Ed Ellingson's Blog


2. Historical Perspective on Energy

Historical Perspective. Life before fossil fuels, about 1750-1830.

In order to understand the impact that fossil fuels have had on us, on our economy and our lifestyles, it’s necessary to understand what life was like before fossil fuels had any real impact on the economy.  I think the period of the early formation of our country is a realistic period, 1750-1830.  This is before fossil fuels had any real impact on life here, ending just when railroads started to criss-cross the country.

Fortunately, this period is quite well documented.  This is both because the printing press had been established, so writing was available and wide-spread, and because it was such an interesting time for our country that people were prone to write about it, and to save any records.  We can tour the birthplace and first home of John Adams, and read the letters written by him and by his wife Abigail, and read from several books written about them, as examples of how much information is available.

We all have relatives that lived back then too, and any of us could have documents and stories that have been passed along that help to explain what life was like back then.  I happen to have a forbearer who is quite well documented, and about whom stories have been told, my Great-Great-Grandfather, Fitch Allen Higgins (1793-1882 ) and his wife, Lucretia  (Miller) Sibley (1811-1886).  He was born in Connecticut, served in the War of 1812, and in 1835 came to Wisconsin to settle land and set up a farm.

Lucretia (Miller) Sibley Higgins



Whatever sources you want to go to, you should try to understand what life was like in those times

I think it’s difficult to imagine just how hard people had to work then.  It was a constant battle to get enough food & necessities on the table and stored up for the winter, for both humans and animals (which were both a source of energy and of food).  The accounts seem to indicate that about 70% of the population were farmers, meaning that  typical farmer produced enough food for their family, and not nearly enough for one additional family.  What they produced beyond what they needed was produce that could be sold or exchanged for they couldn’t produce themselves, like salt, spices from the Indies, metalwork of any sort, medical care, books and newspapers, etc.

I think it’s clear that people were basically poor by any standards of today.  It was a struggle to get enough food to eat, and any serious setback, like a serious injury, theft or death of livestock, or the failure of a major crop, put people in real peril, as in suffering malnutrition.  Infant mortality was understood to be high, and the average life expectancy was on the order of 50 years.  If a man died, his wife was likely very desperate to find a new husband to complete the economic unit.  If a woman died, children were likely to be split up amongst relatives, at least until the husband had a chance to find a new wife.

Think of what life was like before mechanical refrigeration.  When winter set in, you’d better have your barn, root cellar, and pantry stocked with the goods to make it through winter.  Live animals were part of your larder; you killed the animals as you needed the food, and cooler weather helped to preserve meat for some extended periods.  Meats could also be smoked help preserve them.  Root crops like potatoes, rutabagas, parsnips, onions, and such stored pretty well in underground cellars where the temperature was cool, but above freezing.  Many fruits could be dried enough to store, so drying racks were a fixture of the summer.  Most other things could only be preserved by adding something that would kill the spoilage agents, basically salt, acid (usually a weak acid, vinegar), base (lye), alcohol, or sugar.

The animals needed a store of dried grasses (hay) and grains to eat through the winter, no matter whether you used the animals for food or for their work output.  Animals also needed water.  If the only source was a well, water had to be lifted/pumped out of the well and dumped into troughs for them to drink.

Other than the animals, the major source of energy was firewood, and any good farm had a managed woodlot included.  A typical house probably used 6-8 cords of wood a year, and this much wood needed to be cut each winter to allow to dry for the following winter.  The main logs were used for lumber, and all the remaining wood was cut to an 8 ft. length or so and stacked to dry, then cut to fireplace or stove length, and split if too large.

Energy was also used for light, and the main source of light was animal fats, typically utilized in the form of candles, although whale oil was an rather good source and could be burned in lamp units.  I’m not familiar with the process of making candles from animal fat, but I expect that it’s a dirty, labor-intensive job.

A person was valued for their work output.  Think about Abraham Lincoln as a young man (born 1809) working as a day laborer, splitting rails.  His value was in the number of rails he could make in a day, which is a combination of physical strength, technical skills, and planning.  If he could make 200 rails in a day, he was worth twice as much as someone who could make 100.

People had diverse skills: horticulture, animal husbandry and care, forestry, food preparation (including butchering, preserving/storage), hunting/fishing, carpentry, woodworking, quilting/weaving/sewing, making furs/leather, metalworking, riding horses, harness making/repair.  These diversified skills were valued, as they were necessary to accommodate the different tasks of each season.

As you study this time period, try to establish in your own mind what life was like, also think about some of the following topics:

  • Communities
  • Religious
  • Travel/Transportation
  • Medical care
  • Gender roles
  • Wealth disparity
  • Leisure & recreational activities
  • Treatment of animals
  • Education
  • Retirement
  • Taxes
  • Child welfare, child labor

Keep in mind that the identification of this lifestyle “baseline” is for the USA only, and it may be important to broaden that to the whole world, given that we’ve developed and changed to a point that we are now part of a “world economy” where all countries on the earth are interconnected.

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