Finding Fuel for the Fire in 18th-Century Pennsylvania

Today, we assume wood was plentiful in the 18th century and that there were no daily concerns with how fuel for the hearth would be provided for all sorts of people.

Those who lived in the city had to pay to have wood carted in and had to have a place to store it out of the elements. The Pennsylvania Gazette of November 17, 1763, published rates “For the Cartage of the following Goods, Ditto, not more than Half a Mile, than a Mile Firewood, per Cord £0.2.0- £0.2.6.”[1]

Considering that an unskilled laborer earned about 2 shillings for a hard day’s work, this was not an inconsequential expense but still had to be purchased to supply his family’s basic needs.

Those of the better sort weren’t as concerned with the cost of the cartage, but they were concerned with the availability of firewood. Many wealthier families had property outside city limits for the express purpose of owning wood lots for firewood to supply their needs.

Women of the better sort managed their household and attempted to have enough wood put by to supply their household with sufficient firewood for cooking and heating purposes. Elizabeth Drinker makes note in her diary on November 8, 1777, that “We had a Stove put up in the back Parlor; this Morning Wood is so very scarce, that unless things mend there is no likelihood of a Supply, and we have no more than 4 or 5 Cord, in the Cellar…”[2]

Women who found themselves in poorer circumstances worried about how they would stay warm during the cold winter months. Consider the plight of Elizabeth Badder. She advertised her plights in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Her husband deserted Badder and her dependent child in winter without “the necessaries of life.”[3] In a quite lengthy vignette published in the same paper, she pines away soliciting empathy from the readership and acquaintances when she states, “He also left me one whole winter, when only brought to bed of a child two weeks, not coming to see me but twice, and then staying 2 days one time, and one the other, not leaving one stick of firewood.”

During the Revolution, the shortage of firewood and other necessities of daily living was a concern for the inhabitants of Philadelphia. Firewood was a concern to all whether you were of the lower, the middle or the better sort. Even the gentlemen who retired to the Library Company to enjoy its prized collection took measures to conserve wherever possible. With regard to firewood, there were concerns regarding provisions for one of Philadelphia’s many libraries:

“The Members of the Library Company of Philadelphia are hereby notified, That on account of the high prices of firewood, candles, &c. the Library Room during the winter season will be opened for the loan and receipt of Books upon Wednesday and Saturday only, from the hours of two to eight, P.M. By order of the Directors, ANDREW ROBESON, Secretary.”[4]

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This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Sherry Iorio, “Fuel for the Fire” in Past Masters News, Volume 6, Issue 1, Winter 2003, 1-3.

Image caption:

“Woman with Bellows Lighting Fire” Late 1700s, courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum


[1] The Pennsylvania Gazette, November 17, 1763

[2] The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, The Life Cycle of an Eighteenth Century Woman, Edited and Abridged by Elaine Forman Crane (Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1994) p. 66.

[3] The Pennsylvania Gazette, June I6, 1768; Item #42671

[4] The Pennsylvania Packet, November 14, 1778; Item #63591.

1 thought on “Finding Fuel for the Fire in 18th-Century Pennsylvania”

  1. An important subject that too many of us take for granted. Deforestation in the Old World was a major motivator for colonizing the new world. (England had run low on wood and changed over to coal burning by 1700. )
    Ben Franklin commented on the shortage of firewood in the British colonies in the 1740s. Unfortunately for everyone, there has always been a fossil fuel or technological “solution” for every problem.. except the most fundamental one: humankind’s insatiable appetite.

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