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4 Forgotten Ways Your Ancestors Stayed Warm During Winter

4 Forgotten Ways Your Ancestors Stayed Warm During WinterYour 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 the power grid goes down.

Many homesteaders have fireplaces or wood-burning stoves in their homes, an idea that has plenty of merit, considering that wood has been the most common heating fuel throughout history.

On the plus side, wood is a renewable resource that one can harvest on their own. On the minus side, a fireplace or wood-burning stove is limited as to the area that it covers. You can’t heat an entire home with a fireplace.

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Our ancestors solved this problem in a variety of ways — many of which we can adapt to our own use. Knowing what they did and why they did it gives us some insight into how to keep our own homes warm without electricity, even in the midst of a winter storm.

American homes have grown through the two centuries of our country’s existence. The average home size now is 2,600 square feet, which is large enough to be considered the home of someone wealthy 200 years ago. Wealthy people could afford more than one fireplace and many of their homes had them. Some even had a fireplace in every room.

4 Forgotten Ways Your Ancestors Stayed Warm During WinterIt’s difficult to retroactively install a fireplace in every room of your home, even if you have the money to do so. It probably would be easier to build a new home designed for all-wood heating. But if that’s not an option, then we need to look at other options.

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 television 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, as well as providing a larger work area for processing food. It also helped to 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:

1. Thick bedding and curtains

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

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

4 Forgotten Ways Your Ancestors Stayed Warm During WinterWarm night clothing was common as an additional layer of insulation against the cold. Most people even slept with stocking caps on, to protect themselves from losing heat through the tops of 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 hold a person’s body heat in the bed area.

2. Bed warmers

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.

3. Foot warmers

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.

This was most commonly 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.

4. Soapstones

An alternative to the bed and foot warmer was a soapstone. Soapstones 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, soapstones were often more effective than a foot warmer. The more massive the stone, the more heat it can hold.

Have you heard of other ways our ancestors kept warm? Share your advice in the section below:

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34 comments

  1. Another idea used in the old days were INSIDE shutters. Solid or paneled wood shutters that closed over the windows helping to seal in the heat.

    Also do not sell “Bed curtians” and “sleeping hats” short. I discovered that I could turn my thermostat down to 40 degrees and still be cofortable in a bed with curtians on it. It holds the heat in a small area and one’s breath keeps the space humidified so the air does not dry out. The old folks knew what they were doing.
    From my experience in cold weather camping, I discovered that a HAT worn while sleeping is worth at least two blankets. The old tale is true, you DO lose a lot of heat through your head–on a cold night try it. You will be surprised how much warmer you will stay.

  2. As someone who was raised in England in the early ’60’s , the pioneer conditions you describe were par for the course in English houses as we had no central heating. I remember the house of my early childhood was always cold and dark. We had coal fireplaces in each bedroom and one in the living room and my mother would keep us in bed until she had the fire stoked and heating. Sometimes that would take a considerable length of time as anthracite coal is very hard and, though it holds the heat well and lasts longer than the softer coals, it takes a long time to ‘catch’. We had eider down comforters on top of blankets on the bed and we wore something called ‘liberty bodices underneath our flannel gowns. We also had rubber hot water bottles that mother would heat up to put in the cold, damp bed to try and take the chill off. The only warm room in the house was the bathroom as the cupboard in there usually kept the immersion heater to warm the water and it gave off substantial heat. To this day, I sleep year round with the window open as I am used to sleeping in cold rooms, around 50 degrees farenheit. We were 20th centruy pioneers and didn’t even know it.

  3. Insulated window curtains and interior and exterior window shutters were common ways to keep out the cold. Fireplaces were centrally located to provide better heat distribution and the chimney went up through the sleeping areas upstairs to heat the bedrooms. Rural homes were situated with larger windows to the south to provide solar radiant heat in winter and deciduous trees were planted on the south side to provide shade in the summer but allow sunlight in during the winter. Fireplaces had cast iron guards in front of the fire to radiate heat out into the room.

    • As well there were slats in the floor/ceiling to let the heat up into the second floor. Usually one right above the cookstove or fireplace.

  4. Recently, in preparation for this upcoming winter, we purchased at Sam’s, what I thought was a small throw (leg-warmer blanket.) It cost us $14 and the bonus was it was (very near) full blanket sized. The reason I bring it up here is to describe it some, and to tell of its effectiveness.

    The throw is made to look as if it were of a tufty sort of hairy looking thing (it looks a lot better than that sounds.) They probably sell throws like this in other places as well. (It’s a synthetic material.)

    What is great about this besides the low price, is the effectiveness of it. No lie.. you’re warm almost immediately. Usually in the past, it would take so long to get warm that I would sometimes begin shivering.

    Buy one… you will be happy that you did.

