be used on the top of the stove.

A few homes had central heat, with gravity hot-water systems, also a few steam systems and duct-type hot air systems. But most homes had one or two parlor stoves, made in Taunton. The popular models on the Island were Household, Glenwood, and P. P. Stewart, which were oval in shape. These stoves were taken outside in the early fall, and cleaned out and polished. The best polish was a brand called Tarbox. It was a paste, and had to be mixed with gasoline before using. It was outlawed in Massachusetts, but everyone used it, as it could be purchased in an adjoining state. 

These stoves also had a compartment at the top, as the top section of the stove was hinged to swing to one side. Stored in this compartment were soapstones — a piece of soapstone about 10 x 10 x 1½ inches thick, with a wire handle. Before retiring to the cold bedrooms, the soapstone was removed and wrapped in several thicknesses of newspaper with an outside wrapping of flannel cloth, then tied like a bundle, with string. Inserted at the foot of the bed under the bedclothes a half-hour before retiring, it made the bed nice and warm in short order. It would hold the heat for most of the night. Later, of course, came the hot water bottle to do the same job.

Chestnut coal was used by most people, and houses had a coal bin in the basement where coal was stored. It was brought from the coal yards by truck, and if possible, a coal chute was inserted in the basement window. At most locations, it had to be carried in 100-pound, double-handled bags, and either dumped in the chute or carried over the shoulder to the bin in the basement. A few homes could be serviced directly from the truck via the chute. Coal was quite inexpensive by today’s standards.

Some wood, but mostly coal, was used for cooking in the kitchen ranges. The popular ranges on the Vineyard were Household, Glenwood, and Crawford. The Household company had a second dealer in the same community by changing the name on the oven door to “Quaker.” That was the only difference in the product. Most of these ranges had a warming oven at the back top of the stove. The smoke pipe ran up through this oven and kept it warm. Also, some had a reservoir at one end built into the stove to heat water. The water had to be ladled out. Later, when running water was available, a water front or coil was inserted in the firebox, replacing the front brick lining and connected to a storage tank for running hot water. The stoves also kept the kitchen warm. 

In the early ’30s, people started to convert these ranges to wick-type oil burners, removing the grate bars and stove bricks to do so. Some had an inverted bottle holding about two gallons of kerosene on a stand in the back of the range. Others installed a 50-gallon drum outside of the house. It was elevated, so it was higher than the burner, and fed by gravity through a copper tube to the burner. These stoves gradually vanished, and were replaced by gas and electric ranges.

Central heating: The three methods used were steam, hot water, and hot air — all fired with coal. The least popular on the Island was steam, installed either as a two-pipe or a one-pipe system.

Gravity hot water was the most popular, and required quite large pipes, until the advent of the electric circulator. One house I recall [John Crowell’s, on the north end of William Street], whose owner was very inventive, had a pipe handrail going up the stairs, which was part of the feed to an upstairs radiator. His reasoning I do not know.

Then came the electric furnace, using buckwheat coal fed into the furnace from an elevated hopper through a worm gear to the firebox. The disadvantage of this system was that the worm gear was designed with a shear pin, acting like a fuse in today’s electric systems. If there was a foreign substance in the coal, such as a nail, the shear pin would be cut in two, and the fire would go out. 

An ingenious way of solving this problem was made by James Lee, the dealer. A small weight was attached to the shear pin hanging over an ordinary funnel, with a doorbell button at the bottom wired to a bell in the upper part of the house. When the bell rang, it warned people that the furnace would be out, and gave them time enough to have the burner serviced before the house went cold.


  1. My grandmother’s Victorian house in downtown Oak Bluffs, now Cousin Rose Gallery, had a coal fired hot air furnace. It was used until about 1960, when coal became unavailable on the island. There was a coal bin in the basement, and as boy, I loved to watch the delivery men from Crowell’s Coal Co. send the ore in down a chute from their truck. The access window was in a narrow alley and they would back up a pickup truck as closely as they could then empty large canvass bags of coal onto the chute by hand. They furnace fire box was about 3’ in diameter and heat radiated from a grate in the floor next to the staircase. They house had plaster ceilings but no insulation, but that furnace just blasted heat through the house.

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