Sunday, January 13, 2013

To Drive the Cold Winter Away: ~ A collection of notations of surviving wintertime past in Victorian Times

Updated in January 2022

~Without a forced-air furnace,  cold was cold,  but our ancestors were amazing people,  I think you will agree.  And,  as many of you may know,  I like to try to experience what our ancestors did,  even if only to get a sampling of their lives,  and if for nothing else than to have somewhat of an understanding and appreciation for the world in which they lived.
This is why I am in many of the photos accompanying this post ~
Are you ready to go back?


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 outside is frightful the temperatures are well below freezing,  the wind is howling at your door,  the snow is coming down at a blizzard pace. 
That's not a very pleasant thought,  is it? 
Maybe not to some,  but it is winter above the Mason-Dixon line.
And it's really not so bad.
How do I know? 
Well...have you ever given any real thought to how the people many of us attempt to emulate during our reenactments survived the bitter cold dark winters in days of old?  I have,  and so I combed through a few of my books and magazines 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.
And compared to them,  the greater majority of us certainly are!
Come,  journey with me to a cold winter's night a long,  long time ago... 
(The Ackley Covered Bridge in Greenfield Village)
Wintertime in the pre-electric era brought in discomfort and dread to most in the United States,  especially to those living in New England,  the mid-west,  and the plains areas.  To begin with,  darkness reigned,  for one must remember the gradual decrease in daylight hours becoming more noticeable in late October to well into the first couple months of the new year,  and during those few weeks from mid-December until early January there are only nine or so hours of daylight,  leaving the remaining 15 hours in darkness.  And the winter months are generally the cloudiest:  in some areas in the mid-west,  only 30 to 40 percent of the winter months have actual sunshine.  In fact, for the entire 31 days of January 2017,  the metro-Detroit area only had two days of sun.  Talk about the bleak mid-winter! 
Grey skies,  darkness,  and snow...and,  in days of old,  no electricity.
In the bleak midwinter,  frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,  water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,  snow on snow,  snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,  long ago.

"But,  things haven't changed,  Ken,"  you tell me,  "it's still cold and dark here in our 21st century winters!"  
You are quite right.  Except for one thing:  we have modern conveniences.  You are cozy toasty in your home with the forced-air furnace blowing warmth throughout each room,  the airtight windows ensuring the heat does not escape.  Light at the flick of a switch staves off the winter darkness.  With help from the radio,  ipod,  smart and i-phones,  a CD collection,  along with the hundreds of streaming channels,  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 phone.  Then there's skype to allow you to  "visit"  nearly anyone without leaving the comfort of your 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 front door by a motorized  (and warmed up)  vehicle,  even in this horrible winter weather. 
Yes,  let it snow...modern technology has rescued you from fear of freezing and solitude.
A cold and lonely walk to your darkened home.  Lighting candles or an oil lamp to see to get around will be your first priority,  followed by lighting the heating stoves to bring some warmth into this shut up house.  I hope your lucifers are easily accessible.
"Piles of firewood were cut and stacked in the warmer months for heat in cooler times and for cooking year round.  Corncobs were saved for smaller fires,  or for an extra touch of flavor in hams and bacon smoked over them.  If the fire went out,  flint and steel could spark a new one,  or a child could scamper to a neighbor and bring home a hot coal in a cook pot or a tray of green bark."
David Robinson
Many modern folks rightfully panic when they lose power,  especially in the wintertime,  for if they're like me they may not have a heat source without electricity.
And that can be devastating,  especially if one is financially strapped;  where would you go to keep warm?
 Not quite as devastating but certainly inconvenient,  an outage would also mean no TV,  no computer,  no music,  no electric lights or microwave...and in many cases,  no heat.  
Yes,  some can be snarky about it,  but it truly is an inconvenience and a hardship for a greater majority who live in 21st century America.  We live a different life than our ancestors.  Heck,  many of us live a different life than our younger selves,  when you think about it.
And this is what enthralls me about the past so much,  and why my admiration for our ancestors continues to grow.

