Staying warm in the 21st century is arguably an easier affair than it’s ever been before. After all, houses these days come fully equipped with central heating systems, and we can often get utilities such as hot water and electricity at the turn of a faucet or the flick of a switch. But in the 1800s it was a different story. Staying snug was a daily struggle, in fact, so the following methods were just some of the ingenious ways in which 19th-century folks kept warm in the depths of winter.
10. They kept their hands warm
One way folks back in the 19th century kept warm was by paying attention to their hands. For some, a fur muff was just the thing to stop their hands from turning into blocks of ice. The muff was a kind of cylinder into which people placed their hands. Of course, the drawback was that once people had their muffs on, there wasn’t a great deal they could actually do with their hands. Twiddling their thumbs would have been about the limit.
And then there was the high-tech version of the hand warmer. This was basically a container made of ceramic or metal – silver if you were wealthy enough – with some slow-burning charcoal inside. Alternatively, they might have been filled with boiling water. It’s difficult to say which was more dangerous: carrying around a container filled with burning charcoal or one filled with boiling water.
9. Warm the bed up
Being cold during the day is bad enough, but even worse is freezing at night in bed. In the daytime, at least, people in the 1800s could’ve tried to keep warm by, say, chopping some wood or jumping up and down. But assuming that they’d wanted to sleep at night, physical activity is pretty much ruled out. So the obvious answer was to devise a way of warming up the beds.
One easy way to do that was to use hot water bottles. In the 19th century, though, these were usually made from ceramic and were a kind of larger version of the hand warmers we saw before. Yet another device was designed to be filled with stones that had been heated up in the fireplace. In fact, people could have even taken hot coals from the fire and used them in one of the containers. But don’t try this at home today: we doubt having smoldering coals in the bed would satisfy modern health and safety standards.
8. The kitchen’s the place to be
In most 19th-century homes, the warmest rooms would have been the kitchens. And the reason for that is rather obvious if you think about it. The kitchen is where you cook food, after all, and that generally requires heat from fire. So it’s not a great jump to decide to use the heat that you’re generating anyway to keep the family warm as well.
And if you’d had one of the cast-iron kitchen ranges that were popular during the 1800s, all the better. In fact, many 19th-century households would’ve kept a fire burning in the range all the time, thus generating a continual supply of heat. The added bonus of the cast iron structure of a range was that it would have acted like a large radiator pumping heat out into the kitchen.
7. Live in one room
Of course, many people were dirt poor during the 1800s, so there was every chance that they’d actually only had one room to live in. But in any case, it made a lot of economic sense to heat and occupy just one of the rooms in 19th-century houses. Although it did mean that people would likely have frozen if they’d had to step out of the room for any reason.
People in the 19th century would probably have heated their rooms with coal fires too. That tended to mean that not only would a family have been living in one room, but they’d also have been crowded together in one part of that room bang in front of the coal fire. So families had literally been very close in the 19th century.
6. Coal fires in every room
For most people nowadays, having an open fire in their living rooms is a kind of style statement. And it’s quite likely that the fire will only be lit on special occasions. But for folks back in the 1800s, a coal fire burning had often been the only source of heating for their rooms.
In the 19th century, too, those who could afford it wouldn’t have just had a coal fire in the living room; there would’ve been an open fire burning in every room in the house during the cold of winter. Take the grand house of Witley Court in Worcestershire, England, for example. That household had dozens of coal fires burning back in the day and is said to have gotten through a staggering amount of coal – more than 30 tons each day.
5. Wear fur
The fur trade was a huge business in the 19th century. In fact, before the California Gold Rush of 1849, there had actually been a California Fur Rush. This had been unfortunate for the sea otters, fur seals and other fur-bearing creatures that had been at the heart of this economic bonanza. In just one season in 1810, for instance, three ships had harvested 30,000 seal skins from around the Farallon Islands off San Francisco.
Of course, fur was an expensive and fashionable luxury mainly reserved for the wealthy. But for those who could afford it, these skins from animals such as mink, gray fox or beaver were a superb way to keep warm. There are obviously ethical concerns about harvesting fur nowadays, but such moral qualms seem to have left most 19th-century folk untroubled.
4. Wear lots of clothes
Wearing lots of clothing was one obvious way to keep warm too. And that didn’t mean just dressing for the weather during the daylight hours. In the 1800s, people wanted to make sure that they wore plenty of clothes when they went to bed as well. An essential accessory was a nightcap, and bed socks would have also come in pretty handy.
But people did layer up for the daytime hours too. That meant wearing some very sensible underwear and then building up from there. Woolens would certainly have been de rigueur. And they probably wanted to top off their outfits with heavy overcoats, hats, gloves and scarves. And once they’d struggled into all those clothes, they’d be ready for their days.
3. Curtains, carpets and four-poster beds
It’s fair to say that modern interior décor trends have swung towards the minimalist for many of us. That means sanded wooden floors, exposed brickwork and a bare minimum of window coverings. But back in the 1800s, without central heating, people wanted to have heavy curtains, a good thick carpet and even a four-poster bed, if they could afford it.
All these heavy fabrics acted as insulation. So once folks had their coal fires roaring, they wanted to keep as much of the heat inside the room as possible. And when they went to bed, drawing the curtains of their four-posters was a great way of keeping the warmth in. Minimalism is fine with efficient heating, but potentially useless for someone living in the 1800s.
2. Go to the pub
If your house is too cold, one way to solve that problem is to go somewhere that’s warm. And many city dwellers in the 1800s had little space in their cramped living quarters. So why not go to the public house or saloon bar to take advantage of the blazing open fire and the space there?
Of course this wasn’t an entirely free option: the landlord of the pub would expect customers to buy drinks if they were taking advantage of the heat. But that seems like a fair price to pay for keeping warm.
1. Electric heaters
Yes, there were electric heaters towards the end of the 19th century. But it’s worth remembering that very few people would have had electricity in their homes. But supposing that they were lucky enough to have had an electricity supply, they could have been the proud owner of one of the earliest electric heaters. And if these heaters looked more like lighting than heating, there was a good reason for that.
In the U.S., the first electric heaters were developed towards the end of the 19th century by General Electric. And one of those behind that company was Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb. So these 19th-century heaters were essentially generating heat from large light bulbs. People had to wait until the 20th century for more effective electric heaters.