Awhile back somebody riding with me wanted to look in an antique shop, and while he was dickering for a vawz I found an ash sifter against the wall under a gateleg. ''Hey! Lookee!'' I called. ''If the Ay-rabs keep squeezin', these things may come back in style!'' The dealer looked over and said, ''So you know what that is?''
''Sure - I used to exercise one every Saturday.''
''Then I wish you'd tell me - people come in and ask, and I don't have any idea.''
So as we adjust to new manners in the energy problem, coal may revive as domestic fuel - and an ash sifter factory might be a sound investment. It was a round sieve with a handle for shaking, and two hooks that fitted over the croze of a barrel. 'Twas a shade smaller than the barrel opening, so it could be walloped back and forth as it hung there. Thus unburnt bits of coal were retrieved for a second time around, waste-not-want-not. But ah! - wait and be instructed in yet another lost art!
Unless extreme weather called for more frequent attention, the coal-burning, hot air furnace ''down sulla'' got a regular evening visitation prior to bedtime. It was necessary to ''burn off'' the coal gases before the dampers could be closed for the night. First, the grates had to be shaken so the spent ashes would fall into the pit below. The shaker was a crank and it would be wobbled back and forth until live coals could be seen descending. That was shake enough. Now the fire above was ready to be stoked for the night and day ahead, but this had to wait until the dust from the shaking-down had settled. Indiscreet speed filled the house with gritty-tasting coal ash. So the custodian would wait.
Ashes shoveled directly from a hot furnace could not be stored in a wooden barrel with impunity, and in those days ash barrels were adapted from the standard containers of the flour, sugar, apple, potato, and sundry trades. In the well-regulated cellar, the hot ashes would be piled on the noncombustible floor until they cooled, or in my instance until the small boy who didn't have to go to school on Saturday would be available. The job was an exercise in frugality and had to be done whether any great amount of unspent coal was retrieved or not. Some anthracite burns freely and leaves little to recover; from other mines the coal shows reluctance. After a sifter full of cold ashes had been shaken through into the barrel, anything worth trying again was hove into the coal bin.
As to a cloud of ashes referred to above, sifting made a far bigger one than shaking down. So I had a cloth to lay over the sifter while shaking, and this was not to be removed until things had subsided. A feed bag was good, but at one time I had a square cut from a rug. That was great, and little came through it to foul the cellar and the house and the precinct. I did have to carry the rug up through the bulkhead and outdoors to shake it and spank it with a carpet beater so it would be ready for next time. The sifted ashes in the barrel had to be carried up, too, but I didn't do that until I was older and could lift them. They didn't work into a garden as wood ashes would, so they went on paths and sidewalks. After the sifting was finished and my rug spanked, I would mount the steps into the house to get, every Saturday, the same routine greeting: ''Did you secure the bulkhead?''
The furnace I have just attended, I hope for the last time, was otherwise controlled from upstairs by chains that worked the dampers. By bedtime the evening's gases had burned off and the dampers could be closed for the night. The fire dozed all night, too. First one up in the morning would shift the chains, the front damper of the furnace would be open, air could come to the slumbering coals, and combustion accelerated. Within two-three hours, at the most, a faint reaction could be detected upstairs if you stood directly over a register. Thus comfort was provided in the chill of winter, and everybody praised the accomplishments of technology. It was possible to close all the registers save one and concentrate on one room of the 10-room house. It took a little time to run through all the rooms and arrange this. I was permitted to do this every Saturday, and in this way the bathroom accumulated a bearable warmth - at the expense of the rest of the house, to be sure. But I had to clean up after sifting ashes, and had earned this.