Keeping warm in winter: There's history behind it!

Larry Bowers
Posted 12/31/17

Now that winter has officially arrived, we can look ahead to additional cold days.We've had a few days with colder temperatures, but only a few.If you would believe the opinion of my granddaughter, …

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Keeping warm in winter: There's history behind it!


Now that winter has officially arrived, we can look ahead to additional cold days.

We've had a few days with colder temperatures, but only a few.

If you would believe the opinion of my granddaughter, Taylor, who now lives with me, you would think we lived in the Frozen North. She keeps inching the thermostat upwards — to the mid-70s — because she's "freezing."

She never would have survived the old days!

Your home’s heating is an essential part of your survival in cold weather. Even if your house is insulated well, it will eventually get dangerously cold if your heating system is off or affected by the weather.

Many homesteaders had fireplaces or wood-burning stoves in their homes, since wood has been the most common heating fuel throughout history.

On the plus side, wood is a renewable resource that anyone can harvest on their own. On the minus side, a fireplace or wood-burning stove is limited as to the area that it covers in the home.

My family always had electricity, and never had to depend on wood-burning heat. My granddaughter should be happy she wasn't born a century earlier.

Our ancestors solved the problem of winter heat in a variety of ways. Knowing what they did and why they did it gives us some insight into how to keep our own homes warm without electricity, if we ever need it. 

Don't tell Taylor this is even a miniscule possibility!

American homes have grown through the 2 1/2 centuries of our country’s existence. Wealthy people 241 years ago might have fireplaces in every room.

If we look at our country’s Colonial period and the westward expansion of the pioneers, we see that homes were much smaller. A one-room home was much easier to heat and a single fireplace was enough to do the job. So most people lived in one-room homes.

The fireplace became the focal point of the home, much like the TV set is today. People would sit around the fire, talking and working on small tasks. Much of the handicrafts of the day were done sitting around the fire in the evening.

As homes grew, one of the first rooms added was a separate kitchen. This helped keep the rest of the home warm. It also helped keep the rest of the home cooler in summertime, as the main fireplace would not have to be lit. Kitchens always had their own fireplace or a wood-burning cooking stove.

Many homes had a loft where the children slept. Since heat rises, the loft would be the warmest part of the home. Mom and Dad’s bed would often be located below the loft, so that they could have some privacy from the prying eyes of the children.

Here are a few “forgotten” ways our ancestors kept warm that we can borrow, either now or in the future, when the electricity is out:

The classic down comforter is intended to allow families to sleep in comfort, holding in their body heat. Beds can be piled high with quilts and comforters in an attempt to keep warm.

Quilts and comforters weren’t the only thing beds were piled high with; often they were piled high with bodies, as well. While mom and dad usually had a bed to themselves, the children often slept together. As the family grew, there might be a boy’s bed and a girl’s bed.

Clothing was common as an additional layer of insulation against the cold. Most people even slept with stocking caps on, to preserve heat from their heads.

The idea of bed curtains also traces its roots to trying to keep warm in cold weather. The extra layer of fabric used for the curtains would help cut down on drafty conditions in the bedding area.

Before retiring for the night it was always a good idea to warm up the bed. This was done with a bed warmer. These are covered copper or brass pans, with a long handle. Holes would be punched in the lid, forming a design.

The pan was filled with rocks that had been heated at the edge of the fire and then slid between layers of bedding using the long handle. This would warm the bed quite effectively.

Foot warmers are both similar to and different than bed warmers. Typically, they were a wood-framed tin box with a wire handle on it. Like the bed warmer, heated rocks were placed inside the foot warmer, which could then be placed by the feet, under a blanket.

Foot warmers were also used as a heater in the family wagon, when going to the store or church.

Wealthier churches had boxed-in pews, which allowed the families to bring in their foot warmer and lap blankets to keep warm in church. In many churches, this was the only heat to be found on a cold Sunday morning.

An alternative to the bed and foot warmer were soapstones, or other stones which retain heat. The stones  would be placed in the fire to heat and used directly, often wrapped in rags to prevent anyone from burning themselves on the hot stone. They could be used as bed warmers or foot warmers.

Due to their mass, stones were often more effective than a foot warmer. The more massive the stone, the more heat it would hold.

I would get some stones for my homes, in case of an emergency, but my granddaughter would probably throw them at me!


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