Exploring an old building or house that was built in the 1800s, you may have come across a bricked-up square in the basement and wondered what that used to be. As many Michiganders are aware, many of those were coal chutes. Coal was delivered to homes and businesses via coal wagons, buggies, and later in the 20th Century, cars and trucks.

When the country was still young and the Europeans began infiltrating the land, Americans acquired their heat with wood. There was a plentiful amount of wood that had not been cut down - yet - by the soon-to-arrive lumber companies…so wood was IT. Most homes had fireplaces and stacks of chopped wood that were replenished every few days. As businesses began to grow, they started using coal as a means of heating…but families were not ready for coal…they still preferred wood for their heating purposes.

Michigan’s timber was rapidly being depleted, and it became obvious that most of the heat from wood-burning fireplaces were escaping thru the chimney and not warming the home. What to do? The answer came from Pennsylvania, sitting on mounds and mounds of coal. So, with the lack of wood, coal became in demand for Michiganders, and coal mining operations boomed. Even so, it took convincing to get Americans to use coal.

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Metal ovens were needed to burn coal, and those weren’t cheap…a fireplace was less expensive, and by the way – you couldn’t sit and watch the flames in a coal oven like you could in a fireplace. Plus, you had antagonists that stated stoves were “poisoners” and were “worse than slavery...tobacco, or patent medicines.”

Ah, but then along came the wealthy upper class, who had investments in coal. They pushed the use of coal, attempting to appeal to the public by stating the utilization of coal was “fashionable” and of course, the public began buying into it. After all, these wealthy aristocrats wanted to make sure their investments in coal paid off.

By the 1860s, most Americans switched over to coal, which became cheaper than wood…a big selling point. By 1885, the main American fuel was coal. But how were we getting all that coal? Too much of a pain-in-the-but to haul and deliver ourselves – therefore, coal wagons and merchants were around to bring your coal straight to your house. They would pull up to the house and dump the coal down the chute that was built into the foundation. The chute would either empty into the basement or sometimes the kitchen.

Those old coal deliveries and merchants are long gone, but you can see a nice little collection of Michigan coal wagons in the gallery below!

Michigan Coal Delivery, 1900-1931


Michigan Cobblers


Michigan Grocers, 1900-1960s

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