Artist: Thomas Birch
Staying warm was not always as simple as flipping a switch or nudging a thermostat. In the days of our ancestors, it also was not as easy as loading and starting a pellet stove. It involved even more than hauling firewood in from a dry shed and loading it into a state-of-the-art woodstove.
With what were often limited resources, our grandparents needed to use common sense and ingenuity to augment whatever they used as a primary heating system.
Here are some of the “free” things they did to keep warm:
1. Wear sweaters and warm clothing. There probably were not many folks going around all day in short sleeves in the dead of winter. Instead of bringing the indoor temperature high enough to dress the same all year ‘round, they added on layers during colder seasons.
2. Acclimatize to cooler temperatures. When my aunt relocated to Florida several years ago, she laughed at the sight of joggers wearing earmuffs at 50 degrees. But by the next year, she, too, felt cold at higher temperatures than she had while living up north. In the same manner as my aunt became accustomed to warmer weather, so, too, can most people get used to cooler indoor temperatures during winter.
3. Stay active. I have hiked many mountains in cool weather, wearing only shorts and a T-shirt in temperatures as low as in the 40s. But sitting indoors at my computer, I reach for a sweater as soon as it dips below 70. Our grandparents may have moved around both in- and out-of-doors more than we do now, if for no other reason than to accomplish daily living tasks which we no longer do today. This higher level of activity contributed to keeping them warmer.
4. Wrap up. When they did curl up on the couch with a good book or relax with a hobby, our grandparents likely made good use of afghans, shawls and lap quilts. Rather than heat the whole room, it made sense to use warm covers to retain body heat during sedentary intervals.
5. Be conscientious about trips in and out of the house. Every time a door is opened, heat escapes. By planning ahead and limiting the number of times the door is opened, people in our grandparents’ generation were able to retain indoor heat more efficiently.
6. Use the oven for indirect heat. It goes without saying that baking anything other than necessities is a better idea on a cool day than on a hot one. And after the baking is done, it is useful to leave the oven door ajar to allow the heat into the room.
Artist: Currier and Ives
7. Close off unused rooms. Spare bedrooms, summer kitchens, utility rooms and entryways may not need to be heated all winter. The more square footage in a home, the more heat is required — and the harder it can be to stay warm. Closing doors and heat registers to non-essential space can be helpful. This is what our grandparents did.
8. Keep bedrooms cool and pile on extra blankets for sleeping. Many bedrooms do double duty as areas for homework, children’s play or hobbies. It might be worth considering to move these activities to common areas during cold weather, thereby saving heating costs while keeping the family warm in one or two rooms.
9. Use insulated curtains or hang blankets on windows. Staying warm in our grandparents’ time often included creating an extra barrier between themselves and outside, and window coverings were key.
10. Cover walls. Hanging heavy quilts along exterior walls can help keep rooms warmer. It not only provides additional insulation, but soft textiles create the illusion of warmth and comfort. Extra coverings over wall outlets can help minimize drafts, as well.
11. Place draft dodgers under doors. Creations made of yarn, fabric, rags, synthetic stuffing, or newspaper can help prevent air exchange and retain more warm air inside. These could be basic — just old hosiery stuffed with textile scraps — or as fancy as anyone wanted to make them.
12. Winterize windows with plastic. Windows which were particularly vulnerable to wind and cold and those in rarely used rooms could be easily covered with a sheet or two of clear plastic and tacked on using furring strips, adding an additional layer of insulation and helping to create a greenhouse effect inside the house.
13. Caulk or fill in around windows. Loose windows and frames allow warm air to leak out and cold air to flow in. Filling in gaps and cracks with a malleable material helped prevent heat loss and contributed to our grandparents staying warm.
14. Insulate the attic. Commercial insulation is probably the best idea for us today—despite its higher cost, it is super-efficient. But our grandparents had to do it with whatever they had—rags, woolens and even old newspaper could make a difference. It was important that they take care not to place anything combustible too close to a chimney, and that remains a crucial consideration for us today, too.
15. Bank around the house. Our grandparents used bales of hay or straw, bags of leaves, or other insulating materials around the outside of the house. Often in colder climates, they packed snow around the foundation to minimize transfer of heat.
By being intentional and diligent, our grandparents were able to thrive in the coldest of weather. And by following the lead of our ancestors, we all can stay a little warmer during winter.
What old-time advice would you add on staying warm during winter? Have you discovered new ways? Share your thoughts in the section below:
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