Firewood or cordwood, is any wood that is burned for biomass energy. It is usually measured in cords, or cubic units eight feet long, four feet wide, and four feet high. Fuel wood must contain less than 67 percent moisture to ignite, so it is usually air dried after harvesting. When partially combusted in kilns, it becomes charcoal – a pure carbon fuel containing almost no moisture. The transition from biofuel to fossil fuel energy is widely considered the critical step in the transformation from agrarian to industrial regimes. Although this is true for the energy demands of industry, most North American fuel wood was consumed heating homes.
When North Americans wonder what happened to their forests they often imagine timber harvested for construction and shipbuilding, but the main agent of deforestation was the farmer cutting wood for agricultural clearing and fuel. Depending on a community’s needs cleared land and cordwood were alternating by-products, but consumption of this biofuel continued long after clearing had ceased. It was still considered a major fuel source in the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas where importing coal was too costly. British deforestation was a result of iron and construction industries, but in North America it was more directly tied to comfort and the cold.
Aboriginal communities used fuel wood intensively for heat, cooking, and swidden agriculture, and fuel supplies were a major factor in the rhythms of migration. Both natives and newcomers consumed an astonishing amount of fuel wood per capita, because supplies were abundant and open fires and fireplaces were inefficient heaters. The average household consumed around thirty-five cords per year in northern parts of the Thirteen Colonies, and a large home with several hearths could burn up to seventy cords per year. Towns usually exhausted local fuel wood supplies within a couple decades, and by the late seventeenth century urban markets operated through fuel dealers and drew from farm woodlots up to 100 miles distant. It rarely paid farmers to haul the bulky commodity over 25 miles, but water routes and urban demand helped create elaborate supply chains. In the eighteenth century severe fuel shortages plagued some cities and made fuel wood a luxury for the wealthy during the harshest winters.
By 1810, more than one billion cords of fuel wood had been processed and consumed in the United States – over a quarter of it between 1800 and 1809 – and consumption increased rapidly in the nineteenth century. Heating and cooking required weeks of chopping every year, and farmers knew their woodlots and energy supply chains intimately. A skilled chopper could cut and process up to one and a half cords per day. This was one of the most arduous and time consuming jobs on a farm, and in turn it created its own energy demands. In mid nineteenth century diaries, U.S. farmers recorded cutting wood around 15 percent of their working days, and Canadian diarists spent as much time or more in the woodlot.
In 1850, biomass energy warmed over 90 percent of U.S. and Canadian homes, but it also propelled most locomotives and steamboats and put extra pressure on riparian forests. Manufacturing industries, such as distilleries, brick kilns, and blast furnaces, consumed large quantities of wood and charcoal. The pig iron produced in the United States, in 1810, required the energy of about 1,000 square miles of forest, and even though efficiency increased, production quickly outpaced the capacity of U.S. biofuel supplies. Fossil fuels had replaced most industrial biomass energy by the late nineteenth century, although Winnipeg still used fuel wood for steam in 1900. Eastern steam and railway companies switched to coal in the 1870s, although some transportation lines in the Rocky Mountains and the far north continued burning wood into the 1930s.
At some point, beginning in the northeast, agricultural clearing ceased and fuel wood was harvested from dwindling woodlots. Some of the earliest energy crises were wood shortages, and humans determined to live in northern climates responded with a variety of solutions: migration, lengthy supply chains, woodlot management and conservation, and increased fuel efficiency. The energy efficiency of biomass was often as low as 10 percent. The widespread adoption of high-efficiency wood stoves, and fossil fuel heat came surprisingly late and the average house still consumed sixteen cords of firewood in the nineteenth century. Although fuel efficient heating and insulation technology decreased the size of the average woodpile it may also have encouraged larger and warmer houses. Clearing produced enough fuel wood to keep rural and urban houses warm without the extensive use of coal, and after clearing had ended well managed woodlots could still keep most rural and some urban houses warm. The renewal of wood supplies was directly related to the concentration of population and industry.
Native Americans often consumed wood resources until the point of exhaustion before moving to new areas, but their numbers rarely presented prolonged threats to forests. Sedentary populations had greater difficulty finding adequate fuel wood, but the fact that they did for so long, even in the urbanized regions, suggests a relationship to woodlots that historians have not addressed.
The transition to fossil fuel was slow because biofuel systems were steady, and chopping fuel wood was flexible enough to fit around other time sensitive farm activities. Fuel wood was sufficient for most of North America’s energy needs before 1890, and it was valuable enough that farmers could sell it to urban consumers and steamboat companies using systems that were already in place for their own fuel.
Note: the text on this page originally appeared in Joshua MacFadyen, “Fuel Wood” in Kathleen A. Brosnan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of American Environmental History. New York: Facts on File, 2010.
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.
Smil, Vaclav. Energy in World History. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1994.
Williams, Michael. Americans and Their Forests: A Historical Geography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.