Keeping warm in winter has never been such a ‘hot’ topic as it is today, but we live in modern times: just how did earlier generations manage?
Heating the home
When I was an infant in the early-1960s, on winter mornings there were exciting Jack Frost patterns on the inside of my bedroom window in our village house. My dad then remembered that as a schoolboy in 1920s London he sometimes had to break ice on the surface of the water jug before he could wash. Clearly, before modern domestic central heating created a warm ambience throughout the home, people were accustomed to chilly interiors and generally felt cooler than we expect to today.
Our predecessors’ experiences of coping with winter indoors, depended on whether they inhabited an overcrowded urban dwelling, draughty rural cottage, modern suburban house, large villa or country mansion. Most homes built a century or more ago were heated by burning logs or coal in open fires downstairs and, sometimes, in the bedrooms. In ordinary households a coal range or stove for cooking and heating water warmed the back room that generally served as kitchen, dining and general family room. A cosy fireplace, hearth or stove were central to a room, the heart of the home: in corners beyond their reach it felt cold.
In the early-20th century a coal fire in the grate, surrounded by a brick, tile or oak fireplace was commonplace, but new heating methods were evolving. Once mains electricity was more widely established (from the 1930s in much of urban Britain) electric heaters proved effective at radiating heat out across a room, and new interwar homes were sometimes fitted throughout with streamlined electric fires. Some also had a novel closed-in enamelled range (the Aga dates to 1929) or gas or electric cooker, these often supplemented with a coke boiler to heat the room and hot water.
Older houses retained traditional fireplaces but might also use additional appliances like paraffin oil heaters or stoves – portable but potentially dangerous and less effective than electricity. Electric storage heaters were mass-produced during the 1960s and 1970s, while some homes used modern wall-fitted gas fires or new glass-fronted solid-fuel stoves like the ‘Parkray.’ Although a wealthy minority had for decades enjoyed sophisticated central heating systems, even underfloor heating, by 1970 only 30% of UK homes had what we would recognise as modern central heating powered by connected radiators in every room.
Many of the energy-saving and heat-preserving tips that we read about today reflect time-honoured domestic practices. Draught-proofing gaps around doors and windows has always helped with repelling cold air and reducing heat loss, especially in older or deteriorating properties. We may already use padded fabric draught excluders across the threshold, but this is nothing compared to the yards of textiles that once insulated many homes. Before echoing stone castles and private houses acquired glass window panes (rare before the 1400s), woven linen or woollen hangings called, ‘cloths’, ‘arras’ or, later, tapestries were suspended across arrow slits, wall cavities and doorways, to absorb icy draughts. Even following advances in glazing and other home comforts, sumptuous tapestries and luxury textiles draped on walls conveyed wealth, taste and status, creating a warm and welcoming effect in elite medieval, Tudor and Stuart residences, while ordinary households used whatever cheaper, coarser materials they could afford. Moving forward in time, the typical middle- or upper-class Victorian home was abundantly furnished with curtains, cloths and covers – voluminous draperies perhaps sewn or embellished by the lady of the house. While many were for show, some were practical, especially the substantial floor-length door curtains or portières drawn across the inside of entrance doors, inner doors and any interior archways or gaps, providing invaluable insulation in Victorian and Edwardian homes. Windows were also generously dressed with lengths and swags of fabric of various colours, designs and weights. When autumn chills arrived, fine summer muslins and linens were ceremoniously taken down and heavyweight curtains of wool serge, plush velvet, brocade, damask or cheaper Bolton sheeting installed, a matching pelmet or lambrequin across the top. Even in humbler homes, as well as thick main curtains, flimsier centre or inner window curtains of net, lace or crochet were customary: sometimes a window blind was added too, creating three protective layers. No draughts for Mrs Beeton and her readers!
Not everyone in the past was lucky enough to have a decent bed: some of our poorer ancestors slept on a pallet or mattress on the floor. In overcrowded multiple-occupied homes families often slept together all in one bed, or parents had one bed, their children another: one way of keeping warm! For the better-off with more comfortable sleeping arrangements, fabric bed hangings or curtains drawn around the bed were used for privacy and also provided much-needed warmth, another barrier against draughts. Usually made of wool, fustian, cotton or linen cloth, luxury bed panels might be created from silk, velvet or beautifully-embroidered linen and were another emblem of prosperity. Used broadly from the Middle Ages to the 1800s, they declined from the mid-1700s when more homes gained separate bedrooms. In comfortable households beds were often heated, dried out (if damp) or aired before their occupants turned in. In early eras, at bedtime a hot cloth-wrapped brick or stone might be placed under the covers, but from the 1500s long-handled lidded copper or brass warming pans were filled with smouldering embers from the fire and slipped between the sheets. Popular until the 1800s, nonetheless warming pans created fumes and could scorch the bedlinen, so some began to be filled with hot water. Alternative bed-warming devices used frames over a tray of embers like the ‘bed-wagon’; others also employed hot water, notably circular or log-shaped ceramic or stoneware ‘bottles’ with a stopper. As technology advanced, rubber hot water bottles became available from c.1875. The most modern method of warming beds, the electric blanket, was trialled in crude form during the early-1900s, then taken up by tuberculosis sanitaria in the 1920s, while automatic, thermostat-controlled electric blankets were popular between the 1930s and 1980s.
Dressing for Bed
Winter temperatures meant sleeping in clothes and covering the head, from where it was understood most body heat escaped. Night caps were worn by men and women for centuries and were especially important in the late-1600s and 1700s, when wigs were fashionable and heads were shaved. Historically the poor or humble working people, who might only have one or two sets of clothes and no dedicated nightwear, would sleep in the same garments they had worn all day. Until the late-1800s many people wore a loose, long-sleeved nightgown or nightshirt that also served as, or resembled their daytime under-linen, but ideally nightwear was kept separate from damp, grubby day clothes.
In the 1880s body-hugging sleeved vests, drawers and one-piece combinations appeared - warm fitted underwear for both sexes. Some men also wore these to bed and they remained in use until about the 1940s, while also coinciding with the evolution of pyjamas that comprised a shirt and matching loose trousers. Pyjamas, other bed-wear and some underwear was typically fashioned from a soft, warm material such as flannel, a ‘hygienic’ fabric much-promoted by Dr. Gustav Jaeger. Woollen flannel had first developed in 16th-century Wales, while flannelette, a soft, napped cotton emulating flannel and popular for nightdresses and winter sheets, was a later product. Indeed some people still use brushed cotton/flannelette sheets and nightwear today, and even the ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ men’s long nightcap seems to be making a comeback!
Posted in History on Jan 01, 2023