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Our society has been transformed in the past hundred years as our heating appliances have moved from reliance on wood, which wiped out our forests, and coal, which blackened cities and filled our lungs with sulphurous smog, to oil, gas, and electricity, ideally sourced from green technologies.

Vital comfort for Canadians

1. Image showing early stoves from St Maurice foundry

1. Early stoves on display at St. Maurice Forges.
Click the image for more information.

From the early fur trade days, the fireplace and wood stove were the only manual means of warmth and comfort pioneers in town and country had. The “Great White North” had started to gain control of its indoor comfort.

David Thompson, Canada’s famous explorer, surveyor, map-maker and fur trader, as a teen apprentice in the 1780s, once exclaimed why in his diaries: “All our movements ... were for self-preservation. All the wood that could be collected for fuel gave us only one fire in the morning, and another in the evening. The rest of the day ... the cold is so intense, that everything in a manner is shivered by it.”

The first Canadian foundry at Saint Maurice in Quebec began producing stoves in 1742, and others followed. They went to trading posts all over the West, and were essential in towns, villages and farm homes. A century later, foundries in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 1852, and other centres were making stoves for this new Canadian heating industry.

Those early appliances also evolved, from basic closed cast iron and layered steel boxes to the elegant heaters, cook stoves, and ranges of the 19th century. Attaching a side water tank provided more controlled hot water and was a major step toward the gravity-fed and pressure flow of the boiler.

And 260 years later, those elegant antique closed combustion new and restored wood and coal stoves are still in demand — in part because of the “Great Ice Storm” across eastern Canada in 1998 and the “Northeast Blackout” of 2003. Now aesthetic appeal and some heat drives stove and fireplace sales, whether for real wood and coal or imitation gas, oil, and electric “fires.”

Factually Speaking

In its heyday in the mid-1800s, the Forges of St. Maurice employed over 400 people and the settlement had more than a hundred buildings. Parks Canada

The stove ensured the
one-room schoolhouse survived

1. Photo of a Waterman-Waterbury heater

1. The Waterman-Waterbury heater was
found in many Canadian rural schools.
Click the image for more information.

“[T]he Canada of today [1960s] owes much to the one-room schools of yesterday. It was what transpired in these country schools during the past [75 years] that was largely instrumental in consummating this precious way of life for Canadians. Canada’s future was written on the blackboards of ‘The Little White Schoolhouse.’” So wrote John C. Charyk, in 1968, a teacher and educator who lived that life across the Prairies through the first half of the 20th century.

Thousands of these country schools dotted the rural areas of Canada (and the US) from the 1800s to the mid 1900s. Many can still be seen today in heritage village museums. And most stayed warm with stoves.

With experience, Charyk said, “teachers not only understood the scientific principles behind each operation of a school’s stoves, but they also fathomed every idiosyncrasy of these temperamental heating robots. These “heaters,” fired by wood and/or coal, had stove pipes running across the high ceilings of these buildings to spread the heat over the whole room.

“For the most part, the school stove was a benevolent friend of the children, devoted to their welfare and, in an unobtrusive way, beaming forth on all with an air of cheerful dignity. However, there were times when overhead stove pipes overheated, separated, fell, spewing fire, soot, smoke on all below requiring quick action by students and teacher to put it all back together, or cool it off with snow or water — and then went back to their lessons.

“It was a case of soaking up heat and knowledge simultaneously ... It must be said to the credit of the rural children and teachers that schools were rarely closed because it was too cold outside. Such a luxury was reserved for the present day schools!”

Keeping the school fires burning

Many descriptions of what it took to get fires started in the rural school stoves and keep them going to thaw out the many children who had to walk or ride (by horseback or “buckboard” wagon), often in well-below freezing temperatures and storms are in these books.

“The heat for (these schools) was dispensed by ‘a large rotund contraption,’ often referred to as the ‘station’ or ‘pot-bellied stove.’” The Waterman-Waterbury was one of the best heaters that appeared on the market in the early days, “the best known heater for rural schools.”

The heater had a five-foot high, double layered, insulated sheet metal jacket that circled it like a large cylinder. The sides and the back of the jacket were supported by steel struts, while the front quarter was mounted on hinges and could be swung open or closed like a big door or gate.

Made in Waterbury, Minneapolis, MN, the Waterman-Waterbury Co. also had a factory in Windsor, Ontario. Its models featured an ash pit door and slide draft regulator; a fuel feed door, with slide draft controller; a duplex dumping grate; a grate shaker; and a stove pipe damper. They sold for $168 in 1923.