    • I know the type of blanket you’re talking about, as I have one. We have a wool blanket as well which is extremely effective. The heat vent is above the bed and even when blowing heated air, the breeze still goes through the blankets and makes it cold – until I started putting the blanket you described on top of the bedspread. I put it “tufted” side up, which disperses the breeze somehow so it doesn’t blow directly through the covers. The tufting, at least on ours, is called a rose pattern. It’s covered with twirls of thin polyester sticking up about a quarter inch that makes it really soft and fluffy. They make decorative pillows with this same tufting.

  5. Good article. It caused me to go back in my memory to the old family homestead. I was raised in a 2 story home built in the late 1800’s by my great grandfather. It was large by standards then, and it as the article states had a fireplace in all the downstairs rooms. Second floor heat was accommodated by capitalizing on “heat rises” with large in floor vents that we could open at night. An interesting story about this home, is that years after my father had remodeled the home adding indoor plumbing etc. it was modernized. After both my parents had passed away we decided to sell the home. The realtor came in and was amazed that a home built in the late 1800’s had an upstairs Master suite with a full bath and walk in closet. She and her associates went on and on about how forward thinking my gr. grandfather must have been to have allowed room for such future amenities. lol Eventually, I pointed out that the house originally had sleeping porches off the upstairs bedrooms and that is where my father enclosed them and this afforded the space for baths and closets etc.
    Yes, our ancesctors were very resourceful really understood the nuances of living “off the grid” in comfort. I could go on with many examples but I will not bore the reader any further. Thanks for an entertaining and worthwhile article.

  6. Needless to say, socks are a necessity in keeping warm. I recently went to a thrift shop and found a huge pair of men’s wool socks (I’m female) and they keep my feet warm better than the thin store brands.

    I also don’t like hats when I sleep, so I have a small lap blanket above my head and I just pull it over the top of my head (not my face) when I sleep.

    Since I have no children, allowing pets to share your bed also keeps it a little warmer.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I grew up in a log house on a ranch in Wyoming and we heated and cooked with wood. I remember getting up and running behind the cook stove to dress and I remember the wood floor “burning” my bare feet.

    Every room in the house doesn’t need to be heated, at least to the same extent. We slept upstairs under a roof that badly needed repairs. I remember waking up with snow on our quilts. I still like a cold bedroom and have the heat turned off in mine. I think it’s good for us!

    We put large stones on the stove every morning and every evening they would be wrapped in cloth and taken to bed to keep our feet warm. Dressing in layers is important when it’s cold, as air is trapped between layers. Long underwear and over shirts were every day wear, but when it was really cold, we wore pants over our pants, two pairs of socks and three shirts: undershirt, sweater and an over shirt.

    Also, most people were generally more active back then and that helps keep one warm. If you get chilly, exercise. Brisk walking or housework or lifting and moving things will warm you up!

    After I grew up, my husband and I bought an old farmhouse with one lonely pitiful gas heater, which we promptly took out and replaced with a wood stove. Eventually we replaced the electric kitchen range with a wood cook stove. That house wasn’t quite as cold because it was in better condition and the upstairs bedrooms had vents in the floors to allow the heat from downstairs to rise.

    • Pat,
      Your comments are a joy to read. My grandmother set bricks by the fire, then wrapped in rags to take to bed. Also, I have set rocks on the stove(wood) then put them in my pocket before going out to do chores etc. When the fingers get numb, just put them in your pocket for a minute or two – of course wearing gloves in between. My mom used to make me do the bread with the wood oven – she would always burn one side:)
      What a fun article to comment on.

  8. Like this timely article. My daughter & I just returned from hunting mountain lions in NM. While my daughter may not think of it this way, at least I appreciated the opportunity to teach her some valuable life & survival lessons as we had to spend one subzero night in the mountains.

    It got dark on us too quickly coming out of a very steep, rough and long canyon. The dogs pretty much gave up and my 13 year old daughter had just about had it and couldn’t continue. We discussed the deciding factors for spending the night or continuing in the dark and why. We decided to spend the very frigid night. She was scared for sure.

    She was able to understand and learn first hand the importance of basic survival principles (Shelter, fire, water, communication etc). After showing her a good place to spend the night (in a rock overhang/cave so that the fire would warm the surrounding rock & overhang for radiant heat) it was a great opportunity to show firsthand why you never leave without at least a flashlight and how it was important to have at least two ways to start a fire with you at all times and to be proficient with both. Also what tinder to use to start a fire and how to keep it and yourself warm for the night even though it was -8 degrees.

    I had her gather rocks to toss in the coals and around the fire to bury about 4-6 inches under the ground where we would rest/sleep (Do NOT get rocks from a drainage or the creek area as they would hold moisture and explode like a grenade when heated). We had no container for water so I used my hat (Cowboy) to melt snow in for keeping our whistles wet. That little girl went from scared and worried to sleeping very comfortably on the warm radiant heat the rocks provided. Several hours later we (and the dogs) were still warm without any covers and were able to make it the rest of the way out no worse for wear. Best of all, this has taught firsthand some very valuable lessons and developed a confidence that my daughter needed.

