Friday, January 13, 2012

Zap! You Are Now in the Mid-19th Century...and It's Winter - What Now?

This posting has been updated with much more information and photos. Click HERE for the update

~ A collection of notations from wintertime past~

cautions the scroll along the bottom of your TV set.

declares the radio news station. 

screams the newspaper headlines.
~~~~~~~(don't you just love the media?)~~~~~~~

The weather is frighteningly cold outside: the temperatures are well below freezing, the wind is howling at your door, the snow is coming down at a blizzard pace.
But you? You are cozy toasty in your home with the forced-air furnace blowing warmth throughout each room, the airtight windows ensuring it does not escape. Light at the flick of a switch staves off the winter darkness. With help from the radio, ipod, or CD collection, along with the hundreds of cable channels – as well as a decent quantity of DVD's – your entertainment is almost limitless. The internet can take you “to infinity and beyond” at the click of a mouse, either on your home computer, laptop, or even on your cell phone.  Then there's skype and phones to allow you to "visit" nearly anyone without leaving the house. And if you run out of food, the local Circle K, CVS, or Rite Aid party stores are only a moment’s drive from your door (for many of us), even in this horrible winter weather. 
Yes, let it snow...modern technology has rescued you from fear of freezing and solitude. 

But, what if you should lose power? What then? 
I find it amusing that if the only light and heat comes from candles and fireplaces because of a power outage at your house, it is frustrating and annoying - but when it comes in the form of intimate tours of a 19th-century village, it is charming and peaceful.
A quote from Old Sturbridge Village).

An outage would mean no TV, no computer, no music, no electric lights or even any electricity at all...oh my gosh! - - what now?  
Oh, how will we survive the winter months?
The coziness of a non-electric January evening...

Isn't this so true for the greater majority of us? I know it would be for me, for I have no fireplace...well, no real fireplace - to even give off a bit of warmth should we lose power. I could survive without the neat little electronics - I have actual books to read, not a Kindl - but a power outage certainly would be more than unpleasant, if only for a lack of a heat source. 
Have you ever given any thought to how the people many of us attempt to emulate during our reenactments survived the bitter winters in days of old? I have, and so I combed through a few of my books to see if it was as tough as I had heard.
In most cases it was far worse than I imagined.
Folks, I’m here to tell you we ain’t got nothin’ on our ancestors. What they had to live through each day of every winter and what they did to survive the bitter cold and snow in the pre-electric era makes everyone of us look like wimps.
A cold winter's night
And compared to them, we certainly are!
 Wintertime in the 19th century and before brought in discomfort and dread to most in the United States, especially to those living above the Mason-Dixon Line. Winter-wear stockings, flannels, double-layered gowns, petticoats, shirts, trousers, and jackets all had to be altered and repaired after being stored away for the summer months; new items had to be made to replace those worn beyond repair.  Anne Eliza Clark thanked her mother for the yarn mitts, which were of “great service to me when I sweep my chamber and make my bed.” Mittens were commonly worn inside as well as outside because, in many cases, there was little difference in the temperature.
Sleeping with another person was a way to generate warmth in the bed chamber. From earliest childhood, our ancestors had slept together – infants with their parents, then with their siblings, cousins, or even friends, and then with apprentices, or domestic help of the same sex. So used to sleeping with others that sleeping partners were often sought out.
William Davis recalled that “fires in chambers were, in my day, far from being universal, (and I) never slept in a heated chamber, except when sick, until sixteen years of age.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe remembered her Aunt Lois setting a candle in their room and “admiring the forest of glittering frost-work which had been made by our breath freezing upon the threads of the blanket.”
Mrs. Stowe also warned that “whoever touched a door-latch incautiously in the early morning received a skinning bit from Jack Frost,” while Harriet Martineau recalled those winter mornings when even with a good hot coal fire in her chamber stove “everything you touch seems to blister your fingers with cold.” James Stuart found it “difficult to preserve the body in sufficient warmth, even wrapped in two suits of clothes, and everyone kept on stockings and flannel garments during the night. The ink froze in my pen in lifting it to the paper from an ink-horn, placed within the fender in front of a good fire.” 
On the 19th of December 1856, Caroline Dustan wrote, “Water in Mamma’s and my wash bowl freezing thick as half a dollar.”
During the coldest days of winter, families moved and lived in one room of their home, clustered around the fireplace or stove. It was in this manner that the family ensured survival. But that did not mean they were warm:  “A forest of logs, heaped up and burning in the great chimney, could not warm the other side of the kitchen. Aunt Lois, standing with her back so near the blaze as to be uncomfortably warm, found her dish towel freezing in her hand.”
Thomas Chaplin wrote in January 1857, “The thermometer is down to 20 degrees in the house at eight in the morning, and everything is frozen hard, including eggs, milk, and ink, and every piece of crockery that water was left in overnight is cracked.”
Now that’s cold!
It was unfortunate for the woman who attempted to do her daily chores such as spinning, for this necessary activity required ample amount of floor space and nimble fingers. There are numerous diary entries that tell of the difficulty in performing this task inside a crowded room with frozen fingers. 

Currier & Ives "The Snow Storm" 1864
Small tin and wood foot stoves filled with an iron plate of glowing coals were used in both the parlor or for traveling. These little warmers were considered a woman’s stove, or an “effeminate luxury.” In 1819, Theodore Dwight declared his toes “comfortably bitten, which excited much sympathy: & I came near suffering the indignity of having a girl with gold beads offer me a stove.”

