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Fresh air and foul: the role of the open fireplace in ventilating the British home, 1837-1910

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In Victorian and Edwardian Britain smoke pollution from domestic fires began to be perceived as a major urban environmental problem. For example, emissions of sulphurous house smoke were closely linked to high death rates from respiratory diseases. Paradoxically, however, the traditional British open fireplace was also widely held to be essential to the health of the nation. Contemporary anxieties about harmful air pollutants accumulating within the home, particularly the build up of contaminants emanating from people's bodies, led to an almost obsessive preoccupation with the efficient ventilation of interior spaces. The open fireplace, despite its many defects, was recognized to be the primary ventilating agent in most homes. It kept highly valued fresh air in constant circulation throughout an apartment, while alternative, 'cleaner' forms of heating - such as gas fires and closed stoves - were thought to hamper ventilation, causing higher levels of dangerous indoor air pollution. This paper examines how deep-rooted fears about air pollution inside the home obstructed efforts to improve air quality outdoors in Britain's large towns.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Division of Humanities, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK ( &rpar, Email: [email protected]

Publication date: January 1, 2003

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