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15 Free-But-Forgotten Ways Our Ancestors Stayed Warm During Winter

15 Free-But-Forgotten Ways Our Ancestors Stayed Warm During Winter

Artist: Thomas Birch

Staying warm was not always as simple as flipping a switch or nudging a thermostat. In the days of our ancestors, it also was not as easy as loading and starting a pellet stove. It involved even more than hauling firewood in from a dry shed and loading it into a state-of-the-art woodstove.

With what were often limited resources, our grandparents needed to use common sense and ingenuity to augment whatever they used as a primary heating system.

Here are some of the “free” things they did to keep warm:

1. Wear sweaters and warm clothing. There probably were not many folks going around all day in short sleeves in the dead of winter. Instead of bringing the indoor temperature high enough to dress the same all year ‘round, they added on layers during colder seasons.

2. Acclimatize to cooler temperatures. When my aunt relocated to Florida several years ago, she laughed at the sight of joggers wearing earmuffs at 50 degrees. But by the next year, she, too, felt cold at higher temperatures than she had while living up north. In the same manner as my aunt became accustomed to warmer weather, so, too, can most people get used to cooler indoor temperatures during winter.

3. Stay active. I have hiked many mountains in cool weather, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt in temperatures as low as in the 40s. But sitting indoors at my computer, I reach for a sweater as soon as it dips below 70. Our grandparents may have moved around both in- and out-of-doors more than we do now, if for no other reason than to accomplish daily living tasks which we no longer do today. This higher level of activity contributed to keeping them warmer.

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4. Wrap up. When they did curl up on the couch with a good book or relax with a hobby, our grandparents likely made good use of afghans, shawls and lap quilts. Rather than heat the whole room, it made sense to use warm covers to retain body heat during sedentary intervals.

5. Be conscientious about trips in and out of the house. Every time a door is opened, heat escapes. By planning ahead and limiting the number of times the door is opened, people in our grandparents’ generation were able to retain indoor heat more efficiently.

6. Use the oven for indirect heat. It goes without saying that baking anything other than necessities is a better idea on a cool day than on a hot one. And after the baking is done (and the oven is off), it is useful to leave the oven door ajar to allow the heat into the room.

15 Free-But-Forgotten Ways Our Ancestors Stayed Warm During Winter

Artist: Currier and Ives

7. Close off unused rooms. Spare bedrooms, summer kitchens, utility rooms and entryways may not need to be heated all winter. The more square footage in a home, the more heat is required — and the harder it can be to stay warm. Closing doors and heat registers to non-essential space can be helpful. This is what our grandparents did.

8. Keep bedrooms cool and pile on extra blankets for sleeping. Many bedrooms do double duty as areas for homework, children’s play or hobbies. It might be worth considering to move these activities to common areas during cold weather, thereby saving heating costs while keeping the family warm in one or two rooms.

9. Use insulated curtains or hang blankets on windows. Staying warm in our grandparents’ time often included creating an extra barrier between themselves and outside, and window coverings were key.

10. Cover walls. Hanging heavy quilts along exterior walls can help keep rooms warmer. It not only provides additional insulation, but soft textiles create the illusion of warmth and comfort. Extra coverings over wall outlets can help minimize drafts, as well.

11. Place draft dodgers under doors. Creations made of yarn, fabric, rags, synthetic stuffing, or newspaper can help prevent air exchange and retain more warm air inside. These could be basic — just old hosiery stuffed with textile scraps — or as fancy as anyone wanted to make them.

12. Winterize windows with plastic. Windows which were particularly vulnerable to wind and cold and those in rarely used rooms could be easily covered with a sheet or two of clear plastic and tacked on using furring strips, adding an additional layer of insulation and helping to create a greenhouse effect inside the house.

13. Caulk or fill in around windows. Loose windows and frames allow warm air to leak out and cold air to flow in. Filling in gaps and cracks with a malleable material helped prevent heat loss and contributed to our grandparents staying warm.

14. Insulate the attic. Commercial insulation is probably the best idea for us today—despite its higher cost, it is super-efficient. But our grandparents had to do it with whatever they had—rags, woolens and even old newspaper could make a difference. It was important that they take care not to place anything combustible too close to a chimney, and that remains a crucial consideration for us today, too.

15. Bank around the house. Our grandparents used bales of hay or straw, bags of leaves, or other insulating materials around the outside of the house. Often in colder climates, they packed snow around the foundation to minimize transfer of heat.

By being intentional and diligent, our grandparents were able to thrive in the coldest of weather. And by following the lead of our ancestors, we all can stay a little warmer during winter.

What old-time advice would you add on staying warm during winter? Have you discovered new ways? Share your thoughts in the section below:

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14 comments

  1. A couple more ideas:

    Wear a hat, scarf, hoodie or other head covering (even indoors) to prevent heat loss through the top of your head. And when layering clothing, tuck in the first shirt layer into your waistband to prevent heat loss through an open shirt. Get a ‘blanket’ for your hot water tank. It will keep your water hotter for longer and lower your energy costs too.

  2. If you use a gas oven or stove top burners for additional heat, be sure you have a window open a little to allow air into the kitchen and you have a working smoke/carbon monoxide detector.

