Keeping Warm: The Ways The Victorians Did!

By Melissa Cole, Curator

It is a cold blistery day at the lake in Oshawa today as I write this post.  Which made me wonder how our ancestors kept warm in these buildings back in the day before forced air heating was pumping through the building.   On windy days like today you can still hear the air whistling into the building which makes it feel colder but really it is not.  In these days of central-heating, electric blankets and household insulation, keeping warm and toasty, especially at night is more of a privilege, rather than an absolute necessity. But how did people snuggle up and keep warm at night before we had all these wonderful things such as insulated, centrally-heated homes and electrically-warmed blankets?


They were not just there for decoration!  In the days before central heating, people hung tapestries on the walls of their rooms. Enormous, embroidered sheets of fabric, lavishly and beautifully and brightly decorated.  But tapestries were not just hanging on the walls for the sake of art and beauty.  What people tend to forget is that, in winter-time, especially in the countries which experienced exceptionally heavy snowfalls, the interior of a house or building was often not much warmer than the temperature outside! The point of tapestries was to trap heat inside a room and act like a form of insulation. Where-ever possible, tapestries were hung to keep warm air in, and cold air out.

Curtains did more than just keep out unwanted light. They have important insulating properties, keeping in warm air, and keeping out cold air, much like the tapestries that covered the walls. Curtains also stopped any unwelcome breezes or drafts from blowing in between the cracks and openings in early windows, from between the frames.


Bed Warmer, photographs from Artefacts Canada, Saskatchewan Western Development Museum
Bed Warmer, photographs from Artefacts Canada, Saskatchewan Western Development Museum

A bed warmer looks like a big frying-pan. You fill the pan of the bed warmer with burning charcoal or ashes from the fireplace or stove, close the lid, and then, holding the pan with the long handle, you slide it under the covers, between the blankets and the mattress, and there you left it, until it warmed up the bed.

013.3.13 - Bed Warmer, OCM Collection
013.3.13 – Bed Warmer, OCM Collection

While coal-filled and ash-filled bed warmers were very popular, there was always the potential risk of fire. A safer and more portable option was the hot-water bed warmer or hot-water bottle.

A classic for centuries, the hot-water bottle is a simple and effective way to keep warm at night. Before more modern rubber bottles were invented, most people used sturdy copper bottles instead.

Copper Water Bottle, OCM Collection
Copper Water Bottle, OCM Collection

Copper is rustproof and an easy conductor of heat, and so was the natural metal for manufacturing hot-water bottles. Copper was used for any vessel where heating was involved, such as pots, pans, kettles…and of course…hot-water bottles.

Copper hot-water bottles came in a variety of sizes and shapes. Most took the shape of pillows or cushions, having circular, oval or cylindrical profiles. These were easy to hold and compact in size.

There were numerous benefits to a hot-water bottle over a bedwarmer. To begin with, you could take the hot-water bottle to bed with you, and keep it with you all night. They were smaller and more compact, and they were safer and easier to use.

When cooper water bottles were filled with boiling water, the metal would heat up so fast that the bottle would be impossible to hold without burning your hands. One of the first things the owner of a copper hot-water bottle did was to make a bottle-cozy.

A cozy or a pouch/bag, was an absolute necessity to effective use of a hot-water bottle, and most of them were made at home, using available fabric and sewing-equipment. The fabric used for the bag had to be just right. If it was too thin, the heat would penetrate through it too fast, leading to burns. If it was too thick, then no heat would penetrate it, making it useless.

Once the bag was made, the bottle was placed inside it, and the bag was closed with a simple drawstring. The bag, with the hot-water bottle inside, could now be safely carried to bed, with minimal danger of burns.

The dressing-gown has been a tradition in Europe, and other parts of the world where cold climates are found, for centuries. It’s that extra, snuggly layer of warmth that we all want to have.

Dressing-gowns were common back in Victorian times, when clothing etiquette was much stricter than it is today. Dressing-gowns were worn at night, over pyjamas, or a nightshirt for extra warmth in houses without insulation and central heating, or were worn during the daytime over your everyday clothes, if you were half-dressed and had unexpected visitors.

If you’re looking for a comfortable way to keep warm this year, during the colder months, perhaps it’s time you started looking to history for a few ideas? They don’t use electricity and they’ll keep you just as warm as anything made today.


10 thoughts on “Keeping Warm: The Ways The Victorians Did!”

    1. Great question! Bluing may have been used to bring up the white, but the warmer may have also been wrapped in wool blankets and not placed directly on the sheets. They likely would have had many different warm blankets on the bed to get through the colder nights!

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