“Shake, Rattle And Roll” is not the perfect terminology to use for the topic of this week’s shirlandyou, but it comes close. I say that because I’m remembering the days when my parents had to tend a coal fire. To do this you used a poker, rake, shovel and at times you had to shake the grates, bank the fire and open or close the damper. To begin with it wasn’t easy to start a coal fire. Orange-crate wood was ideal to use as kindling, some paper and a partly filled shovel of coal, followed by the addition of a little more coal and more, and more, carefully doing this without smothering the fire.
How to keep a coal fire burning consistently, especially overnight, was a trick and if it should die down, the house soon felt downright cold. Thankfully when our family moved
into a coal fired house, we did have electricity. Prior to the days of electricity, a coal fire was always needed. It was used for cooking, heated the water and the iron for ironing. The curling iron, too. I remember my father also tending a small stove near the furnace, called a bucket-a-day. It took a bucket of coal a day to keep the water hot.
There is lots of talk about the wonders of anthracite coal, which is found only in Pennsylvania. It is by far the cleanest coal. When well-washed it shines like diamonds, leaving no dust on the hands. When coal is called clean, it is meant
that it is consumed completely with a minimum amount of ashes. Even then, ashes were oftentimes run through a screen so coal that didn’t burn was retrieved. So many factors, such as draft, had to be considered for efficient burning of coal. And no matter what you did, there were always ashes to be shoveled out of the bottom of the furnace, leaving a fine ash in the air, to collect above in the upstairs. In the winter time everyone used the ashes on icy sidewalks and in driveways. Men would keep containers of ashes in the trunks of their cars, for snowy weather. Of course, when you came indoors in the winter, you tracked ashes everywhere.
What I remember most about our coal-fired home, was the big center grate in the floor
between the living room and the dining room. By gravity the heat raised from the furnace fire just below the grille. It was my favorite place to stand or sit, (if the grate wasn’t too hot). To me, it seemed that most of the time, it was the only really warm place in the house.That same supply of heat was expected to rise and warm-up the upstairs.
Keeping a coal fire wasn’t easy back when furnaces were big hunks of steel with rocking grates that needed to be shook down before more coal could be rolled in. Let’s take another look at the title of this blog. “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” was a compilation album issued by Decca records in 1955. In 1954 a song by that title was sung by Big Joe Turner and it was considered an uptempo blues songs. However, the phrase had been used much earlier in a 1919 song by Al Bernard and it was about gambling, clearly evoking the action of shooting dice from a cup. Then, Bill Haley did it later and it became the first giant rock and roll hit. Rock and Roll seems to be here to stay and from what I’ve read, burning with coal is coming back. The gyrations required to do both the dance and keep a coal fire going may just be similar! Don’t you think so?