Energy in the early modern home

The material culture of heating, lighting and cooking

A window into the complex relation between energy transitions, consumer behaviour, and material culture, this workshop aims to search for new insights into the role of energy in the early modern home.

While energy has certainly not been neglected by economic historians working on the industrial revolution, the effects of energy transitions on households and their material culture remain much less clear.

Nevertheless, as enlightened inventors like Benjamin Franklin and Count Rumford were thinking about how to improve domestic comfort through more efficient hearth and stove types, the transition to fossil fuels and the popularisation of new fuel technologies are believed to have drastically impacted the organisation of the household.

Moreover, changing consumer demand for new ways of heating, lighting and cooking could have been an autonomous force in shaping early modern energy regimes as well. Indeed, from the extensive literature on early modern material culture and the inventions of such concepts as comfort, convenience and cleanliness, one does certainly not get the impression that the domestic lifestyle of the early modern European consumer was oriented towards an energy-saving lifestyle.

Daniel Roche has already described how the struggle against cold and darkness shaped the organisation of the early modern domestic interior and how new ways of heating and lighting changed how people looked at the home fire. Yet, the consumption and material culture of energy remains largely unexplored, since in the classic historiography on early modern consumption and material culture energy has mostly been overshadowed by a (semi-) luxury world of goods craving for novelty, fashion and pleasure.

According to Sara Pennell, however, the exponential increase in domestic coal use was ‘perhaps the greatest transformation in the consumption practices of British households across the seventeenth century’. 

As research on the electrification of America since the late nineteenth century has shown, social and cultural changes within the domestic practices related to energy consumption could be powerful determinants of both energy technology and supply. Did, for instance, the growing importance of domestic sociability surrounding the drinking of tea and coffee stimulate the increase in portable heating elements such as braziers? And was, more generally, the emergence of an urban lifestyle focused on domesticity and comfort a causal factor in the early modern energy transition to fossil fuels? According to John E. Crowley, the consumer revolution in early modern Britain especially concerned a greater sensibility within the material culture of heating and lighting. Perhaps such a consumerist mentality ultimately triggered the emergence of an (early) modern energy-intensive lifestyle.

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