Full Chisel Blog

February 11, 2013

The Importance of Charcoal in American History

Filed under: Alchemy,Historical Material,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 10:24 am

Beehive Charcoal Kiln

The significance of charcoal cannot be over stated, it was one of the most critical resources in the history of American commerce.  Not only for making the finest iron and steel; the blacksmith’s used charcoal to fire their forges, tinsmith’s used charcoal to heat their soldering coppers, it is a valuable pigment, for drawing, purifying agent, filter medium, gas absorbent, ‘sweetening’ cisterns and barrels, fertilizer, heat insulator, charcoal briquettes, tooth powder, and ingredient in gunpowder.  It is also used to make potash which has many purposes.

There is also animal charcoal such as bone black and ivory black that make the finest black pigments, and for pharmaceutical applications burnt natural sponges were used.

Of course there were other consumers of wood produced from forests, steamships and railroad locomotives used wood to power their steam engines.  Wood was used to heat homes well through most of the nineteenth century.

According to some scholars the ‘collier’, the traditional term for a charcoal maker was more responsible for the deforestation of American than the lumberman, and the farmer.  It was a dirty and sometimes dangerous occupation, the fire once started required around the clock monitoring to prevent the fire from going out too early to the pile catching on fire ruining the whole batch.

Not all charcoal piles were the low dome shaped piles of wood, leaves and charcoal powder so commonly depicted, which had to be rebuilt for each new batch and torn down after the wood was cooked.  Some were permanent brick or stone structures and the beehive kiln was the usual choice.  The illustration shows three such kilns built in Central Utah in the mid nineteenth century.  It diagrams how the kiln is loaded and with the door sealed.  Once the wood had been loaded, it was ignited and the opening sealed.  The kilns were not completely air tight with small openings between the stones, rocks, or bricks that allowed enough air for proper combustion or carbonization.  It had to be observed to make sure the combustion continued but there was no longer the danger of being incinerated by falling through a traditional charcoal pile.

Next time you fire up the grill think of charcoal and its role in the commerce and culture of American life.


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