Thoreau builds a chimney (Walden 158)

Thoreau writes about building his chimney with second-hand bricks. It was hard, slow work: “though I commenced at the ground in the morning, a course of bricks raised a few inches above the floor served for my pillow at night….”

It wasn’t just heavy work. You had to know what you were doing. Henry remarks that he studied masonry, but he must’ve also learning something about chimney design. A chapter in The Foxfire Book (1972), a collection of Appalachian lore and traditional skills, says that you have to follow certain rules to make sure your chimney will “draw” and not fill your house with smoke. Knowing little about chimneys I was surprised to learn that the interior of a traditional Appalachian chimney (and I assume this was true in New England as well) wasn’t a simple open tube from fireplace to flue. It was narrower at the “throat” (just above the fireplace), wider in the “scotchback” (above the throat), and then narrowed again at the top. A chimney would only draw if the scotchback was larger than the throat and if the chimney also closed down near the top to about the size of the throat — maybe a bit larger, but definitely not smaller.

Disobey these rules and even an otherwise well-built chimney would fail to draw. The Foxfire authors interviewed a man named Bill Lamb who told them about the first chimney he built: “It’d smoke a possum out’a th’ house,” he said. “I bet you could’a built a fire in th’ top of it it wouldn’t have drawn. The only way that chimney would draw was down. The children’ud just run from it cryin’ an’ hollerin’ when a puff’a wind come up. It’d fill th’ whole house with smoke.” (p. 108)

Henry doesn’t write about anything like that (though he says the chimney drew particularly well when the house was still unplastered and drafty). But it seems he got it pretty well right the first time.

He said the chimney was “calculated to endure a long time,” but the little “hut,” as he called it, was moved several times by different owners in later years. I assume the chimney was torn down and the bricks were taken too. Today the site of the house is marked, but the structure itself is long gone. Only the telling remains.

Site of Thoreau's cabin, 2010. Wikimedia Commons

Site of Thoreau’s cabin, 2010. Wikimedia Commons

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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