Traditionally, the first Monday after Epiphany  (or 12th Night – the 6th of January),  was called Plow Monday because it was the day when men returned to their plows,  or daily work,  following the Christmas Holiday.  It was customary at this time for farm laborers to draw a plow through the village,  soliciting money for a  "plow light,"  which was kept burning in the parish church all year.
Sometimes falling on the same day as Plow Monday was Distaff Day  (January 7).  This was when women were expected to return to their spinning following the Christmas tide.  A distaff is the staff that women used for holding the flax or wool in spinning.  Hence,  the term  "distaff"  refers to women's work or the maternal side of the family.
"The demands of winter cast a long shadow before them,  well into the waning summer.  Mothers taught daughters how to card wool and coax soft fibers from the hard stems of flax;  how to spin fibers into threads;  how to stitch and mend the heavy coats and hooded cloaks that soon must ward off the biting winds.  Cloth scraps and worn-out clothing found new life in quilts and coverlets.  Finer stuff went into quilted petticoats to keep a lady warm."
David Robinson
Rich,  poor,  or in the middle,  losing power during the wintertime can truly cause great stress and problems.  I know it definitely would for me,  for I have no fireplace...well, no real fireplace  (it's an electric one) 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. 
Buried in nighttime blackness in the wintertime reduced the once family-sized home into a single room in many cases,  for many families closed off the parlors to decrease the amount of warming space,  especially in the earlier part of the 19th century.   With a dim glow,  life centered around the hearth or stove for warmth and possibly a candle for any of the limited activities of which they may have partaken.  Activities were limited to things that didn’t require the best vision,  and storytelling – including Bible stories & family history tales - were popular.
Victorian cloaks for women  (at Firestone Farm).
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,  while 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.  Paletots,  sontags,  woolen bonnets,  and sometimes extra layers under the skirts were common winter-wear for the Victorian woman,  while wool coats,  cloaks,  knitted hats & scarves,  and boots were all a necessity for the Colonial or Victorian man.  

Many would cover their front doors with blankets or by pulling a curtain across to keep out the cold,  but for those with an upper floor bed chamber,  there seemed to be little difference from the outside!
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. 
An upstairs bedroom at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. Note the warming stove.

From a 2nd floor 
bedroom window...

(Firestone Farm at Greenfield Village)
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.”  
Using a long-handled brass warming pan filled with the hot coals from the hearth was one way to warm a bed before slipping in.  It would be placed between the sheets and rubbed along the length of the bed quickly and steadily,  as to not spill the burning coals.  In this manner the bed would become sufficiently warm enough to climb in.
But not everyone had this sort of warming luxury,  for Mrs. Stowe recalled a family taking their leave to  "bed-chambers that never knew a fire,  where the very sheets and blankets seemed so full of stinging cold air that they made one's fingers tingle;  and where,  after getting into bed,  there was a prolonged shiver,  until one's own internal heat-giving economy had warmed through the whole icy mass."
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.”  
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. 

Then there's keeping food. 
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!
On the plus side,  this was the time to eat the fruits that were dried last summer and fall.  Because of radiant heat of an active central chimney,  the temperature in many attic spaces remained above freezing.  According to the author of Our Own Snug Fireside,  meal,  flour,  and dried foodstuffs such as corn,  apples,  pumpkins,  and herbs normally kept in cellars could sometimes be safely stored in attics regardless of how cold it became.  That is,  as long as the heat was sufficient enough,  for especially root vegetables such as carrots,  beets,  and potatoes would be damaged by extreme cold.  If they didn't freeze,  apples made into cider and applesauce or apple butter,  as well as the cucumbers and other vegetables that were pickled helped to sustain the farmer and his family,  as did the meats and fish that were salted.  Do you remember the root crops such as carrots,  parsnips,  and turnips that were put into the root cellar last October?  Now is the time to begin enjoying them a little here and there,  for they should hopefully last into the spring,  if at all possible. 
Currier & Ives "The Snow Storm" 1864
Staying home from school due to bitter weather is nothing new.  Anna Green Winslow writes in her diary that on February 21,  1772:
"This day Jack Frost bites very hard,  so hard that aunt won't let me go to any school.  My aunt believes this day is 10 degrees colder than it was yesterday; & moreover,  that she would not put a dog out of doors."
I can't imagine a man putting 
his feet upon such an effeminate 
luxury as a foot stove!
Small tin or wood foot stoves filled with an iron plate of glowing coals were used in both the parlor or in the carriage 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.”

