Thursday, January 10, 2019
BABY, IT'S COLD OUTSIDE by E. AYERS
It’s winter in the northern hemisphere and for most of us that means cold weather. The further north, the colder it gets. So we snuggle with a cozy throw on a comfy soft sofa, wearing materials that have been scientifically designed to keep us warm, and stare at a fireplace that’s connected to a remote control. Can you image living without such luxuries?
Yes, there are still quite a few of us that have real fireplaces that must be tended with wood. I have coal fireplaces, quite a few of them. And one fireplace that can use either coal or wood. Coal fireplaces tend to not be as deep. As I sit here my fireplace is casting a warm glow into my living room and tossing extra heat into the room. It’s beautiful. It’s electric. I popped in the fake logs and plugged it into the outlet. My real heat comes from an oil boiler. I got rid of the wonderful old boiler because I couldn’t take care of it and getting parts were very difficult. It was leftover from the mid-1800’s, and by the time it was yanked out of here it was quite old. It appears to have once been coal fired and then converted to oil. Big, bulky, and certainly not efficient, the old cast iron unit was broken into pieces and removed. Ah, here comes the wonderful super efficient new one that probably will cut my oil consumption to almost nothing.
No such luck! That was wishful thinking. Thousands of dollars later, this super-efficient tiny thing with stickers proclaiming its value in BTUs that seem to promise cheap use, it guzzles just as much oil, and I no longer have radiant heat in that brick room to keep my water pipes from freezing and to warm the brick wall to the kitchen. Now the bricks are icy cold to touch. And the oil bill has really has not changed. It’s probably gone up based strictly on gallons used.
Yes, I whine. It’s part of living in a house that dates before the Civil War. And when something happens and there’s no heat… I freeze. I’ll bundle up until only my nose can be seen. But let’s rewind the years.
My father was born at the beginning of the 1900’s in a farmhouse that was actually much bigger than my 3,000 sq ft city house. They had wood fireplaces and some wood stoves. The first stove to fire up every morning was the kitchen stove fueled by wood. My dad swears he never dilly-dallied because if he was the first one up behind his grandmother, he got to sit on the stove and get warm. Yes, directly on the kitchen stove. That meant the icy cold metal would warm under him.
He’d pull off his nightgown that he used for sleeping and get dressed for the day. Little boys wore dresses back then. Even in the winter, little boys did not really wear long pants. At least proper little boys didn’t wear long pants, but if he was doing chores then he had coveralls. It was kind of an honor to get to wear shorts or kickers instead of a dress. Boys had to be in their teens to wear long pants. And that fashion held until about WWII. I saw pictures of my older brothers in knickers in the 1930’s and the younger of the brothers in the early 1940’s in his knickers as a young teen.
Backing up again, my father would jump on the kitchen wood-fired stove and sit while getting dressed until it got too hot, and he had to jump off. It was large household and the first ones downstairs got sit on the stove. The first thing his grandmother heated on the stove was water. There was no hot water heater. So anything that you wanted to do, you needed water. His grandmother would fill several large pots with water before retiring. Often they were frozen solid in the morning even though they were inside the house. That's cold!
Houses weren’t insulated very well, if at all. Historically, batts of grass were used in the attic until we began to use fiberglass, and that, too, has really changed over the years. Houses leaked, and the warmth escaped, as the cold penetrated, it allowed the snow to sneak through any cracks especially around the windows, unless it was hotter than Hades, and then the super heat worked its way inside the house. I know the house where my father grew up wasn’t insulated, nor did it have an attic. The attic was finished with a wooden floor and used for the older children in that multi generational house. Besides my father said that batting encouraged mice. So houses were cold in the winter and it was important to stay warm while sleeping.
There were wool blankets. After many years of use, if the moths didn’t get them, they were virtually felted. The survivors were thick and heavy. Very heavy...curl your toes over sort of heavy, especially if you were a child.
The other option was quilts. Feather quilts were common and when someone like my dad who lived on a farm, there were lots of feathers from the chickens. There was also down quilts. The down feathers were the teensy-tiny feathers and it took lots of those to fill anything. They were saved for important things such as down quilts, down pillows, etc. If you’ve never experienced the difference, well… Feather and down quilts, also called duvets, were more apt to leak a feather. The quill would poke through almost any fabric and without fail poke whoever was under it or on it. But those little, darn, down feathers would also work their way out and they had tiny pointed quills. Quilts were used both under the sleeper and over the sleeper. The quilts were often tucked inside something like a big pillowcase made for a quilt. Usually the quilt was buttoned into place so that the quilt didn’t shift within the big pocket. That way the quilt cover could be washed because washing quilts is… Crazy. The feathers mat and it’s terrible. So the cover keeps them cleaner.
Today most say to have professionally cleaned. Back then, the concept of professionally cleaned meant anyone other than main female of the house. When my sister bought a duvet about 20 years ago, she called me up laughing. “You won’t believe how it says to clean the quilt. Dry Clean Only.”
If you like the smell of dry cleaning... But for years quilts were washed and fluffed and you can't use a dryer on them and... So most people prefer a quilt filled with cotton or a polyester filler.
When my sister discovered her new duvet with the matching cover was lacking buttons and her quilt would shift, she called me again.
“Okay, dear sister. Go buy four kilt safety pins. That should work.” Perfect. Problem solved. Her duvet was secured with big gold pins. No shifting.
We think of the beautiful quilts that we love to make today, and those were never meant for everyday use. They were hope chest items and used on the marital bed mostly for show. The average quilt was made from scraps or worn out clothes. Often they were quilted over quilts. That made them warmer. Sometimes they covered the walls or windows. Sometimes they even were used on the floors.
If you’ve snuggled under wool blankets and layers of quilts, you know how warm you can stay. Even as a small child growing up in a “modern” home, I froze. My parents figured if the thermostat was set 65F, the house was plenty warm. I guess the way they grew up, it was. Our great big fireplace and an ample supply of hardwood were supposed to provide plenty of heat when mixed with a big furnace in the basement. But climbing into that cold bed and snuggling under the layers of wool blankets and between two big down quilts took only a few minutes to adjust to my body temperature keep me toasty warm.
No longer do I do that. I set thermostat at one temperature and sleep under a nice cozy blanket. If it’s extra cold, I have some really warm fuzzy PJs. I might awaken to discover that my pipes have frozen in the brick room that houses that new fuel-efficient boiler, but I will be warm. And yes, I still own a pretty patchwork quilt, a few fancy down quilts and a couple of duvets with covers. I have no desire to go back into the 1800’s and freeze my my toes, my tush, or any other part of my anatomy! Nor do I want to discover that the hand pump is frozen solid and there will be no water.
Although not a fail safe, my heating buddy comes in the fall and services my boiler, and the oil company has me on an auto fill. They track the cold days and promise that I won't run out of oil in my tank. I like my modern life even though I pay enough money for oil each month to build several nice houses in the 1800’s and probably a small town each winter. I fill my car’s gas tank for what most men made in the whole year. Today, life is good – not perfect, but it still beats stepping back in time. But there's nothing like a cozy room, a comfy chair, a warm blanket, and a really good book. And I'm certain that women back then who could read, loved a good book just as much as we do, because some things never change. Stay warm! Stay safe! And count the good things we have.