How Fossil Fuel Revolutionized Our Kitchens and Our Food

[The Domestic Revolution: How the Introduction of Coal into Victorian Homes Changed Everything, by Ruth Goodman, Liveright Publishing Corporation; 2020. xxi + 330 pp.]

The subtitle of Ruth Goodman’s book The Domestic Revolution doesn’t come close to describing what this book is really about. Yes, this book tells us a lot about coal and how it affected Victorian domestic life. But this book is really about how what we eat and how we prepare food has been closely tied to economic, industrial, and technological changes over 400 years of history. 

Moreover, this book will provide some valuable perspective for anyone who thinks he or she spends a lot of time “slaving” over a hot stove. Whatever time we spend cooking and cleaning in the twenty-first century is nothing compared to the time, effort, expense, and planning that was needed to prepare meals for one’s family in centuries past. Coal made it all easier, even if meal prep remained generally arduous throughout the nineteenth century. 

Goodman’s overall purpose in writing this book, she tells us, is to correct an error historians and social critics have made. The problem, she writes, is that “the influence of fuel on food has been overlooked.” That is, the food we eat and the way we prepare it is not a product of mere tastes in fashion. Rather, our dining customs and cuisine are also largely a product of “economic and technical pressures” that have been tied to transitions from wood-burning kitchens to coal-burning ones. She writes: “A new fuel [i.e., coal] had driven the development of a whole new way of cooking and a radically different diet. A menu based upon boiling and baking, with a side order of toast, was the cuisine that accompanied industrialization; cause and effect were intricately linked in a fossil fuel-burning age.”

Coal didn’t just heat the food, either. Coal—and the industrialization it fueled—also gave rise to new methods of preparation. As industrialization drove up real incomes and drove down the cost of manufacturing, iron implements became more affordable and far more common. Even working-class households increasingly could afford once-scarce items like iron grates for cooking. By the nineteenth century, ordinary people could even afford cast-iron ranges. Such luxuries were exceedingly rare before the age of coal, as was the convenience that came with coal-cooking and iron implements. 

Goodman explains how prior to the age of coal, food preparation relied primarily on the burning of wood. This had many implications for both domestic life and the economy overall. In terms of life at home, preparing food with wood was more labor intensive than preparing food with coal. Wood fires are less consistent (in terms of temperature) and require more fuel more often than coal fires. Women who did the cooking—it was mostly women, of course—had to also be skilled in how different species of wood burned differently, and which types of fuel were most economical. 

The implications for the larger economy were significant as well. Goodman observes that wood production required a lot of land. Prior to the industrialized coal economy, “people were reliant upon the vegetation that grew around them for their fuel, just as they were reliant on it to feed them and their livestock.” This put pressure on land since land that was used to grow fuel could not also be used to grow food. The turn to coal freed up significant portions of land for food production. Coal also enabled faster growth of urban centers such as London which in wood-burning days competed heavily with the surrounding countryside for fuel. Coal, on the other hand, burned longer, more consistently, and allowed women to step away from their food-preparation duties more often. Goodman writes how  “When there was just one woman available to change the baby’s nappies, bring in the coal, haul the water and …cook the dinner, then a dinner that didn’t need watching as it cooked was a godsend. The freedom to bank up the fire with a mass of coal, stick a bacon and onion pudding wrapped in a cloth into a pot of boiling water and leave it untended for half and hour at a time was an irresistible option.”

The rise of coal led to numerous feedback loops in the economy. Capital accumulation allowed more aggressive mining of coal. The convenience of coal for home food preparation led to millions of women in millions of kitchens to demand more coal. In response, entrepreneurs put more effort toward mining coal more efficiently in larger amounts. This led to a greater abundance of coal which then also fueled the industries we associate with industrialization. This included greater mass production in iron tools and cookery. All this also provided higher-income jobs to former agricultural workers. These workers could then afford more coal and easier-to-use kitchens. And so on.  

Coal-fired kitchens also decentralized food preparation.  For example, wood-fired brick stoves, as Goodman notes, “encouraged the production of large, uniform batches of baking.” Under such conditions, baking was generally done by professional bakers in the towns and villages: “Small batches of baked good were simply not practical, even in the great houses, until coal-fired perpetual ovens appeared around 1750.” When they first appeared, these small iron ovens—manufactured with the help of coal, of course—could be installed even in small rooms where they permitted far greater ease in preparing “an ever expanding array of cakes, biscuits and pastries… Home-baking became more accessible to more people.” 

This allowed for more flexibility and privacy: “Faded spinster ladies managing on small annuities in a couple of rooms within someone else’s house could cheaply entertain their friends with tea and toast without bothering the servants (who expected payment).” 

Wood-fired cuisine remained the domain of the well-to-do, but coal liberated domestic workers from the need to constantly tend meats roasting over a woodburning fire, and from the need to travel to the local bakery for bread.

With The Domestic Revolution, Goodman has created a valuable contribution to economic history, and even provided us with new illustrations of some insights of the Austrian school of economics. For example, when looking at economic development, we often speak of “food” as if it were some sort of homogenous good. This, of course, is not true at all. If we are going to say that industrialization made food more affordable in larger amounts, we have to ask ourselves “which food?” We are reminded that goods of all types are thoroughly heterogeneous as are all the various ways we use and prepare those goods. Moreover, the unpredictable relationship between food, fuel, and industry illustrates just how impossible is is to centrally plan an economy. No one could have predicted ahead of time how decades—indeed, centuries—of trial and error in food preparation drove consumer demand and the industries that responded to it. 

Menus and daily life changed substantially in unpredictable ways from the pre-industrial age into the industrial one. This all reinforced a complex network of entrepreneurship, lending, borrowing, and production that has had profound implications every single day in terms of what people eat, and how. 

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