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!

No comments:

Post a Comment