“The ventilation system was relatively simple, depending upon heat from the stove to circulate the air. Warm gases rise so the air above the stove flowed towards the ceiling while the cold air descended and moved along the floor back to the stove. It didn’t need any complicated mechanical equipment to control these convection currents.

“A duct installed under the floor connected the air intake on the outside of the building to the heater.... When this air intake remained closed, it promoted re-circulation of the air in the school ... fresh air was unnecessary in the bitterly cold winters Canadians faced.... One cause of overhead 8-inch stovepipes collapsing occurred when the stove was full of slack [small bits] coal and the drafts were left closed causing pressure to build to an explosive level.”

Charyk continued, “Wood stoves, or coal stoves, sometimes made of old barrels with pipes attached, were used to heat (school) buildings — and sometimes caused classrooms to fill with smoke. Those children next to the stove would be very warm during the day, while the unlucky kids farthest away would be chilled by the end of class. The children were often required to bring in wood for heating the classroom.”

Section Gallery

2. Photo of a man cooking on a homemade stove3. Image of a box stove at a school

Factually Speaking

The T. Eaton Company sold plans for schools as well as complete building kits in the early 1900s. Read more at Suite101: The One-Room Schoolhouse in Canada: All Primary Grades Were Taught in Single Classroom of Rural Schools

The indoor campfire as fireplace

1. Photo shows children looking for Santa

1. Children look for Santa. Click the image
for more information.

In many respects, the early indoor fireplace was the outdoor campfire with a rock or brick (masonry) combustion “fire box” and chimney. Both provided comfort and cooking capabilities, with the ambiance of the wood burning fire, and flexibility in size and shape.

It even became an elaborate decorative and architectural element in many homes and other buildings. The interior design focus was the elaborate brick surrounds, wood carvings and carved marble mantels, which became very popular in Europe, less so in North America.

In 1796-98, American Benjamin Thompson, a noted physicist and inventor, published advanced fireplace designs in England. While living in Bavaria, and now called Count Rumford, he designed a fireplace with a tall, shallow firebox with a narrowing “throat” that was better at drawing the smoke up the chimney. His design, with outward-angled walls, also greatly improved the fireplace’s clean burning efficiency and increased the amount of radiant heat projected into the room. Rumford’s design is often cited as the foundation for modern fireplaces. His open wood fireplace designs are still being installed 200 years later.

The fireplace evolved into a very technology-based mechanical heating system during the later years of the 20th century. The modern prefabricated fireplace insert was one enhancement. It is a steel firebox designed to fit inside an open former wood fireplace to enhance the heat output, better control smoke emissions, and offer far more decorative choices. It also can be fueled many ways — wood, pellets, coal, gas, oil or electricity are all used.

Today’s closed combustion, high-efficiency, built-in models, and stand-alone stove-type units, feature ceramic glass windows and doors, heat-circulating fans, sidewall direct venting, three-sided windows, and more realistic-looking fire log sets (gas, electric).

This success has not come without controversy. The industry now faces laws by British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, and municipalities (Quebec) to regulate or ban the sale of solid fuel-burning appliances that do not meet the latest standards for particulate emissions: US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and EPA-Phase II guidelines for clean burning efficiency and safety, and Canada’s CSA B415.1.

Section Gallery

2. Image of a fireplace from the 1860s3. Image of a convection fan

Factually Speaking

The fireplace insert was first developed by a Pennsylvania coal miner, Joab Donaldson, in 1869.

Coal scuttle and wood tools:
Often essential, sometimes antique

1. Image of a fancy brass fireplace poker

1. A fancy brass
fireplace poker.
Click the image for
more information.

The tools needed to operate heating systems are intriguing. Nowhere was that more apparent than with coal and wood — like designer radiators and fancy registers, stove tools were a status symbol as well as essential contributors to the task of keeping people warm. The status of tools depended on the metal used, the holders for displaying them — were they “a set”? — and who was allowed to use them?

The coal scuttle had a variety of designs when coal was king, from the 1800s to the mid-1900s. The scuttle was used to keep a small supply of coal handy near the stove, range, boiler, furnace, or fireplace — to add to the fire as it was needed. Over the coal-firing years the scuttle changed design to be more practical and less decorative as the living room coal stove evolved into the basement coal furnace.

Ash scrapers were used for both wood and coal fire tending, clearing the grates and the ash pan for dumping outside somewhere. The coal scoop or shovel was used to handle the coal from the coal bin outside or in the basement directly to furnace or scuttle.

