Shake, Rattle And Roll!

“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

The old bucket-a-day stove burned all day on a bucket full, one like this.

The old bucket-a-day stove burned all day on a bucket full, one like this.

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

Anthracite coal gleams like a diamond.

Anthracite coal gleams like a black diamond.

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

This photo shows a register similar to one I often stood on.

This photo shows a register similar to one I often stood on.

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?

8 thoughts on “Shake, Rattle And Roll!

  1. A happy memory was sitting in an overstuffed chair that was right beside the grate. Oh, it was so toasty warm to get dressed there every morning. It made the goosebumps come, because we had come down from upstairs where there was no heat, except for a warm brick, or soapstone in your bed. A sad memory, however, was the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. My cousin crawled onto a hot grate and scared her hands, causing permanent nerve damage.

    Down on the farm I have all kinds of wonderful, happy memories! Rosina


    • Thanks for writing Rosina. It’s always fun hearing yours and Emerson’s comments on shirlandyou. I love hearing of your farm memories. I don’t remember our grate getting hot enough to burn. It certainly was a shame to be burned on one. Keep, keeping on, maybe we’ll catch up with you two in the summer.


  2. Well, I am certainly no stranger to making a wood or a coal fire. When I was growing up, my Dad had a wood fired stove/ heater in the basement of our home. I remember carrying in the wood and stacking it, after my father had finished cutting it up. It was difficult and dirty work!! Taking care of a wood stove is much more different than tending to a coal fired furnace or stove is. Starting a coal fire is also more difficult than starting a wood fire is, but once it is started, it is easier to maintain….especially if the coal is hopper fed into the stove. Wood stoves and coal fired stoves or furnaces create LOTS of dust in the house; and I have to say that I don’t miss that at all!! LOL It has been over 25 years since I had to build a wood or coal fire. Coal stove use also depletes the ozone layer, and I know that many people still use that form of heat, but at what cost to our environment???? (Just my thoughts on that). Coal isn’t readily available in NJ, so no one in our area uses coal as a source of heat for their homes. However, many do burn wood in fireplaces and in stoves or wood burning heaters. A neighbor of ours lost her home to a fire that started with the fireplace, and my sister nearly lost her house when her wood burner malfunctioned. I don’t think that people use coal or wood as much as they used to because there are other ways to heat, which are safer and more efficient. Still the idea of “shake, rattle and roll”, in regard to coal fires, is an interesting one. LOL


    • Sounds like you’re quite good at wood burning fires and even coal burning ones. Surely appreciate how you take an interest in all the subjects on shirlandyou. Will look for your next comments, Colleen.Thanks for writing.


  3. I remember using the ash on sidewalks and driveways…When my dad was a teenager he would always come home to a cold house. He would start a fire in the fireplace…he said he was never warm. When my ancestors came from across “The Pond”…for a better life…most worked in the coal mines…some died thier and others later from Black Lung…maybe that’s why my lungs are so weak with asthma. Always liked getting coal candy for Christmas and also coal candy from visiting the mine exibit at Knoebels Grove. The 4th grade field trip from Ross Elementry was always to the mines. One of my best memories…!!


    • Hi Karen: I had almost forgotten about coal candy, but you are right it’s good. Sounds like you still enjoy it. As I recall it left your mouth black. We are so fortunate to have automatic heat and a bit spoiled. Take care of that asthma and write again.


  4. Gloria and I burned coal when we lived in Sweet Valley. It was a pleasant, even heat for our little cabin. Now we burn wood to assist heating our Northwoods cabin, especially the living room with it’s high ceilings and panoramic windows.

    Sooo nice to sit near a stove on freezing nights, as swirls of drifting snow curl past the windows. I think the contrast is what makes stove heat so special!


    • Snow up over the windows? That’s not for me. Obviously you manage to survive the winters in Maine. I can’t even imagine 15 below. I would definitely stay close to the stove. There’s a trick to a good wood burning fire, too. I’m sure you know the secrets. God bless and stay warm, Chuck and Gloria.


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