Robert Benchley: Thoughts On Fuel Saving

The specific points of this Robert Benchley essay, reprinted in Of All Things, may be dated. The spirit of them, I think, is still with us. I know I feel Benchley’s impression of whanging a shovel into a fire box every time I have to figure out why iTunes is acting like that.


Considerable space has been given in the magazines and newspapers this winter to official and expert directions on How to Run Your Furnace and Save Coal — as if the two things were compatible. Some had accompanying diagrams of a furnace in its normal state, showing the exact position of the arteries and vitals, with arrows pointing in interesting directions, indicating the theoretical course of the heat.

I have given some time to studying these charts, and have come to the conclusion that when the authors of such articles and I speak the word “furnace,” we mean entirely different things. They are referring to some idealized, sublimated creation; perhaps the “furnace” which existed originally in the mind of Horace W Furnace, the inventor; while, on the other hand, I am referring to the thing that is in my cellar. No wonder that I can’t understand their diagrams.

For my own satisfaction, therefore, I have drawn up a few regulations which I can understand, and have thrown them together most informally for whatever they may be worth. Any one else who has checked up the official furnace instructions with Life as it really is and has found something wrong somewhere may go as far as he likes with the results of my researches. I give them to the world.

Saving coal is, just now, the chief concern of most householders; for we are now entering that portion of the solstice when it is beginning to be necessary to walk some distance into the bin after the coal. When first the list of official admonitions were issued, early in the season, it was hard to believe that they ever would be needed. The bin was so full that it resembled a drug-store window piled high with salted peanuts. (As a matter of actual fact, there is probably nothing that coal looks less like than salted peanuts, but the effect of tremendous quantity was the same. ) Adventurous pieces were fairly popping out of confinement and rolling over the cellar. It seemed as if there were enough coal there to give the Leviathan a good run for her money and perhaps take her out as far as Bedloe Island. A fig for coal-saving devices!

But now the season is well on, and the bad news is only too apparent. The householder, as he finds himself walking farther and farther into the bin after the next shovelful, realizes that soon will come the time when it will be necessary to scrape the leavings into a corner, up against the side of the bin, and to coal his fire, piece by piece, between his finger and thumb, while waiting for the dealer to deliver that next load, “right away, probably to-day, tomorrow at the latest”.

It is therefore essential that we turn constructive thought to the subject of coal conservation. I would suggest, in the first place, an exact aim in shoveling coal into the fire box.

By this I mean the cultivation of an exact aim in shoveling coal into the fire box. In my own case (if I may be permitted to inject the personal element into this article for one second), I know that it often happens that, when I have a large shovelful of coal in readiness for the fire, and the door to the fire box open as wide as it will go, there may be, nevertheless, the variation of perhaps an eighth of an inch between the point where the shovel should have ended the arc in its forward swing and the point at which it actually stops. In less technical phraseology, I sometimes tick the edge of the shovel against the threshold of the fire box, instead of shooting it over as should be done. Now, as I usually take a rather long, low swing, with considerable power behind it (if I do say so), the sudden contact of the shovel with the threshold results in a forceful projection of the many pieces of coal (and whatever else it is that comes with the coal for good measure) into all comers of the cellar. I have seen coal fly from my shovel under such circumstances with such velocity as to land among the preserves at the other end of the cellar and in the opposite direction from which I was facing.

Now, this is obviously a waste of coal. It would be impossible to stoop all about the cellar picking up the vagrant pieces that had flown away, even if the blow of the shovel against the furnace had not temporarily paralyzed your hand and caused you to devote your entire attention to the coining of new and descriptive word pictures.

I would suggest, for this trouble, the taking of a “stance” in front of the fire box, with perhaps chalk markings for guidance of the feet at just the right distance away. Then a series of preparatory swings, as in driving off in golf, first with the empty shovel, then with a gradually increasing amount of coal. The only danger in this would be that you might bring the handle of the shovel back against an ash can or something behind you and thus spill about as much coal as before. But there, there — if you are going to borrow trouble like that, you might as well give up right now.

Another mishap of a somewhat similar nature occurs when a shovelful of ashes from under the grate is hit against the projecting shaker, causing the ashes to scatter over the floor and the shoes. This is a very discouraging thing to have happen, for, as the ashes are quite apt to contain at least three or four pieces of unburnt coal, it means that those pieces are as good as lost unless you have time to hunt them up. It also means shining the shoes again.

I find that an efficacious preventive for this is to take the shaker off when it is not in use and stand it in the corner. There the worst thing that it can do is to fall over against your shins when you are rummaging around for the furnace-bath-brush among the rest of the truck that hangs on the wall.

And, by the way, there are at least two pieces of long-handled equipment hanging on my cellar wall (items in the estate of the former tenant, who must have been a fancier of some sort) whose use I have never been able to figure out. I have tried them on various parts of the furnace at one time or another, but, as there is not much of anything that one on the outside of a furnace can do but poke, it seems rather silly to have half a dozen niblick-pokers and midiron-pokers with which to do it One of these, resembling in shape a bridge, such as is used on all occasions by novices at pool, I experimented with one night and got it so tightly caught in back of the grate somewhere that I had to let the fire go out and take the dead coals out, piece by piece, through the door in order to get at the captive instrument and release it. And, of course, all this experimenting wasted coal.