Winter,  by the way,  was usually the best time to travel;  the snow covered roads and paths would make 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.
In a sense,  however,  traveling to town or to visit by way of carriage could also be a great discomfort without the luxury of heat,  though a foot stove would make it a bit more bearable, at least for the lady.
Now,  let's imagine that you and your family,  who are twenty first century people,  suddenly find yourselves in a carriage in,  say,  a winter's day of 200 years ago.  Since you time-traveled to this era,  this is a first ride for everyone.  It's a tight squeeze,  barely room for the four of you.  Though everyone is dressed warmly,  and the lady of the house also has a blanket to cover her lap as well as a wood-framed metal foot warmer filled with hot coals at her feet,  she is still shivering,  for the inside of the carriage is every bit as cold as the teen temperature outside. 
Are you ready for your winter journey?  It will not be a long jaunt that you are taking,  just enough to get a feel for period travel:
With a resounding  “Hyaah!”  from the driver,  the two horses pull forward with a lurch,   enough to shake the passengers a bit,  physically as well as mentally.  But, as you roll onto the road,  everyone relaxes and settles in.  In fact,  as nerves calm,  your family may even take great pleasure in the ride.  If one had ever sat in an old truck as it bumped down a rocky path with no heat or shock-absorbers,  one can then envision the reality of a carriage ride on a rutted road in the winter,  the snow crunching below the wheels.  And it is a slow ride,  hardly faster than a brisk walk.  From inside the buggy,  giggles and laughter abound in this new adventure.  Though many carriages have glass windows in the doors,  there are none in this one - only leather flaps that do little to help keep the weather out. 
When you finally arrive at your destination,  the driver of the carriage asks,  “How was your ride?”
“Cold,”  the woman replies,  even with her extra blanket and foot warmer.  “And it was jerkier than I thought it would be.”
“It was bumpy!”  the young daughter exclaims.
“I thought it was cool,”  says your teenage son,  though his definition not meant to be the meaning of a low temperature.
“I don’t know if I could handle a ride like this for too long,”  you yourself mention.
The driver is astounded at what he was hearing.  “Have you folks never ridden in a carriage before?”
Just imagine...

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!" 
(This is a Currier & Ives print called  "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.
According a mid-19th century account from Lowell,  Massachusetts:  "Now we cannot conceive a more pleasant amusement for a clear,  cold, frosty winter night,  than for a bevy of brave young men and fair young maids to go out,  when the sparkling stars and brilliant moon are glistering upon the icicled trees and snow-crusted earth and taking some snow-sleds..."
And from one of the earlier settlers of my own hometown of Eastpointe  (then called  "Halfway")  Michigan:
"Some boys took a pair  (of the outside wooden window blinds/shutters)  down  (from the school house) and made a sled."
And here is the rarely sung third verse of  "One Horse Open Sleigh"  from 1857  (better known now as Jingle Bells)  showing that even in Victorian times men were not always so gallant:

A day or two ago, The story I must tell
I went out on the snow, And on my back I fell;
A gent was riding by In a one-horse open sleigh,
He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.

No horse,  carriage or sleigh?  
Well,  one could always walk to their destination...

