Firewood and Household Implements in 17th Century New England

     In Reverend Francis Higginson’s list of items to bring to New England, the “Household Implements” section reveals just how much settlers relied on firewood for heating. Higginson names six separate items that all require high temperatures in order to properly prepare food in one iron pot, one kettle, one frying pan, one gridiron, two skillets, and one spit. The inclusion of these items shows just how important fire was in the colonial kitchen and home, and thus how the need for firewood contributed to the eventual deforestation crisis in New England. The settlers saw the forests of New England as a never-ending supply of timber, relying upon them heavily and making them a symbol of how the colonists exploited the natural resources surrounding them.

      The household cooking implements listed above not only show how the settlers prepared their food, but also what kinds of food they prepared. Spits and gridirons are often used for smoking or grilling meats, kettles for preparing hot drinks, and iron pots, frying pans, and skillets can be used to ready raw foods. The diets of colonists were based off of food that had to be properly cooked by using the kinds of household implements Higginson listed. These objects helped settlers to stave off starvation, but relied upon firewood to function properly.

     Fortunately for the settlers, they had what seemed to like an endless supply of timber ripe for burning in their fireplaces. Outside of building structures or ships, the greatest purpose of the forest was for fuel and firewood. In England, there had been a scarcity of wood supply, leading to limited and conservative usage. However, in New England settlers ignored the shortages that had affected them back in England in order to take advantage of the bountiful natural resources that now surrounded them. To make matters worse, colonists wastefully burned their wood in open fireplaces, “which were four or five less times efficient than the closed cast-iron stoves” that others in America used.

     The copious burning of wood for such household uses as cooking helped contribute to the deforestation of New England. While large forested areas continued to exist, they did so at increasing distances from major population centers as settlers rapidly consumed the woods that encompassed them.  The deforestation of New England for food and comfort is emblematic of how the settlers chose to affect the land and ecosystems of their new home. Along with forest loss, colonists helped to contribute to the decimation of various animal species and the mass depopulation of Indians. While these transformations were not completely the fault of colonists, they played a major role in the reshaping of the New England landscape.

     Higginson’s list of recommended items for New England settlers gives historians a glance at what was prioritized in the early seventeenth century. The items in the Household Implements section reveal the dependence of these peoples on natural commodities such as timber through  tools like iron pots, frying pans, or spits. Settlers saw the seemingly endless supply of surrounding forest and consumed it recklessly. The colonists viewed themselves as in a land of plenty, and the firewood used for household cooking objects is emblematic of that mindset.

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