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Saving Coal At Home

In this episode, Dan Holohan reviews a circa-1920s short film that the US Bureau of Mines made about energy conservation. 


Episode Transcript

I know, I know. You’re not burning coal at home.

Very few Americans are, but that was the title of the short, silent film I watched on YouTube. The United States Bureau of Mines, Department of Commerce made it during the 1920s, and it’s filled with drama and also an annoying surprise. Our government was trying to get us to save energy to avoid scarcity back then. They did it with drama, and a certain amount of deception. Allow me to set the scene.

But first, full disclosure: The film opens with a notice that our government made this film with the cooperation of the Peabody Coal Co. That was notable. Francis Stuyvesant Peabody was just 24 years old in 1883 when he started that Chicago company with an investment of $100. He went on to become a wealthy coal baron and was nearly selected to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in the 1912 presidential election. During World War I, Mr. Peabody chaired the Coal Production Committee of the Council of National Defense and was the assistant to the director of the Bureau of Mines.

So there you go. We have our sponsor!

Next up on our silent screen is a note that reads, “With the perfection of the steam engine and boiler the demand for coal became so great that engineers have been forced to give attention to the conservation of heat by covering the pipes with a non-conductor.”

So we’re talking steam heat and pipe insulation here, right? I like that. All steam pipes need insulation so the steam doesn’t turn back into liquid water while it’s still in the basement. If it does, the radiators upstairs are going to be cold and the people are going to be miserable. It’s also good to insulate hot-water pipes, but it’s not as critical as it is with steam pipes. Hot water doesn’t want to condense into hot water. It’s already there.

OK, let’s meet the actors.

We have a candlestick phone in a room that also has lovely furniture and a grand piano. Clearly, the folks who live here are enjoying the fruits of the Roaring Twenties. A middle-aged woman answers that phone and we switch to a close-up of her neighbor, who is making the call to invite her and her husband over for tea. The couple gets crazy excited about this. They grab their top coats and hats. Tea does that for some people.

But before they can leave this scene, the woman says, by way of a silent-screen sign, “Everett, don’t forget the fire.” Everett makes an “Ahha, ah-crap” gesture and heads for the basement. He’s wearing a suit, of course. He grabs the coal shovel and uses it to open the boiler’s door. He shoves in a load of coal, closes the door, puts down the shovel and heads back upstairs, but not before we get a close-up of some lovely Peabody coal burning brightly.

But here’s the thing: I’m taking a close look at that boiler. Things hydronic just jump out at me and this is clearly a hot-water boiler. I can tell by the near-boiler piping. The supply and return pipes are the same size. You don’t have that in a steam system. There’s also no gauge glass, and no pet cocks that might substitute for a gauge glass. These folks clearly have a gravity-hot-water heating system. The boiler is covered with asbestos, but all the pipes are bare. I can see that. They cut to a close-up of a thermometer near the boiler. It reads 80 degrees.

Back upstairs, he says to his wife, by way of that silent-screen sign, “The basement is so warm the fruit is spoiling, but here we are freezing.”

OK, so there’s the problem. Got it.

Next scene: They arrive at their neighbors’ house. The neighbor guy takes their coats and Everett goes immediately to the radiator and wiggles his butt into it while rubbing his hands in delight. It’s a bit salacious and I’m waiting for the neighbor lady to give him back his coat and toss him out into the street, but instead Everett says, “I’m glad you phoned. Our place is as cold as a barn. How do you keep your house so warm?”

OK, that’s safe.

The neighbor guy lights their cigars and says to Everett, “Come downstairs and I’ll show you.”

Guys will be guys.

So now they’re in the basement and I see that they have identical hot-water boilers. I’m getting a feeling we’re back in the same basement we were in before because that would cut the cost of the film-making, but the pipes now have insulation on them. The neighbor guy says, “Our two houses are built alike (that’s for sure). “The boilers are of the same make and they burn the same type of coal.” (That would be Peabody coal.)

Meanwhile, the camera switches to upstairs where the neighbor lady is showing off her thermometer and smiling because the temperature is just right. They go into a bedroom and look at this big kid sleeping in a crib. “Our home must be kept warm because of the baby,” she says. The kid wakes up and smiles on cue, happy and warm. Cut!

Back in the basement, the neighbor guy points to the covered pipes and says, “The key to heating efficiency is right here. The covering keeps the heat inside until it travels upstairs where we want it.” He shows a thermometer. It sure is cool down there in the basement.

They head upstairs and all sit down for tea. There happens to be a teapot under a tea cozy. How’s that for a prop? “This tea cozy is a good example of heat saving,” the neighbor guy says. “It keeps the heat in.”

But meanwhile, and because I’m just bent this way, I’m noticing that every time they show a radiator, there’s always something strategically placed to hide the radiator’s return piping, a person’s leg, a vase, a chair. They really want us to think this is one-pipe steam.

It isn’t.

“Steam is conveyed to different parts of open stretches of industrial plants only by covering pipes,” the neighbor guy says as the camera switches to a working power plant. I sigh and shake my head. They then show a steam-locomotive factory. “Every locomotive boiler is lagged to conserve the heat generated within it.”

I’m watching all of this and mumbling, “You have a hot-water system, jerky,” but they’re not answering because they’ve all been on the other side of the lawn for quite some time now.

The Lovely Marianne comes into my office and asks who I’m talking to. She sees what I’m doing, shakes her head and leaves.

Cut to a 1920s commercial boiler room. “The even distribution of heat throughout the massive department store is possible only because the conveying pipes are covered,” the neighbor says.


“There are thousands of heat units in one pound of coal,” the neighbor guy continues. “It is these you buy when you purchase fuel. The problem is to prevent the escape of those heat units except where you want to release them.”

“It’s not steam,” I gag at my screen. “It’s hot water!”

But wait; it gets worse. They now segue to a cartoon that has tiny, black heat units that look like cockroaches streaming through a pipe and heading for a one-pipe steam radiator, which neither of these knuckleheads own.

“At your house, Brown,” the neighbor says, “the majority of the heat escapes into your basement and never reach your rooms.”

OK, so now we know Everett’s last name is Brown, but I’m wondering why his neighbor is calling him Brown instead of Everett.


Back to the cartoon. There’s more cockroaches. One appears on the top of an uninsulated pipe elbow and shouts to his brethren, “Come out! It’s easy!” Heat roaches spew from the pipes. I’m reaching for a can of Raid.

Anyway, they finish their tea and get up to go home. Not the roaches, the people. One of the chairs is conveniently blocking the return pipe on the radiator next to the table. Good catch, film crew.

“I shall order coverings for our pipes and our boiler first thing in the morning,” Everett tells his wife when they get home. She smiles and nods at his brilliance. The next day, we see two workmen in the basement. They’re covering a bare boiler with asbestos. This is the same boiler that was completely covered with perfectly fine asbestos yesterday.

Which tells me Brown is probably getting screwed by the contractor.

Give me strength.

Did you like that story? If so, please share it with your friends. And please subscribe to this podcast. I have many more Dead Men Tales to share with you. And I appreciate you for taking the time to listen. The listener is more important than the storyteller. Always. I’m lost without you. Thanks.

You can view excerpts of the Saving Coal At Home video here.

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