In these days of central-heating, electric blankets, household insulation and increased stores of bodyfat, keeping warm and toasty at night is more of a privilege, a treat, an extra, added bonus, rather than an absolute necessity. But how did people snuggle up and keep warm at night, after the sun went down, before we had all these wondrous things such as insulated, centrally-heated homes, electrically-warmed blankets and fat, rustling wheat-bags infused with lavender?
This is a History of Household Warmth and Comfort.
Here in Australia, where the land is upside down, the weather is backwards, dogs miaow, cats bark, fish fly through the air and pigeons are not found at a depth below the natural penetration of sunlight through seawater, it is winter.
…Yes, we have winter here.
And it’s this nippy weather that has inspired this toastiest of all toasty subjects. So, how was it done?
No, don’t laugh. Really. Tapestries. Those pretty things that hang on the walls. What, you thought they were just there for decoration?
In the days before central heating, people hung tapestries on the walls of their rooms. Enormous, embroidered sheets of fabric, lavishly and beautifully and brightly decorated. The fact that they were patterned and pictured to within an inch of their lives was a bonus. A delicate and decorative addition. But tapestries were not just hanging on the walls for the sake of art and beauty.
What people tend to forget is that, in winter-time, especially in the countries which experienced exceptionally heavy snowfalls, the interior of a house or building was often not much warmer than the temperature outside! The point of tapestries was to trap heat inside a room and act like a crude form of insulation. Where-ever possible, tapestries were hung to keep warm air in, and cold air out.
Curtains did more than just keep out unwanted light. They have important insulating properties, keeping in warm air, and keeping out cold air, much like the tapestries that covered the walls. Curtains also stopped any unwelcome breezes or drafts from blowing in between the cracks and openings in early windows, from between the frames, or from between the shutters…don’t forget, please, that in medieval times…glass was a luxury!
You’ve probably seen these things in historic houses, museums, or in the ‘Harry Potter’ films. Large beds with canopies and curtains on all four sides. Again, they served the same purpose as the tapestries on the walls and the curtains in front of the windows. They kept in warm air, blocked drafts, and kept out cold air.
But all this passive warmth and heating doesn’t really do much, if you don’t already have a source of heat which requires controlling. What were some of the ways in which our ancestors kept warm on cold winter nights? What did they use and how did they do it?
A bedwarmer is kinda like a big saucepan or frying-pan. You fill the pan of the bedwarmer with burning charcoal or ashes from the fireplace in the bedroom, close the lid, and then, holding the pan with the long handle, you slide it under the covers, between the blankets and the mattress, and there you left it, until it warmed up the bed. A bedwarmer looks like this:
The handle is so very long so that the bedwarmer can easily be slid to any part of even the largest bed. It’s also a precaution against burns.
While coal-filled and ash-filled bedwarmers were very popular, there was always the potential risk of fire. A safer and more portable option was the hot-water bedwarmer or hot-water bottle.
A classic for centuries, the hot-water bottle is a simple and effective way to keep warm at night. Before more modern rubber bottles were invented, most people used sturdy copper bottles instead.
Copper is rustproof and an easy conductor of heat, and so was the natural metal for manufacturing hot-water bottles. Copper was used for any vessel where heating was involved, such as pots, pans, kettles…and of course…hot-water bottles.
Copper hot-water bottles came in a variety of sizes and shapes. Most took the shape of pillows or cushions, having circular, oval or cylindrical profiles. These were easy to hold and compact in size.
There were numerous benefits to a hot-water bottle over a bedwarmer. To begin with, you could take the hot-water bottle to bed with you, and keep it with you all night. They were smaller and more compact, and they were safer and easier to use.
Now you may have seen just such a bottle at a flea-market, or in antiques shop. They’re small, round, circular or oval-shaped objects with threaded caps at the top, in the middle, sometimes with a small metal handle on top.
Of course, if this was filled with boiling water, the metal would heat up so fast that the bottle would be impossible to hold without burning your hands. One of the first things the owner of a copper hot-water bottle did was to make a bottle-cosy.
A cosy or a bag, a pouch, if you will, was an absolute necessity to effective use of a hot-water bottle, and most of them were made at home, using available fabric and sewing-equipement. The fabric used for the bag had to be just right. If it was too thin, the heat would penetrate through it too fast, leading to burns. If it was too thick, then no heat would penetrate it, making it virtually useless.
Once the bag was made, the bottle was placed inside it, and the bag was closed with a simple drawstring. The bag, with the hot-water bottle inside, could now be safely carried to bed, with minimal danger of burns.
This ancient technology is surprisingly effective. These old bottles have no seams. So there’s no danger of anything splitting, ripping or tearing open. There’s no fear of punctures. The caps screw on tightly and securely and there’s no worries to be had about leaks.
This is my hot-water bottle which I regularly take to bed with me on cold winter nights:
It has a diameter of about 24 inches, and a height of about 4 inches. Its capacity is 1.75L (about three and a half pints) of water. How long does this water last?
I’ve had it remain warm to the touch for nearly 24 hours, wrapped up in bed. But effective warmth is about 9-12 hours, long enough for a good night’s sleep. After that time, the temperature of the water drops markedly, to a point where it’s not really useful for keeping your bed warm…But the water is warm enough to pour into the shaving-mug or scuttle in your bathroom, if you’re a guy and like traditional wet-shaving. And yes, that is what happens to the leftover water in my hot-water bottle. It ends up as shaving-water!
I don’t know many people who wear dressing-gowns. I think some people believe they’ve got some sort of feminine air about them, possibly. Whatever the cause, I don’t think people wear them very often anymore. And the dressing-gown has been a tradition in Europe, and other parts of the world where cold climates are to be found, for centuries. It’s that extra, snuggly layer of warmth that we all want to have.
Dressing-gowns were more common back in Victorian times, when clothing etiquette was much stricter than it is today. Dressing-gowns were worn at night, over pyjamas, or a nightshirt for extra warmth in houses without insulation and central heating, or were worn during the daytime over your everyday clothes, if you were half-dressed and had unexpected visitors.
Victorian manners and social etiquette meant that you NEVER entertained guests dressed in your shirt and trousers! If their unexpected arrival caught you in such a state, the options were to finish dressing, or to throw on your dressing-gown to cover up your incomplete state, and then greet your guests. Keeping the gown on was acceptable, or you could excuse yourself and complete dressing before returning to the reception-room. At no time was it acceptable to remove the gown if dressing was incomplete. Greeting or entertaining close friends and family dressed in your dressing-gown (usually over day-clothes or evening-wear) in a more casual and relaxed home-environment was acceptable.
If you’re looking for a comfortable way to keep warm this year, during the colder months, perhaps it’s time you started looking to history for a few ideas? They don’t use electricity and they’ll keep you just as warm as anything made today.