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As you find yourself surviving the winters of long, long ago,  you also realize that there was more to winter than sitting by a hot fire trying to warm yourself.  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.
Winter time in the country 
~1882 Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village~
(photo by Jesse Hughes)
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.
"Winter is a good time to cut and get up a year’s stock of firewood.  Farmers at this season have less work to perform and wood is easier loaded and drawn when there is good sleighing,  than in summer.  But remember one thing:  Don’t attempt to warm all creation,  by working hard to chop and haul fire-wood,  and at the same time leave your dwelling so open that the cold wind will rush in on all sides.  By all means make your house comfortable.  Bank it up and have all of its walls tight with good non-conductors of heat.  While taking good care of those in-doors that can can talk,  and tell their wants,  never forget the dumb brutes in your barn-yard and stables.  The merciful man is merciful to his beast.” 
-- Editor, Genesee Farmer 

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.”
Now we are 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.  In fact,  I have a quote from the same old-timer  mentioned earlier who lived in my own hometown of Eastpointe/Halfway,  Michigan about this practice:  "The farmers would haul the ice cut from Lake St. Clair for the summer for the butter or whatever they made.  The ice hauling up and down 9 Mile Road  (then called School Road)  was quite a period."
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,  much like as the old-timer above told us.

One of the late winter traditions was maple sugaring time.  No American season is more definite than sugaring time.  The right time is usually between late February/early March through early April when the sap is flowing properly.  The nights are still cold enough to freeze sharply and the days warm enough to thaw freely.  The thermometer must not rise above forty degrees by day,  nor sink below 24 degrees at night.  It is this magic see-sawing between winter and spring that decides the sugaring season.  But I won't go any deeper into this family and community affair here in this posting,  for it is covered further in the  "No Time For Boredom"  springtime in the past post I wrote previously.  But I thought it worth a mention due to the over-lapping between winter and spring activities.
Trekking to the house from the barn. 
Maybe they were maple sugaring...?  

(Historic Waterloo Farm in Waterloo, Michigan)

So!  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:
"Cormany Diaries: A Northern Family in the Civil War"
History Magazine - December/January 2000
Coping With the Cold By David Robinson 

All photos were taken by me except those that I am in  (obviously!),  though they were still taken with my camera.  However, the picture of Firestone Farm entitled Winter time in the country  was taken by Jesse Hughes,  an employee at Greenfield Village.  Oh - and the foot warmer picture I found on Google on THIS site.

I would like to thank my wife and daughter for willingly taking the time to get dressed in their period clothing just to pose for some of these images.

For more on historic lighting in general,  click HERE

~   ~   ~


Betsy said...

One winter we lost power for three days due to an ice storm. Thankfully our gas range still worked (it was an older model that had a pilot light, no electric ignition needed) so we lived in the kitchen for those 3 days with our only heat source being the open oven door. I later learned that is very dangerous to do and it's a wonder we didn't die of carbon monoxide poisoning, but here we are. I remember enjoying that time, huddled around the table, reading by candle light, but was very thankful for the power (and the heat) to be restored! Our ancestors were definitely made of sterner stuff than we are, although to be fair, at least they had the right tools for survival. Modern homes that have no wood burning fireplaces or wood burning stoves put us at a disadvantage.

Historical Ken said...

The fact that our ancestors were prepared for their way of life (via wood burning fireplaces) should have been noted in my post (maybe I'll add it!).
Thanks for your comment Betsy!

troutbirder said...

Fascinating.... and well written. We had a Franklin stove in our basement with a swinging grate and it served us well when our electicity failed all our modern conveniences during a blizzard....:)

Unknown said...

Excellent post. I fear our younger generations would grow bored rather quickly without the use of all their electronic gadgets. I really believe we should all know how to survive without working electricity and plumbing, which is one of the great things about reenacting - you learn how to survive without 21st century conveniences. I rarely use modern lighting in the evenings. I much prefer using candles and oil lamps. However, must admit that it is rather difficult to read by candlelight. (and NO, I DO NOT use an e-reader of any sort and never will. I have a rather strong opinion on that subject which I shall refrain from posting here, but I'm sure you can gather what it might be). Thank you for a wonderful post and lovely photos.