The shaker is, however, an important factor in keeping the furnace going, for it is practically the only recourse in dislodging clinkers which have become stuck in the grate — that is, unless you can kick the furnace hard enough to shake them down. I have, in moments when, I am afraid, I was not quite myself, kicked the furnace with considerable force, but I never could see that it had any effect on the clinker. This, however, is no sign that it can’t be done. I would be the first one to wish a man well who did it.

But, ordinarily, the shaker is the accepted agent for teaching the clinker its place. And, in the fancy assorted coal in vogue this season (one-third coal, one-third slate, and one-third rock candy) clinkers are running the combustible matter a slightly better than even race. This problem is, therefore, one which must be faced.

I find that a great deal of satisfaction, if not tangible results, can be derived from personifying the furnace and the recalcitrant clinker, and endowing them with human attributes, such as fear, chagrin, and susceptibility to physical and mental pain. In this fanciful manner the thing can be talked to as if it were a person, in this way lending a zest to the proceedings which would be entirely lacking in a contest with an inanimate object.

Thus, when it is discovered that the grate is stuck, you can say, sotto voce:

“Ho, ho! you * * * * * * * * * ! So that’s your game, is it?”

(I would not attempt to dictate the particular epithets. Each man knows so much better than any one else just what gives him the most comfort in this respect that it would be presumptuous to lay down any formula. Personally, I have a wonderful set of remarks and proper names which I picked up one summer from a lobster man in Maine, which for soul-satisfying blasphemy are absolutely unbeatable. I will be glad to furnish this set to any one sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope. )

You then seize the shaker with both hands and give it a vicious yank, muttering between your teeth :

“We’ll see, my fine fellow! We’ll see!”

This is usually very effective in weakening the morale of the clinker, for it then realizes right at the start that it is pitted against a man who is not to be trifled with.

This should be followed by several short and powerful yanks, punctuated on the catch of each stroke with a muttered : “You * * * * * * * * * !”

If you are short of wind, the force of this ejaculation may diminish as the yanks increase in number, in which case it will be well to rest for a few seconds.

At this point a little strategy may be brought to bear. You can turn away, as if you were defeated, perhaps saying loudly, so that the clinker can hear: “Ho-hum! Well, I guess I’ll call it a day,” and pretend to start upstairs.

Then, quick as a wink, you should turn and leap back at the shaker, and, before the thing can recover from its surprise, give it a yank which will either rip it from its moorings or cause your own vertebrae to change places with a sharp click. It is a fifty-fifty chance.

But great caution should be observed before trying these heroic measures to make sure that the pins which hold the shaker in place are secure. A loosened pin will stand just so much shaking, and then it will unostentatiously work its way out and look around for something else to do. This always causes an awkward situation, for the yank next following the walkout of the pin, far from accomplishing its purpose of dispossessing the clinker, will precipitate you over backward among the ash cans with a viciousness in which it is impossible not to detect something personal.

Immediately following such a little upset to one’s plans, it is perhaps the natural impulse to arise in somewhat of a pet and to set about exacting punitive indemnities. This does not pay in the end. If you hit any exposed portion of the furnace with the shaker the chances are that you will break it, which, while undoubtedly very painful to the furnace at the time, would eventually necessitate costly repairs. And, if you throw coal at it, you waste coal. This, if you remember, is an article on how to save coal.

Another helpful point is to prevent the fire from going out. This may be accomplished in one way that I am sure of. That is, by taking a book, or a ouija board, or some other indoor entertainment downstairs and sitting two feet away from the furnace all day, being relieved by your wife at night (or, needless to say, vice versa). I have never known this method of keeping the fire alive to fail, except when the watcher dropped off to sleep for ten or fifteen minutes. This is plenty of time for a raging fire to pass quietly away, and I can prove it.

Of course this treatment cuts in on your social life; but I know of nothing else that is infallible. I know of nothing else that can render impossible that depressing foreboding given expression by your wife when she says: “Have you looked at the fire lately? It’s getting chilly here,” followed by the apprehensive trip downstairs, eagerly listening for some signs of caloric life from within the asbestos-covered tomb; the fearful pause before opening the door, hoping against hope that the next move will disclose a ruddy glow which can easily be nursed back to health, but feeling, in the intuitive depths of your soul, that you might just as well begin crumpling up last Sunday’s paper to ignite, for the Grim Reaper has passed this way.

And then the cautious pull at the door, opening it inch by inch, until the bitter truth is disclosed — a yawning cavern of blackness with the dull, gray outlines of consumed coals in the foreground, a dismal double-play: ashes to ashes.

These little thoughts on furnace tending and coal conservation are not meant to be taken as in any sense final. Some one else may have found the exact converse to be true; in which case he would do well to make a scientific account of it as I have done. It helps to buy coal.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

2 thoughts on “Robert Benchley: Thoughts On Fuel Saving”

  1. Prior to 1921. The preface to the book from which you extracted this article was written in 1921, so this particular extraction must have been written prior to 1921.

    I just find it helpful to know these things.


    1. You’re right! That’s got to date it at least part of the way. I suppose we can also date the essay to sometime after 1889, since while Benchley was prolific he didn’t write much that was publishable before he was born.


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