    Thanks for your articles, topics and the opportunity to share.

  9. 1. Built houses above livestock barn so heat from the animals would rise and heat living quarters.

    2. Built into the ground or used caves or sod houses dug into hillsides; doing so produced temps around 50 to 55 year round. Adding any small heat source would raise the temp to comfortable.

    3. Placed widows where winter sun would permeate, and used some sort of heat capturing material (brick, tile, etc.) to retain heat on floors and walls to continue to the warm the area after the sun disappeared.

    4. Used wing-backed chairs or high-backed benches with sides to control drafts and keep body heat contained.

    5. Used cats or dogs on their laps or at foot of bed for their heat.

    6. COOKED. Not opened boxes or microwave, but actually used a fire of some sort to make meals–often meals that took longer to prepare and kept homes warmer.

    7. Went to bed earlier, usually at sundown, so the colder temperature of the house at evening weren’t felt as much as if they had been awake.

    8. Wore heavy sweaters, long johns and coats INDOORS. It amazes me how so many people dress in short-sleeved tops and sometimes even shorts during the winter and expect to raise the indoor temperature to a temperature that allows them to be comfortable wearing summer clothes.

    9. Eat warm foods: hot oatmeal instead of Cheerios, hot puddings instead of ice cream, cooked vegetables rather than raw salads.

    10. Used tapestries/blankets on the walls.

    11. Used rugs on their tile or hardwood floors which were cleaned and rolled up in spring.

    12. Wore hair long, keeping ears and necks covered.

    13. Closed off rooms on north or where wind tended to enter and heated less square footage.

    14. Curtained doors. Most doorways leak no matter how weather stripped they are. Many older homes used curtains over doors as well as windows to control heat exchange.

    15. Used doorways to outside where least cold air would penetrate. For example, if the wind was blowing from the north, they would not open a north-facing door.

    16. Drank hot drinks–avoided iced soda pop, iced tea, cold milk, etc.

    17. Used hot snacks, like soup rather than potato chips.

    Most survival books describe how to stay alive during sub-zero temps. Many describe making a temporary room of plastic or blankets around the heat source and limiting the number of times the entrance will be opened.

  10. I must be some sort of exception or something, because I have to sleep with the heat off, the window cracked (wide open during the summer), and a fan blowing right on me. And I’m a 54-year-old female. Maybe if my husband weren’t there I wouldn’t do this, but so far it’s been a lifelong habit. Much to hubby’s chagrin. He wraps the sheet and blanket around his head until he looks like a monk. (:

  11. Also, early pioneers used to put their large animals on the first level of their cabin and they would live on the second level. The animals would help heat the cabin.

  12. I was raised in a two story house that was built in 1863 in the late 70s. we had a furnace that heated the down stares but all of us kids rooms were up stairs. we had floor vents but it was still cold we woke up with frost on the inside of our windows and you could see your breath as you breathed. we slept with two quilts on our beds that my grandmother made, long johns, a sock hat and mitten’s on our hands. it wasn’t until the learly to mid 80s when heat ducts were were ran to our rooms. to this day i cant sleep in a room that is above 65 deg. The colder the room is the happier I am.I wouldn’t change anything on how i grew up.

  13. I have medium sized blinds on the windows, but would like to also get actual drapes too. Drapes seem to be something everyone has gone away from for some reason…

  14. The Germans used to build two story buildings. Home was the 2nd floor, and first floor was the barn. The livestock helped keep the house warm.

  15. Keeping warm in the interior of Alaska is a primary concern for us and I spend a lot of time trying to learn everything I can about generating and preserving heat. We’re novices up here as this is only our fifth winter. We spent our first two winters up here living in an RV (fifth wheel). We now live in a 3 bedroom house that was “cobbled” together Alaskan-style.

    Our primary heat source here is a wood stove and we spent the entire spring/summer/fall focused on cutting/mauling/hauling and stacking up firewood. We also have a pellet stove that we use when the temps drop below zero degrees. It’s not our primary heat source because it’s dependent on electricity and when we have a power outage, the house fills with smoke because the stove didn’t do a proper shutdown. We use it when we’re away from the house all day and can’t keep a fire going.

    There is also a diesel furnace in our house, but we stopped using it after the first winter due to the smell and the noise. Also, the cost of diesel and the complexities of getting diesel delivered to our remote location makes this less than optimal as a way of heating.

