Thursday, February 19, 2015

Settles, Stoves, and Screens: Staying Warm before Central Heating

How did people keep warm before the development of central heating? I’ve been thinking about this a lot during the very cold winter we’ve been having here in the northeast, and I recently came across an article that sheds some light on the strategies people used. In “Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, not Place,” Kris De Decker explains that instead of trying to raise the temperature of the air in an entire room, “they used radiant heat sources that warmed only certain parts of a room, creating micro-climates of comfort. These people countered the large temperature differences with insulating furniture, such as hooded chairs and folding screens, and they made use of additional, personal heating sources that warmed specific body parts.”

People (and cat!) enjoy the warmth of a tile stove in this painting
from 1867 by German artist Albert Anker.
Most modern heating systems are based on the principle of convection—the heating of air. Older methods used conduction—heating through physical contact—or radiation, heating through electromagnetic waves. Conduction and radiation are both more efficient methods of heating, since they transfer heat directly to people, but they also have drawbacks.

This seat in the Alice’s collection (which also
converts to a table) would protect the sitter from drafts.
The Colonial Revival movement of the twentieth century romanticized the big open-hearth fireplaces of the eighteenth century, but as De Decker points out, fireplaces “are hugely inefficient, because most of the heat escapes through the chimney. They also suck in large amounts of cold air through cracks and gaps in the building envelope, which cools the air indoors and introduces strong drafts.” To counteract these issues and to compensate for the fact that fireplaces don’t heat a room evenly, people used a variety of contrivances to contain heat and create smaller zones of comfort.  High-backed settles and folding screens were two of the most common devices.

Brass bed warmer
When people had to leave these warm spaces, they used portable, personal heating devices to transfer warmth from place to place. Sleeping spaces were rarely heated, so bed curtains helped hold in heat, and bed warmers—metal pans on long handles that held hot embers—were used to take the chill off cold sheets before hopping in.

Foot warmers kept extremities warm and could be used while traveling in a carriage or in unheated spaces like churches. Foot warmers were generally made of wood and metal, and like bed warmers, they were filled with embers from the fireplace. A long skirt or robe also helped to trap heat from the foot stove and warm the lower body. Similar devices—along with hot bricks, stones, or even potatoes—were used to warm the hands. In the nineteenth century, ceramic hot water bottles and foot warmers became more common. Using hot water instead of coals was also much safer!

Early 19th-century foot stove

Stoneware “pig” foot warmer
De Decker suggests that by combining these older concepts of radiant and conductive heating with modern technology, we might be able to heat our houses in a way that uses less energy. In the meantime, what are you doing to keep warm this winter? Personally, I find that a dog makes an excellent foot warmer!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Will You Be My Valentine?

Postcard from Catherine North to
George W. Clark, Jr., 1907
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and in honor of the occasion, we’re featuring some Valentine cards from the Alice’s collection. Although Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in some form for a long time, cards are a relatively recent development.

Some authors have claimed that Valentine’s Day had its origins in the ancient Roman festival Lupercalia, which was held in mid-February and was dedicated to fertility. In the fifth century, the Roman church is supposed to have co-opted this rite and turned it into a Christian festival in honor of several early Christian martyrs named Valentinus, celebrated on February 14. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence for a direct connection between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day, but over time various legends about “Saint Valentine” developed, including the belief that he was a priest who was imprisoned by the emperor for  performing secret marriages for soldiers in the Roman army. While in prison, he supposedly wrote a letter to the jailer’s daughter, which he signed, “Your Valentine.”

Postcard sent to
Mrs. George W. Clark,
The connection between Valentine’s Day and romantic love may have its origin in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules (1382), in which he wrote, “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan eury bryd comyth there to chese his make”—that is, “For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.” However, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that Valentine’s Day evolved into an occasion where lovers expressed their feelings for each other by presenting flowers and offering confectionery as well as sending hand written greeting cards. 

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, hand written valentines started going out of fashion, giving way to mass-produced greeting cards, largely due to a British publisher who issued The Young Man’s Valentine Writer (1797), which contained sentimental verses for someone unable to compose his or her own. Using these verses printing companies began producing a small number of cards that combined different images and verses, called “mechanical valentines.” These cards were so popular that by the early nineteenth century, “mechanical valentines” were being assembled in factories. In the United States, the first mass-produced Valentines were made in 1847 by Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, who had received one of these English Valentines.

This mid-nineteenth century Valentine was given to Alice Miner in 1916 by Emma Hodge, who addressed it to her “Partner in all sorts of collecting.” The original inscription reads, “Were riches rank and power/This day within my grasp/I’d give them all to gain thy love/No greater bliss I’d ask.”

Emma Hodge gave this Valentine to “dear Miss Matilda Trainer,” also in 1916. The inscription reads, “All I have I freely offer thee,/My heart my hand my Liberty.” Both Valentines are about 8 by 10 inches, made of hand-painted floral embellishments applied to paper embossed with lace.

In the early twentieth century, Valentine postcards joined the more traditional Valentine cards. Prior to 1898, only the United States Postal Service could produce postcards, but once that prohibition ended, the postcard business boomed. The cards themselves were inexpensive, and could be mailed for only a penny. Valentine postals could be romantic, humorous, saucy, or even mean—so-called “Vinegar Valentines.” The postcards shown here were sent to George W. Clark Jr. (father of Dr. George Clark), his mother, and his sister Mattie between 1905 and 1907.

Thanks to Becca Belton for researching Valentine’s Day and scanning the cards for this post!