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Keeping Warm in Colonial America

With less than two months to go until the official start of spring, the chilly, brisk air of winter is keeping us inside, warmed by our furnace or heating system, and out of the cold. But our colonial ancestors weren’t so lucky, solely relying on their fireplace for heat. The Franklin stove was invented in the mid-1700s by none other than Benjamin Franklin, and the first steam-based heating system was invented in the late 1700s (though it was only used in the inventor’s office). Thomas Edison’s electric heater wasn’t invented until 1883, and the first natural gas central heating system was patented by African-American inventor Alice Parker in 1919, paving the way for central heating systems we have in our homes today.

While gathering around a warm fireplace during a snowfall might sound charming and romantic, trying to stay warm in 18th century America was a daily challenge. Most homes relied on wood burning fireplaces, the temperature barely rising above freezing on the coldest days as most of the heat went up the chimney, pulling cold air into the house to replace it. To keep warm, colonists had to stay active, bundle up, and eat meals in a small room, as the bigger the room, the harder it was to heat. Unless there were servants who personally tended fires, bedrooms were unheated and some of the coldest areas of the house (though if there was a fireplace in the bed chamber, just like at Craven Hall, there would be some residual warmth if they were heated during the day). Cold drafts would be blocked by hot water bottles and wrapped heated bricks, offering some protection from the brisk air seeping under doorways. They would wear thick layers of woolen clothes, sleeping in flannel nightshirts and caps, layering multiple blankets on the chilliest nights.

Members of the household would spend most of their days in the private side of the house — public rooms, like the formal dining area, would have been kept closed unless heated for guests or special occasions. When the temperatures dropped to below freezing, the teens or single-digits, colonists would wake to frozen eggs, milk, jellies, and cakes. Fruits, like pears, plums, apples, and peaches, were made into jams and then pies which, if frozen, would bake well over the open hearth. Baked beans and porridge were enjoyed daily, as were bread, pickled vegetables, and salted or smoked meat that had been preserved for the winter.

Next time a snowstorm blows through the area, with the threat of ice knocking down power lines, I’ll be sure to break out my wool socks and arrange my sleeping quarters downstairs as my ancestors did — just in case.

Craven Hall fireplace decorated for Christmas. Courtesy of the Craven Hall Historical Society, 2020.

By: Jennifer Burns

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