The poker was an important tool for rearranging logs for the best burn, breaking up coal clinkers and hooking them out, or for “banking the fire” so it would last through the night and into the early morning when the person tending the fire would come to “tickle”it up for another full day of heat.

“Banking” and “tickling” required a bit of an artistic touch, and gave some a sense of superiority when they were able to keep the fire burning overnight when others failed. To bank a fire was to pull all the fire coals against one side of the fire box to allow the under-fire air to bypass the bed of coals and not pass through it. The over-fire air shutter was shut down as was the under-fire air or draft. The “fire check” located on the chimney pipe was opened slightly to reduce the air draw from the chimney through the furnace. It would draw the basement air instead.

(If you aren’t old enough to know all this you can’t appreciate what you have missed, a special place in history, but not always a popular one.)

Section Gallery

2. Photo of freshly forged iron fireplace pokers3. Image showing tin and cast iron pots and pans4. Image of fire shovels5. Image showing a combination ring cover

Article Sources

Vital comfort for Canadians

  • "Cook stoves, furnaces, heaters." Enterprise Fawcett, Sackville, N.B. (accessed February 23, 2010).
  • Parks Canada. Forges du Saint-Maurice, Quebec, (accessed October 31, 2011).
  • Aritha Van Herk, “Travels With Charlotte,” Canadian Geographic, Jul-Aug 2007, 64. Regarding the life of Canadian explorer David Thompson.

The stove ensured the one-room schoolhouse survived

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #42,HD1005E).
  • John C. Charyk, “The pot-bellied stove,” The Little White Schoolhouse (Saskatoon, SK: Modern Press, 1968).
  • The Bentley Museum Society, Bentley, Alberta, photo of a Waterman-Waterbury stove at:
  • “The Settlement on the Plains,” photo of a Waterman-Waterbury stove, via
  • Spokane Daily Chronicle, December 1, 1911, news story on Waterman-Waterbury Co., a newspaper file.
  • The One-Room Schoolhouse in Canada, by Susanna McLeod, 2005., Canadian History.)
  • The Evolution of Education in Ontario, Department of Government Services, Archives Ontario:
  • Catalogue and Price List for ‘New Star’ 1930 Hot Water Furnace by O. Belanger Reg., Montreal, Quebec.

The indoor campfire as fireplace

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #53, HD1006L and DSCB #54, HD1006M).
  • Fireplaces, via (accessed June 20, 2011). Consumer information guides by Tsavo Media Canada Inc., Guelph, Ontario.
  • L.A. Shuffrey, The English Fireplace (London: Batsford, 1912).
  • “Benjamin Thompson,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, May 15, 2010.
  • “Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association of Canada.” Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association of Canada. (accessed June 20, 2011).

Coal scuttle and wood tools: Often essential, sometimes antique

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada (DCSB #107).
  • "Fire iron - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (accessed August 26, 2010).

SIDEBAR: More on Schools

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada.
  • John C. Charyk, “The pot-bellied stove,” The Little White Schoolhouse (Saskatoon, SK: Modern Press, 1968).

SIDEBAR: More Indoor Campfire

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada.
  • Bernard Nagengast, An Early History Of Comfort Heating Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration NEWS, via

Factually Speaking

  • Research from the archives of the HVACR Heritage Centre Canada.
  • Parks Canada.
  • “Suite101”: The One-Room Schoolhouse in Canada: All Primary Grades Were Taught in Single Classroom of Rural Schools, via

Image Credits

Vital comfort for Canadians

  • Jean Audet, Parks Canada (detail).

The stove ensured the one-room schoolhouse survived

  • The Bentley Museum Society, Bentley, Alberta, photo of a Waterman-Waterbury stove, via
  • Ed Smith, “Churchill Photo Album - People [2],” via
  • Mrs. Carl Runyon, printed in John C. Charyk, The Little White Schoolhouse: Volume One (Saskatoon, SK: Prairie Books Service, The Western Producer, 1968).

The indoor campfire as fireplace

  • Glenbow Archives NA-5600-7178a (detail)..
  • Nigel Heseltine, HHCC.
  • Ibid.

Coal scuttle and wood tools: Often essential, sometimes antique

  • David Benbennick, via
  • Fir0002, via
  • Nigel Heseltine, HHCC.
  • The James Smart Mfg., Co., Limited., Combined Catalogue and Wholesale Price List of Perfection Stoves, Ranges and Furnaces, Favorite Stoves and Ranges (Brockville, ON: The Recorder Printing Co., Ltd., 1890), p111.
  • Ibid.