REVIEW: The Domestic Revolution : How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything by Ruth Goodman
“The queen of living history” (Lucy Worsley) returns with an immersive account of how English women sparked a worldwide revolution—from their own kitchens.
No single invention epitomizes the Victorian era more than the black cast-iron range. Aware that the twenty-first-century has reduced it to a quaint relic, Ruth Goodman was determined to prove that the hot coal stove provided so much more than morning tea: it might even have kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Wielding the wit and passion seen in How to Be a Victorian, Goodman traces the tectonic shift from wood to coal in the mid-sixteenth century—from sooty trials and errors during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the totally smog-clouded reign of Queen Victoria. A pattern of innovation emerges as the women stoking these fires also stoked new global industries: from better soap to clean smudges to new ingredients for cooking. Laced with uproarious anecdotes of Goodman’s own experience managing a coal-fired household, this fascinating book shines a hot light on the power of domestic necessity.
When I saw that Ruth Goodman had a new novel coming out, I squeed and requested it. I’ll be honest and admit that it was hard to get into for the first 100 pages – being that it wasn’t quite what I was expecting (from the blurb and Victorian stove cover) and also to the degree of detail. Yes, it was interesting information but maybe a bit too much.
That being said, I did learn some fascinating bits of knowledge such as the origin of the phrase “by hook or by crook” to describe means that commoners (I also learned where this term came from) could remove deadwood to use (by means other than using a blade to chop/cut it up). Ditto information about how gathering peat lead to eventual Norfolk broads as well as about coppicing and wood pastures.
Goodman has a wealth of fascinating knowledge of and experience with historical cooking and how to manage open fires. How drafts from doors can mess with you. Whether chimneys were needed. Never having cooked over an open flame, I admit to total ignorance of how differences in types of wood, sizes of billets and other standard sized pieces of wood, peat, or dung can affect cooking times and heat.
Then finally we get to how coal began changing England – shipping, training of men in seaman skills for these ships, need for and introduction of new fire accouterments and household furniture to get you up away from drafts due to the coal on a grate pulling air across the floor. Shifting from open central, wood fires changed the sizes of rooms and finally allowed expansion upwards to higher floors, separating families into individual rooms instead of everyone in the same room that’s being heated. Plus the introduction and expansion of use of chimneys in common homes as opposed to only “show piece chimneys” in the grand houses and palaces. Changes in land management led to fen drainage, loss of hedgerows, wood pastures, and coppices.
The need for better iron pots and pans to cook over coal led to innovations in the production of cheaper iron in England that eventually “fueled” (pun intended) the Industrial Revolution. Coal required a complete change in how things were cooked as managing and maneuvering these pots and pans as well as controlling the heat was totally different when using that fuel compared to a wood fire. British cookery began to diverge from European cookery based on these different needs for coal vs wood.
This then was the cuisine of coal: boiled or steamed puddings both sweet and savoury, roast meats which are in fact baked meats served with ‘roast’ potatoes and all the trimmings, Victoria sponge cakes and hot buttered toast with jam. It is a familiar menu, a nostalgic, romantic and old-fashioned form of cookery for which Britain is known around the globe.
Not only cooking changed with coal but also cleaning. No longer was wood ash available to keep things tidy. Dry ash is easily swept up, wet ash is a cleaning agent itself, smutty coal ash is a sticky mess needing soap, hot water, and a lot of elbow grease to remove. Textile wall hangings transitioned to wallpaper and interior painting replaced plain wooden walls. Using soap also became a symbol of virtuousness, social status and aspirations which was spread across the British Empire. Eventually in the late nineteenth century some truly horrific and racist advertisements were produced to exhort more British to use soap and thus set themselves apart as morally and racially superior people.
While we look back on all these changes, with her expertise in historical (wood) cookery, Goodman is in a unique position to explain the transitions from what had been known and used for millennia to what was standard in Britain until the mid 20th century plus discuss attitudes that carry through to today. While I was only expecting the book to cover the introduction and changes due to the adoption of coal, it actually makes sense for Goodman to give a thorough grounding in what was used and how it was used before the switch in order to see how massive the change actually was. B-
The domestic matters. It is the base unit upon which all else is built. The history of the domestic is the history of everything: how ordinary people choose to lead their lives dictates the future of mankind. Your heating and washing-up habits don’t simply use a few resources or add a touch of pollution. Nor do they merely favour some industries over others. They also create a mindset that will touch future generations and shape their decisions. The domestic past charts how we have changed the world before. The domestic present has the power to change it right now.
I remember reading somewhere that Karl Marx was the last philosopher of the coal era and had he been born 50 years later, he would have been in the petroleum era and the type of world that led him to write Das Kapital would have been completely different. Not sure I totally buy that, but it’s an interesting hypothesis.
I love Ruth Goodman’s books. Her ‘How to be a Victorian’ and ‘How to be a Tudor’ should be required reading on History GCSE syllabuses. Delighted to discover she’s got a new book out and I shall hunt it down immediately.
@jane Lovering: Her book “How to Behave Badly in Elizabethan England” was a hoot and I enjoyed the video she made about celebrating Christmas in Tudor times.
ETA – Which I see you’ve already listened to. ☺
This is definitely of interest to me. I love reading books like SALT or EMPIRE OF COTTON that explain how (to us) basic items/innovations changed the world. Thank you for the review!
@DiscoDollyDeb: I can’t help but think that Marx would have found something about petroleum to write about, too. ;)
@Darlene Marshall: Have you read Kurlansky’s book about milk?