As we waltz into December, are you ready for winter? The dropping temperatures, blustery winds, grey skies, shorter days, and longer nights and maybe snow or, worse, ice? Burrrrr…. So we drag out our winter clothes – the pants, turtlenecks, sweaters, boots and heavy coats. We cringe at the forecast, knowing the utility companies rake in the money as we switch to furnaces, upping the line as each degree falls. Ever wonder what they did in the old days? With no insulation, no central heating, no space heaters, and so forth? I mean, how did they get the word out no school?
I love historic homes. But most of the grand ones, like Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home) or the homes along Plantation Row along the River Road in Louisiana, would be a nightmare to heat or air condition. High ceilings, window that go from floor to ceiling that open enough to be used like doors, single pane glass windows and, egad, shutters that close! Their heat came from fireplaces – one placed in every room of the house that they occupied. We shudder at the idea of cold air creeping down the chimneys. So how did they manage the cold?
Let us head back to the 1860s to show us. First, the interior of the house was transformed, seasoned so to speak. The light, billowy curtains of the summer were exchanged for heavier materials, lined in satin. Closed, they blocked the air that leaked through the windows. Light woven carpets rolled away for the heavier woolen ones. Quilts and wool blankets covered the beds. Winter was coming.
But one couldn’t spend all winter, sitting before a fireplace, praying for spring. Chores still needed to be done, society required attendance and goods to be bought. So the wardrobe was switched. Men had it somewhat easier. Many of their clothes were made of wool for the well to do and wool or heavy twill for the commoner. This is the period the middle class, small in numbers, is developing. Wool was a year round fabric. Despite what we think, superfine and quality woolens were breathable fabrics. Most of the military uniforms were made of wool. And in the summer even, women who cooked wore wool dresses. Fire is possible cause of death here. If a cotton dress or apron caught on fire, the poor girl would be inflames quickly, despite the bucket of sand kept nearby for fires. Wool is tightly woven so took longer to burn through, hence the smell and smoke would alert her of a burn.
Outside the kitchen, women wore many layers that were converted to winter wear. Cotton or silk stockings were now wool, some even horizontally striped in colors. Pantalets and chemises were flannel. Under petticoats had a wide variety of options. The summer white was now wool or even quilted. Colors were flamboyant – red was the wide favorite. The color was still shunned from dresses due to the connotation but as an undergarment, it was the favorite. Over petticoats still remained white and cotton.
Many of their dresses, though, didn’t have to switch. A good thick cotton was doable or wool, but those were more for solemn colors like mourning black. The wrap required when they left the house switched from the cotton shawl to a heavier one or a woolen cloak, some with hoods. Hands were in muffs. And feet rested on heated boxes (metal box with wired sides, it held a heated stone or brick for use in the carriage, for instance) when traveling.
As to schools, the public school system we are familiar with today wasn’t functioning yet back then. One just simply kept the children home – many in the south were home schooled, as were some of the wealthy northerners. As to the roads, the highway department didn’t have their snowplow teams cruising. In the mid-19th century, one relied on the horse. Horses can ‘plow’ through but many owners simply didn’t venture forth in heavy snows.
So when the first gas or electric bills arrive today, after the first taste of cold days, just remember how they lived before us and feel free to shudder – as you sit in your warm house, watching the forecast and planning what to do with the kids home all day from cancelled school.