Winter and the Victorians

curriver_ives American_homestead winterAs 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.

CW-355-Capitol-Farewell_Colson_forPrint          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.

The Holidays are here! Is your Christmas tree up?

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Oh, no, wait, it’s Happy Holidays!

Little early? Have you gone shopping recently? It’s November 3 and Christmas decorations/cards/wrapping paper and ads are already there. Halloween was promoted in August. The national retailers bank on the commercialization of the holidays. But was it always so? The answer is no.

thanksgiving-2The original Thanksgiving dates back to 1621 when the Wampanoag Indians shared the autumn harvest with the surviving members of the Plymouth colony. One of the few times the natives helped the colonists learn what did grow here (unlike the seeds they brought from England) and how to live in northern climate. Since then, towns and states celebrated thanksgiving individually. But in 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving to be a National holiday to be celebrated in November.



The Christmas Tree- Godey's Lady's Book 1860Christmas – This truly was a religious holiday – a day to celebrate in church with no work. The Christmas tree did not take off as a symbol of the holiday until the 19th century when Queen Victoria used it. The British Empire was the nation to watch and many Americans mimicked what they did, especially socially in clothing, trends and holidays. The Christmas tree was Germanic in origin, the evergreen a wistful remembrance of greener, warmer days to come. The queen’s husband, Prince Albert, was German. The queen was popular so when she had a tree decorated, everyone followed suit.

The tree was a live evergreen. It wasn’t decorated in November but in the beginning, it was a short tree, set upon a table, and decorated on Christmas Eve. Its ornaments were the gifts for the children, hung from the branches, not wrapped. The lights were candles in weighted holders that clamped on the edge of the limbs. They were lit before the children arrived. After the awe of the little ones, the candles were snuffed. A bucket of sand sat nearby in case of a fire.  Today we have multi-colored, blinking, odd shaped LED lights but I personally would love to see a candlelit tree – just for the novelty & experience of old but doubt I’ll ever get to see that. <sigh> Today’s large trees, both the real and fake, started in the late 19th century, when Americans took this idea of the tree and expanded, demanding they be the large floor-to-ceiling trees.

Some of the interesting gifts of the period ranged from fancy sugar cubes (processed white sugar cubes were luxury goods few could afford) or French-milled soap (very expensive, fine and scented cakes) for the ladies. Oranges were also a fancy and expensive gift due the source (i.e.: Florida) and healthy, primarily used to ward off scurvy not the cold. As a child, I grew up with oranges scattered under the tree – a family tradition from days of old. Plus it took prodding that my birthday was middle of the month (December) for me to get my mother to put up the tree for it, unlike her desire to put it up on the 22nd or so. It always came down on the 26th. Her practice comes from her family practices of years ago.

What old-fashioned traditions do you maintain, despite today’s over-commercialization? Or is your tree already up?