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Best Domestic Coal: 1938

Best Domestic Coal: 1938

November 1938. "Apartment houses with no rear windows. Omaha, Nebraska." Medium format acetate negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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"Central" Heat

I find it interesting that in Kozel's back view of the apartment buildings only one building had a chimney, perhaps the middle building in a group of five buildings?
That one building would have had a boiler that provided steam, or hot water, to all five buildings for heat in the winter. Coal for that boiler would have been delivered by truck into a chute that led into the basement.

Black Ice anyone?

Using the same trucks to deliver coal and ice might have coined the term 'black ice'?
The apartment buildings invoke curiosity. It appears the fire escapes had screen doors. Back in the day they had the good sense to orient buildings to take advantage of prevailing winds. I notice in current photo the doors are fortified as necessary in our changing world. The doorways and windows have arched tops, as I have noticed in 1800's construction, which gave way to square tops after turn of century. The mystery window, square top, shows signs of brickwork indicating it was later added. also filled in the mystery 'black square' below it. Have no idea what the mystery squares are, would be about waist high, so not structural tie-bolts, anyone have ideas? Not likely clothes dryer vents! haha! Just to the right of the uppermost fire escape landing is a beam jutting out. Perhaps a davit to attach block and tackle for moving stuff? Watch out for those power lines! But folks of the day had enough common sense to know that.

A Collection of Fascinating Stuff

Thanks again to John Vachon for another amazing photograph of Americana, and thanks to Dave for bringing it to us. My appreciation to the fans for the remarks about coal and ice synergy and for showing the present day view. I wonder about the tiny white storefront shack to the left, and what could have been going on in there. It reminds me of a very small barber shop that is in an old suburb of my city, but there is nothing on the front of this little place in Omaha to indicate what kind of business it is.


If you wondered what the exchange name was for Tom Bessey's telephone number, I found it through NebraskAccess.

View from the other side

A Google Street view shows the front side of the apartments. Based on the front entrance view I think that each floor has a central hallway running from the front to the back. The main entrance to the building is on the front and probably a stairway to the upper floors. The Shorpy image shows the back of the building with the central hallway ending in a door to the fire escape stairs. Each building probably has four apartments per floor. The "Madison" building in the Google image also appears to have a side entrance but looking at the others that entrance seems to be missing, The one small window on the back of only one building on one floor is a mystery.

Coal & Ice

When I was an urchin all coal companies sold ice and all ice companies sold coal. One product for the summer and the other for the winter.

Truck ID

1933 Chevrolet (the front of which is a copy of the 1932 car)

Coal & Ice

Coal & Ice companies, like Electric Railway & Light companies, were a way to make money all year long, or around the clock.

Staying with the hod theme:

My guess would be that those packages are bundles of coal briquets.

Much easier and faster to stack into a hod than loose briquets. Easier to account for in the whole logistics chain (who would count up to 120 briquets rather than to 12 packs of 10). And cleaner to store than loose ones. Great example of consumer value meets process improvement.


A very interesting photograph and there’s a lot going on here: a half-hidden woman on the back stairs, figureheads under the “ice” signs, the front half of a car frame in the shop, reams of paper on the milk crates (possibly electioneering posters like the two in the shop windows?), bundles of firewood, a bag of coal, and a portable “no parking” sign. What else did miss at first glance (and WHAT might 50 cent-and-up pick-up be)?


Anyone know why the 3D image of what appears to be a woman is on the ICE logo pedestal? And buying ice from a coal vendor who also scraps cars? seems kinda iffy to me, but it is 1938 and seems to be a lot of apartments directly behind.

Fresh wrapped coal?

It that coal in the wrapped packages looking like laundry? Strange.

The buildings look more like a factory or warehouse than apartments!
The narrow doorway on the left may be where the mechanic lives?
And the shop appears to have seen better days.

Size Matters

It appears that the one tiny window in those blank apartment back walls would indicate a kitchen or bathroom. Two rooms that frequently do not have windows.

Looking at the front of these apartments (The Madison and Monroe Apartments at 2218 Jones Street) It appears that they have been remodeled and are low-income housing. Interesting that in the remodel, there are still no additional windows on the back on the building. I don't know how to add a google picture to my post but used the address above to see the front of the apartments if you are interested.

A practical recommendation

If you can't afford the expensive imported stuff, buy the Best Domestic Coal.

No coke machine

Coal and Cola is a missed opportunity.

The coalyard

Bagged up and packaged neatly. Selling some kindling there -- the bucket a day will be heating up nicely in no time.

Wrapped packages

This photo is such a goldmine of intriguing detail, but my attention is drawn repeatedly to those two elevated stacks of wrapped packages at curbside. They look like double reams of photocopier or printer paper, which would amount to 1,000 sheets per package. But can we ever know? The business is a hauling service, so they could be anything.

The apartments survived, Best Coal did not.

Remember Tim Finnegan?

Because to rise in the world he carried a hod.

That's how the domestic coal typically found its way into the domestic basements.

Electric or central heating, anybody?

One lump or two?

How much for all three?

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