Unknown said...

I remember the big snow storm in the 70's when we had no power for a week! I was young but we stayed in our living room where we did have a fire place and we also had a wood burning stove in our family room! We used candles (we were a re-enacting family so no problem) and cooked over the fire and on the wood burning stove! My dad told stories at night and we would play games! It is still one of the best memories I have from childhood! I remember being disappointed when the power came back on! Popcorn over the fire is sooo good!!!

Unknown said...

One of my best memories from my childhood was the big blizzard in Michigan in the 70's (I think it wsa 78 or 79). We had no power for 1 week~ it was so much fun! We had a fireplace in our living room and a woodburning stove in our family room (and plenty of fire wood)! Meals were made over the fire or on the woodburning stove~ I played outside and warmed up by the fireplace later with hot chocolate! Evenings we lite laterns and candles (my family has been re-enacting for 3 generations) so we didn't mind the candle lite! We would make popcorn over the fire and my dad would tell us stories in the evening and as a family we would play board games! I had more attention from my older sisters then ever before! To be honest I remember being so disappointed when the power came back on! We would have family night around our fireplace on occasion but it was never as great as that week in the 70's when that was our only option! It is one of my best childhood memories!!

Historical Ken said...

HI Ken,
I just read your blog on winter. It brought back fond memories of staying with my grandparents when I was a young boy.
They did have an electric range but the furnace was coal fired and had a single large register in the dining room that the heat was supposed to come up through and heat the whole house. There was no blower so it was gravity heat. The main floor was warm but the upstairs was always curtained off from November through March and yes the sheets felt like sliding into a Popsicle wrapper.
The indoor privy was only to be used at night. They still had an outhouse that was used year around.
There were always chores that took us outside. Fetching milk from the barn before the milk truck picked up the cans and gathering eggs.
Apples and pears were stored in a back room in the basement. It was nice to go down there and stand next to the furnace for a few minutes before getting the fruit. My brother and I were usually reminded to stoke the furnace while we were down there.
One of my earliest memories was riding next to my grandfather while he drove the horses with a load of apple boxes on the "slip" on the way to the barn.
Thanks for jogging the memory,
Mike Carr

the bee guy said...

Another great post.
Thanks for the links to the reference books. Looks like I'll have a few more books to read this winter.

Civil Folks said...

Great post Ken. I am always informed when you write!

ivetret said...

frolicking in the snow is natural. Just watch our puppies. Victorians were active.

Jesse said...

The Firestone Farm house photo was taken by me, back when I worked there. Here it is on my Facebook page
Lee probably would have composed the shot better than I did.

Historical Ken said...

Jesse, consider it corrected. And I apologize for the mistake.
I certainly hope you don't mind me using your photo.

Tinman said...

Our house is entirely wood heated for primary heat. It makes for a chilly house in the mornings, let me tell ya. It's not a big stove either, just a 1930's Kenmore cook stove and it's in a room by itself. We have a lousy floor plan for heat circulation. It gets very cold on and near the floor and I can see my breath most days. But, I have a ton of historical wool and very sensible traditional garments that make things rather nice, actually.

Unknown said...

I GREW UP in a cold flat in NC huddling around our one source of heat in the LR. Oh! I miss those days!

Non de Plume said...

I grew up in a boarding school here in the UK. It was a Georgian stately home and we frequently lost power. The central heating never worked and in winter there was usually a coating of ice on the inside of the windows. I remember doing homework by a log fire, by the light of an oil lamp. I think it's one of the reasons that I'm fascinated by the past. These days I live in a townhouse built in 1756 but am always better prepared than my neighbours. We have candles, a stack of firewood, tinned food etc...People are so reliant on utilities that it has made them lazy and a little stupid!

Kathy Divella said...

And don't forget that people would take their dogs to church. The pews had enough space between them to accommodate a persons dog. These animals would lie on their master's feet to help keep them warm. What a fiasco that must have been at times!