    My best tips for keeping the house warm are focused on keeping the heat inside and the cold out. I seal all of my windows with that shrink plastic every fall. On top of that, I’ve made window quilts for all of my bedroom windows that are lined with Insul-bright. They seal to the frame with velcro. I also made a large quilt for my back door that is mounted on a gate hinge/curtain rod so that it will swing out of the way when we need to used the door. There are pictures of all of these on our blog at http://www.tsiyonbound.blogspot.com.

    On the outside of our house, we have straw bales that are sealed in heavy black plastic trash bags against the perimeter all the way around. They’re packed tightly and have large rocks piled on top of them to keep them tight against the walls. We know this preserves a lot of heat because last year when we didn’t have straw along one wall, the snow was melted down to grass on that side.

    The previous comments about layering clothing, moving around/exercising and having plenty of quilts close at hand all play into our lifestyle as well as buying the largest container of hot chocolate that I can find. One can never have too much hot chocolate!

    • My FIL told of houses of the more affluent here in Middle Tennessee that had one room in the house which was the “winter room”. It had walls, interior and exterior that were about 24″ thick. The void was filled with cedar sawdust, like the ice house outback. This room would be used like our dens or living rooms today after supper (dinner) until bedtime.

      He recalled that the houses that most of the neighbors had and like theirs were so drafty and cold during the winter that shortly after supper the family would go to bed to stay warm. There was no laying on the couch in the parlor or living room to pass the evening. He also told of waking in the morning to water frozen in the pitcher for the pitcher and bowl and snow on the “feather tick”. Like “Pat”, he would run from his bedroom to the kitchen to get behind the wood cookstove to stay warm to dress.

  16. Growing up we learned to open the blinds at sunrise on sunny but cool days and close the blinds just as the sun sets. The sunlight helps to heat an insulated home while the heavy blinds help to stop drafts after dark. We do the opposite in the summer. Blinds down on sunny days and blinds up with windows open at night. It sounds like common sense, but you’d be amazed how many people don’t know how much it can help regulate the temps of a house.

  17. I really enjoyed reading the comments/memories of so many folks. I tend to leave my window open in winter.. I use multiple afghan throws on the bed, and my weinerdog snuggles under the covers with me. That’s how I keep warm.

  18. I’m starting to really like my full beard now that it is over a year old. Goes well with this article.

  19. When I was a teenager we lived in a trailer and the only source of heat was a 50 gallon drum on its side with stove pipe going out the window. It was in the living room and kept the living room and kitchen warm! My bedroom was the furthest from the heater and it was cold! I stole the horse blanket from the tack room and put it on my bed, between the quilt and sleeping bag I used. On a cold night, all three dogs would sleep with me… Tasha and elkhound mix at my feet, Nikki, a old English sheepdog on the pillow around my head and Amanda, the blue wheeler would sleep next to me under the blankets with just her nose sticking out! I was warmer than my brother who usually slept on the couch 3 feet from the wood stove!

  20. Much of the heat from fireplaces is lost. It is not too difficult to place things in one, like a water reservoir that also pumps the water slowly through pipes encircling an area with the heated water, or in in-floor heating channels, keeping it warmer and taking less energy/wood. Similarly, water, which holds heat for a long time, can be used to heat the air just by letting it get warm. Large pots of it will radiate that heat long into a night.
    Another method used by the ancestors in Europe was to have their livestock below the sleeping area. The heat from their bodies would rise like all heat, and keep things warmer. The downside is the smell that accompanies it.
    Do you know the temperature difference between the floor and the ceiling? It is substantial, and that is why thermostats are at about shoulder level. If you can have a higher bed, or raise it in some way before sleeping, you will increase the temperature you are sleeping in by several degrees, so you will need to generate less heat from fuels and so on.
    If you have an open fireplace, which is rare these days, then metal pipes that take in cold(er) air and then release that air after having been continually heated by the fire will take some of the heat that would just go up the chimney otherwise, and release it in to that or some other room.
    Another thing to consider is pellet stove, not from ancestral times, but very efficient. Almost all the heat generate is kept inside, leaving what comes out the chimney of it to be at almost room temperature and can be vented directly outside, no risk of fire. These can easily be installed in any room, no need to build a chimney for it, just vent it directly through the wall.

  21. Fur was always on the inside of coats because it holds body heat. Knowing this, I sleep between 2 fuzzy blankets with lots of soft nap and another blanket on top. I’m always warm with the heat either off or set very low.

  22. I’ll pay a little more for gas and be comfy in cold weather..plus it’s cheaper to keep house at a const. Temp during night .helps keep pipes from freezing and keeps the walls warm for ambient heat..I had my youth with no air conditioning .and at Temps reaching 90 degrees at 9pm it’s hard to sleep. As well as winter time with ice built up inside the windows and nipping at c ones . feet..despite hats and 40 blankets and a teddy bear.

  23. That pop-up is as annoying as ANNOYING can get! Please find a less rude way to peddle your wares.

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