Thursday, November 29, 2012

Oh, the Weather Outside is Frightful: Weathering the Winter in History

It was quite some time ago that we made a post about keeping cool in history so it seems like it's about time to look at the difficulties of keeping warm in an era before central heating and polar fleece.

According to Elizabeth Garret (At Home: The American Family 1750-1870), extremes in North American weather were found to be painfully harsh by Europeans.  Cold winters, fueled by what has widely been deemed the "Little Ice Age" of the 18th and early 19th centuries, could be dreaded times when families crammed themselves into one well-heated room in the house and waited out the unyielding dark of the long nights.  But in other ways, winter offered improvements in travel, seasonal outdoor activities, and social life--as well as a continuing battle to keep warm.

The Fire: In a modern era of central heating, it is easy for us to romanticize the beauty and nostalgia of a crackling fire in an open fireplace.  But when it is the only source of heat in the house, one is quick to recognize its shortfalls.  Open fireplaces were notoriously uneven, unreliable, and smokey.

I love when people visit Clermont and remark with a little surprise that there is a fireplace in every room.  Sure.  Without a fireplace, that room would be only slightly warmer than the outdoors in the winter.  What they usually don't notice is that each room has a fireplace, but the halls on the first and second floors and the basement of Clermont do not.  This is a common arrangement, but the reality of having a completely unheated room in the middle of your house often escapes people.  It is not unlike having to dash through an unheated garage in the midst of your house just to go from you bedroom to the dining room.  Brr!

And that's not to say that each fireplace was running at all times.  With the expense and danger of keeping a fire going--not to mention the attention it required to keep feeding it--it made little sense to keep a fire going in rooms that were not occupied.  You're going to eat dinner?  Well, let's go stir up a fire in the dining room.  You're going to sit in the parlor this morning?  Well, if you're not going back to your bedroom for a while, best let that fire die out.  Headed back to bed tonight?  You'd better believe those bed sheets will be cold as ice--literally! 

Fire heat was also dreadfully uneven.  The area immediately surrounding the fireplace might be cozy warm or even too hot, but the farthest corners of the room were often uninhabitable with cold.  You'll notice that many historic images show people seated around the fireplace.  Furniture could be lugger over to the fire for whatever activity you might be doing at that moment.  If the direct heat of the flames was too much for you, you could always add a fire screen to deflect it a bit too (seen at right in a Hogarth image).

Interior doors were kept closed in the winter, keeping the heat trapped in the room you were using at that moment.  Nevertheless, cold could seep into that room.  Even with a roaring fire, cold crept in through drafty windows and icy-cold door latches that froze your fingers as you grabbed them.  Diarists frequently recorded ink freezing in the ink wells.  In 1836, one young lady complained "it freezes every where, with a fire in the hearth things will freeze in the sideboard and with the largest fire we can make in my room, water will freeze within six feet of it."  Many people retreated into smaller rooms in the winter, where the warmth of the fire could reach all corners.  One Albany family in the mid-eighteenth century retreated annually into a small winter parlor, which "afforded a refuge to the family during the rigours of winter, when the spacious summer rooms would have been intolerably cold."

 Some furnishings were also made to capture the heat of the fire and hold it around the sitter.  The upholstered arm chair, was initially developed as an informal relaxing chair in the eighteenth century, most often found in the bedroom.  Its winged back (now giving it the modern title "wing chair") helped to trap heat around the sitter, much like its earlier, vernacular predecessor, the settle (portrayed at right in a 20th century Beatrix Potter image).

Other items, like the foot warmer, could provide more portable heat.  Filled with hot coals and set on the floor by a woman's feet, this little box could become a source of comfort on a cold day.  Originating with the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, these little boxes had spread throughout the country by the early 19th century.

Eventually, the advantages of stoves as heating sources made them increasingly popular in first Pennsylvania (where they were made popular by German and Moravian immigrants), and then spreading gradually through the country, starting in the 1790s.  Franklin stoves, five-plate stoves, and other kinds of stoves were far less smokey, safer, and provided a more efficient heat.  For cooking, they were a vast improvement, but many families still liked the romantic feel of their fireplaces and kept stoves limited to specific locations in the house.  Others, like Catherine Beecher, worried that the lack of air circulation in the chimney left families to choke in poorly-ventilated rooms (I guess she wasn't thinking about those drafts from the windows!).

