Rise of Coal in the 19th Century United States

Module Elements

Coal can easily appear mundane to modern eyes—an inferior product from a bygone era. Yet this black, sooty, heavy rock provided a crucial underpinning for the Industrial Revolution: the development of industrial economies based on manufacturing from the late 18th century onwards. The rise of coal in the modern era was a global phenomenon, taking place in earnest in Britain beginning in the mid-18th century, the United States and Germany in the early 19th century. Most other nations have followed suit since, with China and India becoming the world’s leading consumers of coal in the present century.

Industrialization, a slow and uneven process, helped bring enormous social changes, including the rise of factory work, the move from rural farms to giant cities, the production and consumption of countless new goods, and the spread of global inequality and modern empires.

Coal was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for large-scale industrialization. It was necessary because industrialization required more concentrated forms of energy than previously available. Human and animal muscle, rivers with falling water, trees to burn, wind to turn windmills and fill sails—these energy sources were limited in their local availability and in their energy density.

Yet many regions in the world had access to coal and did not industrialize. Coal is not, and never has been, an independent or sufficient factor. People made choices and had to decide if, whether, and how to use coal. Advocates (and opponents) included well-known entrepreneurial capitalists, government officials, and factory operators as well as less often considered homeowners, workers, journalists, scientists, and authors.

The most visible uses of coal in the United States were to manufacture iron, steam engines, and railroads. Americans had made iron before coal using charcoal—wood burned in the absence of oxygen. But charcoal required lots of wood, and this limited its total supply. With coal, iron production could expand enormously, giving rise to further industries that, in turn, used more coal, such as steam engines.

Built of iron or steel, steam engines provided a new and flexible source of power for growing factories. Previously, factories relied on falling water for power, but there were only so many rivers and they often froze in the winter. Steam engines allowed industrial production to grow regardless of local power sources. Often this meant clustering in cities. And by combining steam engines with thousands of miles of iron tracks, the railroad offered the quintessential image of an industrializing nation. The “Iron Horse” spanned the continent, delivered people and goods at high speeds regardless of rain, snow, or mud, and built financial fortunes for a lucky few. Some Americans spoke about the annihilation of time and space along railroads, others bemoaned the power of railroad barons to charge high rates, some perished in fiery crashes, and others struggled to adjust to the disorienting change of pace railroads ushered in.

Railroads and steam engines may have been the “big tech” of the nineteenth century, but a more humble use of coal mattered greatly as well: its consumption in homes. In fact, before railroads were widespread and when only a handful of steam engines were in operation, thousands of urban homeowners were using coal to heat their houses and cook their food. This gave coal dealers an important early market before industrial users. Adopting coal in the home involved more than just substituting coal for wood. It often meant purchasing a new stove, an expensive proposition that changed the look and feel of the home. This change in the household had uneven effects for men and women. Chopping, splitting, stacking, and hauling firewood was often labor performed by men, while the cleaning of wood and then coal-fired stoves fell to women. Women also were typically responsible for cleaning the sootier smoke from coal fires. Less work for men could mean more work for women. Homes looked different, smelled different, and required different divisions of labor once their owners adopted coal.

Finally, coal found its way into countless industries that generated a growing economy. Textile factories could use steam engines to increase output; construction projects could take advantage of cheaper iron bars, nails, and screws; and entirely new industries (such as making stoves for homeowners to burn coal) were made possible by cheap and abundant coal. Whether it was making a product, sending it to market, or constructing a building, coal played an increasingly important role in making it happen.

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Christopher Jones is an associate professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America" (Harvard, 2014), which analyzes the causes and consequences of America's first energy transitions.