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An old fireplace burning logs

How did our ancestors keep warm in winter?


We have all been feeling the colder weather recently, and with the cost of heating our homes going through the roof, we are all looking for different ways to keep warm on a budget.

But how did the people of the past keep warm in winter? From about the 14th to 19th centuries the ‘Little Ice Age’ in Europe and North America meant that our ancestors were accustomed to harsh winters of enveloping snow and ice. And they had all sorts of methods of heating their homes and keeping the cold at bay.

Here are 8 ingenious ways our forebears kept warm in winter.

1. The Romans’ central heating

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, quite a bit actually, particularly in the realm of technology. The Romans built bridges, roads, and water sanitation systems. Wealthy Romans also enjoyed an early form of central heating. This underfloor heating system was known as a hypocaust – it was clever, but also terribly inefficient.

Underneath the floor of the house would be a large furnace. Fire servants would continually lob masses of wood into it to keep it blazing hot. The hot air would then pass through spaces between the floor and the ground, and between the walls. This balmy air would permeate through into the rooms of the villa and keep the toga-wearing residents cosy.

This method was of course very costly in terms of fuel and manpower and was not very energy efficient.

2. The Victorians and coal

The Victorians loved coal. It drove industry and empire, ships and trains. But it also kept them warm. In 19th-century Britain, the thick smell of smoke from coal fires must have been absolutely everywhere. In 1870 the output of Britain’s coal mines was about 121 million tons.

The grand houses of the wealthy were inevitably big coal guzzlers. Coal was needed throughout the day for fireplaces, which were in most rooms, and to heat hot water. The rich residents of Audley End House in Essex enjoyed hot baths and glowing firesides thanks to an innovative ‘coal gallery’.

A whizzy little crane would winch up the coal from the cellar to the gallery where the coal would be offloaded and piled up, ready to be chucked into furnaces. These boilers would provide the hot water for the house, and from this gallery coal would be sent around the building for fires.

The palatial Witley Court in Worcestershire, which burnt through 30 tonnes of coal a day in the 19th century, had a network of tunnels and trolleys under the house for moving the coal around the massive mansion.

3. Hibernating Europeans of the modern era

One tactic for keeping warm employed by impoverished people on the continent was quite simple – sleep.

In Russia, France and the Low Countries, much of the peasantry would sleep for long periods during the dark and icy winter days. One observer in Burgundy in winter 1844 recorded that poor families would ‘spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food’.

In some rural parts of France and Switzerland in the 19th century, people would often bed down with their livestock, effectively hibernating with them. A similar trend was observed by the British Medical Journal in Russia in 1900. Poor rural farm workers would sleep all through the winter, just getting up once a day to eat bread and to tend the fire.

4. Supersized fireplaces of the past 500 years

In 18th-century America, wealthy people had massive fireplaces in their houses to keep them warm in the harsh winters and to cook large animals. The historic Stratford Hall, near Washington DC, once had a grand fireplace 3.6 meters wide – big enough to cook an ox in whole. Several of these early American fireplaces burned vast logs that had to be hauled into the house by horses.

Formidable fireplaces were fashionable on this side of the pond, too. In the old castle of the Marksburg on the Rhine in Germany is an example of a medieval walk-in fireplace. This huge open fire was roomy enough to cook a whole deer inside, and no doubt radiated a lot of warmth in the process. The same can be said about the vast Tudor fireplaces in the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace in London.

Fireplaces were well-used by the affluent classes for heating their homes, having an open fire in most, if not all, rooms of the house. In Stuart times, homeowners had to pay a ‘hearth tax’, i.e., a tax on each fireplace. Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing, for example, was taxed for 16 fireplaces in 1664.

The royal residence of Windsor Castle still has 300 fireplaces, looked after by the King’s fendersmith.

5. Dangerous Tudor heaters

There was one type of heating hardware that was popular with the Tudors but proved hazardous to the Stuarts.

Braziers, in use since ancient times, consisted of a large bowl on legs that could be moved around. They would be stood in the centre of a room with a low charcoal fire burning inside, with the idea being that its heat would fill the room.

An early type of portable heater, at the christening of the future King Edward VI in October 1537, a ‘fire pan going on wheels’ was positioned close to the infant to keep him warm during the ceremony.

In January 1698, London nearly suffered a second great fire. At the vast Whitehall Palace in the centre of the capital, a maid was overseeing a hot brazier drying linen in an upstairs room of the grand palace. The maid took her eye off the searing brazier, and the linen caught fire. A huge inferno engulfed the building and the next day much of the old royal palace had been razed to the ground.

Braziers like this were in common use for many years in the dining halls of Oxbridge colleges, and one was reportedly warming the hall of Westminster School as late as 1850.

6. Bed warmers

In Europe from the 17th to early 20th centuries, if you had looked inside a person’s bed you might have seen a large frying-pan-shaped device. This was known as a bed warmer.

With a wooden handle for moving in and out of the covers, the round end consisted of an iron pan in which red hot embers would be placed. This would pre-heat the bed before the sleeper got in. Bed warmers proved to be not only a huge fire hazard but also a source of dangerous fumes.

7. The Russian stove

For centuries in Russia, the heart of the traditional peasant home was the stove. It wasn’t just used for heating and cooking, though. It was also used for baths and for a warm comfy place to tuck down and have a kip.

Once very hot, the surface would be covered in straw and a cast iron bath put on top. Adults climbed inside the bath unaided, but children would be placed in the bath on a specially designed spade.

The sleeping area, called ‘polot’ consisted of shelves installed between the wall and stove, or in others cases, the family would simply sleep on the roof of the stove. There was typically space for six people to sleep in the polot.

8. The Fabric of Society – Tapestries and bed curtains

In the cold, drafty castles and manor houses of the medieval and Tudor era, the mighty fireplaces and thick walls could only do so much. Heat loss and the icy outside air rushing into gaps were a continual problem. One technique was to hang large pieces of decorative fabric – known as tapestries – across the walls. This did a half-decent of helping to insulate the room, as well as being nice to look at.

The Victorians also made good use of fabrics to stay snug, especially on those bitter winter nights when the house fires had gone out. In many homes, thick curtains, known as ‘bed curtains’, would surround the bed.