Victorians had their fun, too: "In much merriment the sleighing party is made up to dash along with chiming bells and song and laughter. An upset now and then is counted in with the amusements of the day, so that no one is hurt, and who ever is? by a fall into a yielding snowbank!" (Currier & Ives "A Spill Out on the Snow" 1870)

(From the diary of Samuel Cormany): January 14, 1861 - Sleighing is fine - "Charlie" the horse is a very fleet-footed little fellow, and my cutter is very light, about 100 lbs, and with a Buffalo Robe under me and another over me, and fur gloves - zero weather is not to be dreaded at all.

January was the month that the cellar was to be replenished with apples and late-season vegetables, packed in sawdust or sand. Pigs had to be killed, sausages made, and barrels of pork and ham put down. Pies were baked in large quantity to be kept frozen in the storeroom, the garrett, the guest chamber, or the closed –up parlor. Maria Church, on January 22, 1854, was happy to note that she “now completed all the winter jobs of sausages, pork, putting down hams, making candles, & mince pies.”
After a bit of rest from the arduous labor of the planting, growing, and harvest seasons, the Monday following 12th Night (or Epiphany – January 6), known as Plow Monday, was the traditional signal to begin another work year. It was on Plow Monday that the farmer began to get all of his farm equipment into tip-top shape for the growing season.


The winter months of January and February were considered the best time of year for woodcutting, and the rising of the sun was often accompanied with the sound of an axe as fuel supplies were needed. Wood chopping had a dual purpose in the wintertime: it warmed the axeman as it was being chopped and warmed him again as it was burned for fuel. The men spent long, hard days in the woods, sometimes hiring out help to complete such a task. They would cut and prepare specific firewood for the many needs such as for cooking, warming, and laundry.
The amount of wood needed was impressive: a large family recorded in a journal that they burned forty four cords of wood within a one year period in a house with seven  fireplaces, a bake oven, and two chimney’s. Another family documented burning “twenty seven cords, two feet of wood” between May 3, 1826 and May 4, 1827.  One impoverished woman mentioned that she endured a Boston winter on twelve cords of wood “as we kept but one fire except on extraordinary occasions.”  Abigail Adams burned forty to fifty cords a year “as we are obliged to keep six fires constantly & occasionally more.”
We’re coming up to ice-cutting season, that time of year where those with the means to will head out to the frozen lakes, ponds, and rivers to cut blocks of ice to be used for the storage of meat during the warmer seasons of the year. 
Cutting blocks of ice from the river (Currier & Ives - "Winter in the Country: Getting Ice" 1864)

The previous year’s sawdust, old and pungent-smelling, was shoveled out and used for fertilizer and replaced with a new five-inch base in preparation for the coming year. The roads leading to and from the lakes, rivers, and streams saw teams of horses, oxen, and mules hauling blocks of ice.
Winter, by the way, was the best time to travel; the roads and paths were usually covered with snow, and that made it easy to glide over the smooth surface. Folks traveled in sleighs, cutters, and carioles, most of which had jingling bells attached to warn the pedestrians, who were bundled up head to toe and could not hear beyond the higher pitched ringing, to move out of the way since the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves were muffled due to the snow.  Instead of plowing the snow out of the way, as we do in our modern day, snow rollers packed it down. They rolled the roads, covering the bare spots so that sleighs could get through, and if they came to a covered bridge or an area cleared of the white stuff, they would shovel a layer of snow onto the bridge floor or the bare area so that the sleigh runners wouldn't stick.

This winter, when the wind howls at your door and you keep your thermostat to an oh-so-cool 66 degrees, when you feel boredom creep up on you, and your bed sheets feel cold against your body, and even when you must venture out to the local store a couple blocks away, fighting the slippery ice and snow covered streets the entire way, remember how your 19th century self would have dealt with the months of January and February. That should warm you up a bit!

The information for this article came from numerous sources:


mg said...


Jimio said...

I love the story about instead of clearing the snow off, they added snow on to bare spots so the sleighs could travel better. also so much hard manual labor went into staying warm and all the clothes they wore. It reminded me of this killer recently on the run and he was high up in the mountains and died of hypothermia with only a t-shirt and jeans on. I cant stress too much how you cant stay out long in cold weather without proper attire!

Richard Cottrell said...

Winter had to be hard back then, it is hard enough for me in and 1845 house in 2012. Richard from My Old Historic House.

The BUTT'RY and BOOK'RY said...

Another great post!
(I think it's fun when the power goes out...)
Blessings, Linnie

Historical Ken said...

So guess what? Less than a week after I published this post on "Winter" our furnace died...and the temperature was down to 6 degrees above zero!
The entire night was spent with me ensuring my family was warm (they were) and turning on the stove for an hour and then turning it off for an hour to get some sort of heat.
It got down into the 50's in my house that night - not cold at all in comparison to what our ancestors endured but much colder than what we were used to!
Maybe I jinxed myself...

Pam of Eastlake Victorian said...

Oh no! Maybe you did jinx it! At least they had real fireplaces, with lots of wood to burn. I don't know what we would do to keep warm. Probably move to a motel, while the pipes were freezing and bursting at home! Our furnace went out a couple years ago on a bitter night. I awoke very cold, checked the thermostat and the furnace, then called the HVAC people, who made an emergency call in the middle of the night. Turned out our gas line was frozen so the furnace wasn't getting any gas. They thawed the line and relit our furnace and water heater for us. Our 1870's house is not insulated and got really cold very quickly, so we were very thankful!


Shan said...

Dearest Ken,

I am coming out of hibernation and paying a few "housecalls" today.

Loved this post...what resourceful and brave people our ancestors were! I am ashamed to admit that I complain when my tooties are cold and I have to put slippers on.


Yours kindredly,
Honey Hill Farm