The Danger of Staying Warm

Those fireplaces in your old New Orleans home may be full of character, but they were dangerous to use! On this day in 1919, two women in separate incidents received severe burns when they tried to heat their homes with coal and gas.

Tragedy strikes when furnaces are ignited inside houses during a cold November’s day.

Say goodbye to the heat and hello to cool air, but be careful not to get hurt! The month of November of 1919, was that the time of the year in which men and women leave their umbrellas at home in exchange for gloves and scarfs. The chilly weather was just about to strike the city of New Orleans and this meant heating their houses.

Dealing with coal and heat, especially, was a very challenging task and women were the ones who took care of it, most of the time. Unfortunately, for these two women, those days of laboring inside their homes came with a price. Although they did not die during the midst of this, they did suffer from severe burns in their bodies. It was sometimes inevitable since they wore dresses that were bulky and hard to remove quickly, therefore it made it more vulnerable for their clothing to catch on fire. Their main heating source came from a furnace or a big oven in the living room that was constantly managed by using coal as its fuel.

Coal became popular as a source of home heat in the 19th century and was still commonly used in New Orleans as late as the 1920s and was delivered by horse-powered wagons to people’s homes or purchased at the corner store by the bucket.  Early central heating seems to have developed along several lines that included fireplaces, stoves, and underfloor systems, but in 1919, many if not most homes still relied on coal fireplaces, which meant carrying hot coals from the stove in the kitchen to various rooms as needed.

More modern houses in New Orleans use gas-burning fireplaces, which are cleaner and easier than coal, but still dangerous because they use open flame. Freestanding heaters were safer, but got very hot and could lead to burns if touched. Not everyone was capable of owning such luxury. Apart from being expensive, it also depended (and till this day as well) on the individual’s household. For the women’s incident, the case was their clothes, but in modern times other factors play a broader role. These factors included: geographic location and climate, type of home and its physical characteristics, number, type and efficiency of energy-consuming devices in the home (the amount of time they are used), and number of household members.

Today the typical U.S. household now uses more air conditioning, appliances, and consumer electronics than ever before. Surprising to the public’s eye consumerism on heating appliances has declined. The reasons being: improvements in building insulation and materials, efficiencies of heating and cooling equipment, water heaters, refrigerators, lighting, and appliances as well as population migration to regions with lower heating demands.


The History of Coal Heating, 2019,

An Early History in Comfort Heating, 2001,

Beyond fireplaces: Historic heating methods of the 19th century, 2017,

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