 The Clothes:  If ever I complained of cold as kid, my mother immediately admonished me to put on a sweater.  She might as well have taken a page from the history books.  In houses as cold as the ones we have examined, people resorted to layers of clothing as an additional defense. 

In addition to the summer minimum of chemise, stays, gown, and at least 2-3 petticoats, women could keep piling on the layers.  Silk or cotton stockings were exchanged for wool.  Some desperate women bundled themselves into as many as seventeen petticoats when the weather became unbearable!  Quilted petticoats (not patchwork, as the term later came to mean, but layered and stitched like a bed comforter) and even quilted jackets could be added into the mix for extra warmth (like the example at left borrowed from the American Duchess blog).  Fingerless gloves, known as mitts (see image above), and even mittens could be worn in the house.  Men bundled up too in heavier suits and even heavier wigs to keep the head warm.

For outdoor clothing, women most commonly wore cloaks.  Reds were the most popular in the 18th century, but a variety of grays, blacks, and browns were also available.  Men wore cloaks or great coats, though images of ice skates from the time show that some men did not need additional layers beyond their heavy suits.  Scarves, hats, and gloves were common additions as well of course!

The mid-nineteenth century couple at left shows an example of a woman's muff (none too practical for women who had to use their hands outdoors) and a heavy man's great coat.  Judging by his hunched arms, I think he may be regretting not bringing a pair of gloves however.

Not all bad:  Winter wasn't all bad.  Clermont Livingston wrote favorably about the annual freezing of the Hudson River.  Although it stopped all boat traffic, it eased his short-range travel on the river.  He walked to Saugarties and Tivoli, and his cousin at Oak Hill took a sleigh up the river to go to church in Hudson (although he admitted that with the warmer weather, it was "not very safe.").

Deeper snows allowed for sleighing, which could be a faster method travel that freed travelers up from the road and turned sleighing into a social activity.  "Sleighing in the Woods for two days," wrote Clermont in November of 1864.  "Lately the weather has been changeable and the sleighing not good except on roads," wrote Clermont's cousin in the same letter.  But Nancy Shippen was out with friends sleigh on January 2nd of 1784.  "Had a sleighing party this Morning went 3 miles & drank mull'd cyder, & eat buiscuit..." The still-popular song Jingle Bells also recounts the romantic prospects available in a one-horse, open sleigh (presumably without a chaperone):

  A day or two ago
  I thought I'd take a ride
  And soon, Miss Fanny Bright
  Was seated by my side...

Ice skating, as seen in several pictures throughout this article was widely popular at least as far back as the 17th century, and possibly much farther.  It was social, active, and got people out of those close, smokey little winter parlors they complained about all season.  Ice skating too had a romantic component, at least in the nineteenth century, when the prospect of falling and bumping into each other (or being gallantly caught in the arms of a young man) allowed close physical contact in a usually-strict social environment.

For the wealthy at least, winter most importantly was the Social Season.  As they left their isolated summer homes (including Clermont), they returned to the cities where they could follow a round of parties and balls.  In the eighteenth, nineteenth, and even early twentieth centuries, vast resources were spent on these parties.  Margaret Beekman Livingston carted her family to her town house every winter by sloop before the river froze.  And by December 28th, 1841 Clermont Livingston declared that he was tired of all the parties he had already been to.

In 1784, Nancy Shippen recorded attending what had been planned to be a "grand display of fireworks" in Philadelphia.  "A frame was built at great expense for the purpose, the pictures of all the great men (with General Washington at the head) was hung up, & the frame illuminated, with more than a thousand lamps..."  Unfortunately, an accident caused an explosion that killed one man and cancelled the festivities.  At other times she was out with friends until as late as one o' clock in the morning.

Winter in the 18th and 19th centuries was a formidable foe.  For several months, people could find themselves crammed into small rooms with their entire family, watching their chamber pots freeze over in the corners, and using the short hours of daylight to complete their chores.  Heavy clothes made their bodies as bulky as that kid in "A Christmas Story" wailing "I can't put my arms down!"--but that was indoors as well as outside!  Drafty windows, cold hallways, and freezing fingers added a host of little unpleasantries as the months went by.

Nevertheless, more intrepid souls (on warmer days) made the best of the weather with outdoor sports (I'll have to address the Livingstons' love of ice boating--as seen at right--another day), and the wealthy relished their opportunity to get out and enjoy an active social season.

Just as today, winter was a mix inconveniences and good parts.  As someone who hates being cold, I'm still a big fan of central heating in my house and a nice warm car to get to work in the morning. 

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