    Back when I was a kid, we had gas space heaters in our home, something later generations probably never heard of. Each room, where one was located had a window opened slightly to avoid CO poisoning.

  3. My mother’s family would put large rocks in the wood stove oven after the daily bread was baked. Then in the evening those rocks were put in the bottom of the beds under the covers. This made it possible for toes to be warm even if the rooms were cold.

    • Heated stones are a great way to transfer and store heat. You need to be careful with this method. Many rocks contain small amounts of water when heated will create steam that causes the rock to shatter. Soapstones are the best type of rock to use, but there are others. Anyone looking to try this method should do a little research to avoid injuries.

  4. I have a woodstove and keep the bedrooms doors closed. I take the fireplace/woodstove bricks and place them on top of the woodstove to warm them up, and then wrap them in something like a dishtowel and put them in my bed to warm it up before sleeping. It would also work to use a hot water bottle in which the lid is on tight to prevent leaking. When my children were small and it was very cold in our house I would warm up one of their blankets in the dryer for a few minutes just before they climbed into bed, and they would be asleep in no time flat.

  5. In old England, people built their residences about where the animals were kept, so the heat from their bodies would warm the home. Stinky, but warm. Having many people in a room will also warm it.

    Too much heat goes up the chimney and is wasted. Various ways to hold on to that heat, rocks or pots of water that hold the heat can but put in or near the fire, or on top of a stove, and then put somewhere where the hat can be used, or in a bed warmer and rolled around the inside of the covers to hear the bed before getting in. In fact, large quantities of water hold heat for a long time, and if enough of these were in your home your temperature would be more stable and last longer.

    Having a pot of simmering water on a stove will heat in another way: it heats your body core temperature faster when the air is moist. We may not like the humidity, but you will be warmer for much less cost.

    Another way to feel warm is to eat Ginger. It will warm you to the tips of your fingers. Too much will make you sweat, and you do not want that in frigid temperatures, but you can modify that quickly enough.

    There is also a psychological component that is worth keeping in mind: the colours of your walls can get you to feel it is warmer or cooler in your rooms. Painting them a warm colour will increase your comfort level, and the reverse is also true. It has been when in repeated scientific studies to let people feel it is several degrees warmer or cooler depending on the colour.

    One of the main factors in being warm is your blood. IN winter, it thickens and summer it thins. This is related to too many factors to go into, but suffice to say that good oils (extra virgin olive oil and so on, thicken the blood in winter and also allow you to retain the heat longer (think oil ratiator instead of water — it hold the heat longer) but a less known factor is the foods you eat. In a nutshell, if you eat tropical fruits in winter, your body will interpret that as being summer, so will thin your blood, making you feel colder and less able to hold on to heat. This is where “hearty stews” are an experiential example that proves the point.

    Way to keep warmer at night? Rise the bed. Heat rises, so it is warmer closer to the ceiling. Raise the bed and it can be 10 degrees warmer for no extra cost. Just mind your head if you sit up! Speaking of heat rising, if you have a ceiling fan, reverse it in winter, to draw the warm air into the room; you might be surprised.

    Ever go camping? IF so you may know of the insul-foam pad used to sleep on. Sit or sleep on one and the heat is retained more. They last for many years so very cheap in the long run.

  6. I’m a retired professional firefighter. Fire alarms as all in one “ionization/photo-electric”, detect combustion [ionization] and smoke [photo-electric]. Visible smoke blocks a small light setting off photo-electric and micro particles of combustion are picked up by the ionization detector. Both, cover better the initial phase of combustion. A great Christmas gift, etc. is the gift of a couple alarms, then every year replace the batteries as well. The best alarms are AC wired and have back-up DC, but wiring isn’t always an economical choice. Ten minutes is all you may have to crawl out. Too many people take the longer ways out because this is what they do daily [we’re creatures of habit]. We’ve found dead occupants at their exterior doors when they could have crawled 10 feet to a sliding bedroom door and lived. Carbine monoxide renders you dazed, disoriented upon waking causing just enough confusion to kill. Generally speaking, fire/heat rises with the smoke. Staying under the smoke is the idea because most victims of fire die of smoke inhalation. Don’t look for the dog, just go. The children will leave via the safety of “pre-planned fire escape routes”?

    Carbon monoxide, natural gas and propane detectors are different animals and can be very expensive. There are deals on these.

    If you’re into DIY projects, building an oversize curtain valance above windows, then hiding a pull-down vinyl shade inside will help keep heat in and cold out. Build it large enough to include the more expensive blinds or double up on the pull-downs. I have a lot of large double-pane windows and find this helps. Just standing next to most windows, I can feel the cold radiating.

  7. Sleep with pets.
    Hard boil 2 eggs or bake 2 small potatoes just before you leave home. Tuck into your packets and use these to warm your hands. You can enjoy them as a snack after they cool off.

  8. let sunlight in and put a dark or black metal box or heater in the sunlight. close curtains and blinds at night.turn on humidifier.

  9. Seriously????? You neglected one of the most traditional and time honored traditions. You did not mention the time honored tradition of bundling. If you have to ask, well, you should be embarrassed.

  10. Plant a shelter belt to keep the winds away.

  11. As a child in the winter mum put all 3 children in bed together and we had dads overcoat added over us.

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