It's a Hot Topic
We see “Sparks fly when...” in just about every romance novel, either in a review or the back cover blurb. A lot of emotional sparks did fly in the Old West, romantic or otherwise. I’m going to talk about the “otherwise.”
We don’t worry too much about making fire these days. All we have to do is go to the store and buy matches or a lighter and we’re all set for our outdoor grilling. But what did the lawdogs use when they were hot on the trail? Or the outlaws who were making that trail? They had to fry bacon and boil coffee some way, and there weren’t a whole lot of Thermador stoves or Super 8s around.
Flint and Steel
The use of flint and steel is the percussion style of fire making. Hold the flint in one hand with the sharp side facing away from you, and strike the steel at an acute angle. That makes sparks fly but you won’t get a bonfire from it—you have to strike the steel (or iron pyrite) near a charcloth or tinder and just hope something catches even the tiniest flame. Then feed it more tinder while shielding it from the breeze until the flame grows large enough to light the kindling. Once the kindling catches, then larger fuel items—logs, buffalo chips, brush, prairie grass, or whatever is available—and tend until the flames are large enough to provide heat and light.
Here’s a quick demonstration:
Our hero wouldn’t always have the perfect materials, though. Charcloth could be hard to come by on the trail. I watched a park ranger demonstrate the use of a flint and steel kit (consists of flint, striker, and tinder box) with no charcloth, taking nearly 30 minutes to gather the materials and build a fire. Keep in mind he was in familiar territory and knew where to find what he needed for tinder and kindling.
Imagine that you’ve ridden hard all day with little to eat or drink, unpacked and unsaddled the horse, groomed and picketed the horse, and now that you’re dead-dog tired, you have to spend 30 minutes building a fire before you can eat or have a cup of Arbuckles. This is why, with the new invention, flint and steel was quickly replaced by...
The first friction matches were invented in 1827 by English pharmacist John Walker and called “Congreves.” He didn’t patent the matches, but Samuel Jones did. He designed a cardboard box, with the warning, “If possible, avoid inhaling gas that escapes from the combustion of the black composition. Persons whose lungs are delicate should by no means use the lucifers,” and an industry was born.
The need for fire was great but unfortunately the “strike anywhere” matches did strike anywhere, intentional or not, and they gave off a foul odor. Worse, the factory girls suffered from phossy jaw, cancer caused by phosphorous.
By 1855, Johan Edvard Lundstrom had perfected the safety match, and from then on, not many who could somehow get their hands on matches bothered with flint and steel anymore. These safety matches were still called “lucifers,” though, and would be clear into the 20th Century.
Even with matches, our tall, dark, and handsome hero still has to use kindling, so he has to collect the perfect, dry grasses and bark shreds to make his fire, and he doesn't have any charcoal briquettes, either.
Oops - It Rained!
The weather isn't always perfect. Rainstorms make it danged hard to find dry burning material. This next video shows what to look for. Of course, if your characters are in the middle of the prairie with nary a tree in sight, it’s a whole different game.
Pull up a log and have a cup of Arbuckles!