A Whole-House Exhibit at the Trail End State Historic Site
March 2007 - December 2007
IN THE EARLY 1910s, Sheridan had few options for home heating. Wood was too expensive, heating oil wasn't readily available, and gas was not introduced until later (in 1917, gas made from local coal was used to heat Sheridan homes; natural gas arrived in 1930, piped in from fields in southern Johnson County). That left coal, the black diamonds of the Tongue River valley.
FROM BLACK DIAMONDS TO WHITE COAL
Fortunately, local coal was available by the ton – literally! Nearly twenty underground coal mines flourished between Sheridan and the Montana border, providing some of the best coal ever mined in the state. At Trail End, the Kendricks purchased their coal from the Model Coal Yard. Prices were fairly reasonable: in 1914, they paid $2.50 a ton for egg-sized chunks (adjusting for inflation, that is comparable to what we pay today).
The problem with a coal furnace was that it took a strong back and a good shovel to feed the fuel to the fire. It was back-breaking work, particularly in the winter or in a home of any size – Trail End, for example, could burn up to a ton of coal a day in the winter months.
In the early 1920s, automatic coal stokers became popular, thus eliminating the need for a husband, housewife or hired man to shovel coal twenty-four hours a day. In 1926, many Sheridan homes – including Trail End – followed a popular trend and converted their furnaces from coal to gas, thought to be a cleaner and therefore healthier fuel. By replacing dirty coal furnaces with smaller gas units, homeowners were able to add a whole new room to the house: the basement. Instead of dirt floors and stone walls full of coal dust and ash, basements received real flooring and painted walls and became living spaces where men often set up their home workshops.
Even with all its perceived benefits, clean-burning gas wasn’t seen as the ultimate fuel. In 1929, Better Homes & Gardens predicted the coming of “white coal”:
For our ease and convenience, we are using more and more expensive heat units to heat our homes. First we used wood from the surrounding forests, then coal dug from neighboring mines, then the best coal we could buy that would be clean and easy to handle. The next step was oil, and almost at the same time came gas, with its many advantages. Next will come white coal, fed to our homes thru wires, for the electrically heated home is not a far-distant vision.
Although Trail End has eight fireplaces – three in the basement, three on the first floor, and one each on the second and third floors – the Kendrick family did not rely upon them for heat. Instead, the lovely tile and marble-faced fireplaces were primarily decorative. When a fire was lit, it was mainly for atmosphere. For real heat, the Kendricks turned to the hot water radiators placed in every room. They were seen as quite an advantage over a fireplace. According to one manufacturer, "Throughout the raw, bleak days of early spring, cheerful warmth will fill your home. Your wife will be happy, the baby healthy, with a turn of the radiator valve, you will make your own summer."
PERFECTING THE AIR
With manufactured heat came manufactured dryness. As one furnace company stated, "In keeping in our heat, we have kept out fresh air, and not only that, we have taken the cold air that did exist, heated it to a high temperature, and have used over again air which has a dryness comparable to that of the Sahara Desert."
Humidifiers became essential, even in homes like Trail End that used hot water heat (although they were warmed by hot water, these radiators did not put moisture into the air). While the first humidifiers were simply containers of water placed on or near radiators, electric humidifiers soon joined the ranks of laborsaving household appliances.
The up-to-date homeowner also had to think about installing ventilators or portable fans. Not only were they useful for cooling the house in summer; a good kitchen fan could clear the air of unpleasant smells. In a domestic world obsessed with appearing perfect, it was important to keep cooking odors and kitchen fumes away from the dining room. Not only did ventilators make life more pleasant for the family, they helped cut back on some kinds of cleaning. As one ventilator manufacturer noted in 1929:
The tiniest whiff of cabbage, the least suggestion of greasy smoke drifting in from the kitchen, and the psychological effect of your perfectly-appointed table and daintily-served food is completely lost! A West Wind Ventilating Fan gives offensive cooking odors no chance to ‘explore.’ It sends them outdoors immediately, before grease-laden fumes can settle on curtains and upholsteries.
Saturday Evening Post, 1926 (SCHS Collection, TESHS)
Detail from drawing of custom-made foyer chandelier, 1911 (Trail End Collection)
State Historic Site