Susan @ 1885 Victorian said...

Enjoyed this post- made me appreciate the 66 degrees I do have in my 1885 Victorian home, instead of lamenting the 75 degrees I wish it could be!

Suzanne said...


How I enjoyed every word of this post and the pictures! I am so happy to have stumbled upon your blog via a friend's recommendation. Our home is a post and beam cape built in 1799. We are blessed with a center chimney, open hearth and beehive oven for cooking and many other charms pertinent to the era. During a terrible ice storm here in MA we did pretty good as we heated by hearth and a wood stove and I was able to cook on the hearth and make pizza in the oven quite a bit;-) The well was a problem as it is run with electric, but we just melted snow.I run a FB group for Tasha Tudor admirers, if you know who she is, called Take Peace. A lot of like minded folks there if you care to join us. I would love to share your post there if that is okay with you? You might also like Sarah Chrismans site and FB page called This Victorian Life. They live in their home as a couple in 1890 do, no modern conveniences. She has written two interesting books about living this way and a book on corsets that some of your female readers would love:-)



Historical Ken said...

Thank you for your kind comments, Suzanne.
You live in my dream house!! How wonderful for you!
I just joined your Take Peace page - yes, you are certainly welcome to share any of my blog postings - thank you very much!

mom said...

Absolutely love your blog. Keep up the great work.

Steve said...

We live in a brick house built in 1838. On one separate occasion we lost power to our farm for 3 days in 20-25 degree weather. I was able to keep most of the house at around 50 degrees using 4 of the 6 fireplaces - which I needed to do to avoid modern pipes freezing - but this required getting up every hour or so throughout the nights to tend those fires, as my wife and kids weren't home. One thing that I believe helped our ancestors manage was the degree of community that was their family. All able bodied members played a role, and such teamwork and distribution of effort was no doubt key to their success. Having tried it alone, I can attest to the value of family effort!

Bernideen said...

You have given a wealth on early American information and much food for thought. I loved the Williamsburg photo too since I am from Yorktown.

C.F. Gannett said...

Your observations are invaluable to me as a writer. I love the 18th century and relish every blog I get the chance to read on the subject. Thank you so much for taking the time to write these.

Historical Ken said...

This wonderful comment came from Richard H., (via Facebook):
Good article. I got to live this in 1998 at Christmas. That year there was an ice storm, very rare, which hit Williamsburg, my hometown. My sister called me, told me all about what it was like there (I live in Arlington, Va) and advised me not to try to come down for the holiday. I did not give that much thought, I said I would try to make it; and have an "adventure Christmas." I gathered a few tools I thought I would need, ax and saw, and headed out. On the trip down, I was lucky, I could see where trees that had fallen across the interstate had just been removed. When I got to Williamsburg, it was truly weird, all power was off, traffic lights dead too, the only lights I could see from the windows of homes were from candles...good thing it was Christmas! While I was there, I made coffee in the morning and later Christmas dinner in the fireplace, my experience as a reenactor came in pretty handy. I split wood into sticks, and then cut them into smaller pieces for the cook fire; I was glad to do this, as it kept me busy. Later we had the fireplace going in the usual way, as it was the only heat we had. I had a GI overcoat, and a cap, which I never took off in the house; it was always cold. Thankfully, there was no wind. I slept with the coat on too. Light was from candles only. I tried to do some reading, but began to feel tired of the effort, and thought maybe I should go to bed. There was just not much we could do; it was boring. I looked at my watch; it was only eight o'clock! I was learning a lot about how things had been for humans in times past in a short space of time. This went on for three days. By the end I has a clear idea of why older cultures had made the winter solstice such a big deal, lengthening days, more light and warmth were coming. I would have never done this on my own, but since I had no choice if I wanted a Christmas that year, I had to do it and take on the challenges; I glad I did. It gave me a real understanding of what things had been like for most of human history. PS; The Christmas dinner was great, brother said that was the best turkey ever!