Energy crisis of yore

No one likes to be cold, but when we have a winter power outage at least we have an insulated home and warm clothes and blankets to fend off a chill.

Our 18th-Century ancestors were not so lucky. The Wilton Historical Society forwarded information from the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“The first energy crisis in America occurred in the 1740s when a growing population and inefficient energy practices caused a great shortage in firewood in New England and other heavily populated areas,” it says. Wood is a renewable energy source but trees take time to grow.

Open hearth fireplaces were wasteful and inefficient. Fully 90% of their heat energy went up the chimney, and the fire tended to pull cold air from outside in through poorly insulated walls and windows. Farmhouses needed some 40 cords of wood to get through the winter without their inhabitants freezing. A cord measures four feet by four feet by eight feet.

To the rescue was Benjamin Franklin whose famous stove, then called the Pennsylvania Fire-Place, was a major step forward in wood-burning technology. Of his stove, he said it would not only conserve forests it would enable colonists to keep warm “without being obliged to fetch their fuel over the Atlantic."

The effect of this stove and others designed in the 19th Century was a great reduction in the consumption of wood. By the 1850s the average northern farm required only 15 cords of trees.