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.

A Victorian Christmas

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist
This article was originally published in the Oshawa Express, November 27, 2015

Christmas was a time of celebration for Victorian families. Many of the traditions that we follow today were also a part of a Victorian Christmas celebration.

For example, it was Queen Victoria who popularized the German tradition of a Christmas tree and made it a part of the celebrations. The Queen’s husband, Prince Albert, brought the tradition of displaying a tree during the holidays from his native Germany. A sketch of the Queen and her family posed around a Christmas tree brought this tradition to the British people and it became a part of their holiday traditions.

The Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle published in The Illustrated London News, 1848
The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle published in The Illustrated London News, 1848

Victorians would place a small tree on top of a table in the parlour. It was often decorated with homemade paper ornaments, strings of popcorn, berries and nuts. Occasionally, the family would be able to afford a few ornaments bought from the store. Families also placed small presents on the tree in lieu of using wrapping paper, which was still expensive at that time. Christmas trees were lit with candles and families would places flags from their country of origin atop the tree instead of an angel or star.

The Christmas Tree in Henry House
The Christmas Tree in Henry House

Gifts of small toys or candy would be placed on the tree for the children to find Christmas morning. Perhaps, if the family was a little more affluent, slightly larger toys could be found under the tree. The children would be especially pleased to see a toy such as a Noah’s Ark under the tree. The reason for this was rather simple: a Noah’s Ark was a toy that could be played with on any day of the week.

The Victorians also enjoyed the tradition of wassailing during the holiday season. This would see them joyfully going door-to-door singing carols or offering drinks of spiced ale.

For more on Victorian Christmas, please check out Jenn’s latest podcast on our YouTube Channel



This is the last blog post for 2015!  We will post again in January 2016! From all the staff and volunteers at the Oshawa Community Museum, we wish you a very Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!

An Evening of Lamplight: The Annual Lamplight Tour

For over two decades, the Annual Lamplight Tour has been a signature event at the Oshawa Museum, the unofficial start to our holiday season, and a staff favourite.


On Saturday, December 5, we invite you to experience an evening of Lamplight. Activites include costumed guides in Henry House, an Edwardian schoolroom, and photos with Father Christmas!

Father Christmas fun!
Father Christmas fun!

We are also excited to launch two new displays! The Gift of Play: Toys of Yesterday is open, showcasing toys from days gone by! Reminisce and remember your childhood through this exhibit, located in Robinson House.

The Gift of Play: Toys of Yesterday
The Gift of Play: Toys of Yesterday

Also in Robinson House is our latest engagement activity, our Winter Wonderland Selfie Station! Take a picture against the snowy backdrop; share it with us by hashtaging: #oshawamuseum

Don't forget to take a selfie!
Don’t forget to take a selfie!

The Annual Lamplight Tour is Saturday, December 5, from 6-8pm.
We hope to see you there!

We thank our 2015 Sponsors

Lamplight 2015 - 11x17


Student Museum Musings: Death to Rest: The Story of the Coffin

By Lauren R., High School Co-op Student

When undertaking was first introduced it wasn’t a popular business; in fact furniture makers used undertaking as a side job. Undertaking wasn’t a popular enterprise because people believed that the deceased loved ones were being separated and taken away from the rest of the family; it was depersonalizing the death. For this reason most undertakers actually went to the house and prepared the body there- they would take the flowers, a coffin, stands for the coffin, and any accessories or back drops the family may want. All of the equipment that could be used again was collapsible and could be put into boxes and suit cases to be taken with the undertaker once the person had been buried.

Mourning After
Mourning After

The body would be held in the house for a few days before the burial at this time the family would come and say good bye to the deceased loved one. This period is known as a wake (in North America it is synonymous with a viewing- which now takes place at a funeral home) during this time family members would stay with the body and attempt to wake it up to return the loved ones to them. The body would lay in either a coffin or a casket; a coffin is in a hexagonal shape to mirror the human body, while a casket was in a rectangular shape, surrounded by flowers and family. These coffins would be rather plain wooden boxes; unless, the family purchased coffin jewelry, little metal ornaments which would adorn the coffin and make it unique. When the body was moved from the house to be buried the coffin would face so that the person was looking away from the house, this way they were always looking forward, do as not to disturb the spirit.

The body would then be carried, or taken by hearse to the cemetery. The coffin would sometimes be covered in a cloth known as a pall; this is where the name pallbearer comes from. After this the body would be laid to rest.

Mourning After: The Victorian Celebration of Death is on display now through to November! Be sure to visit and see this exhibition

Student Museum Musings – Do You Want to be a Victorian?

By Caitlan, Summer Student

When I first started here this summer Jill asked if I could create a video based on the song from the Disney movie Frozen, Do you want to build a snowman? How could I say no to that request! Of course some of the words had to be changed around a bit to fit the museum better and what we do but I couldn’t resist. This was the start of Do you want to be a Victorian?

Caitlan becoming a Victorian
Caitlan becoming a Victorian

With the help of Karen, the other summer student, we re-wrote the song and got the help of co-op student Nadia to help us film. We had a lot of fun filming everything, but the only problem that arose came down to singing the song. Nobody wanted to sing the song on their own, so I was able to convince some of the staff here to sing together. By the end there was a total of 6 of us; the summer students Karen, Carey, and Nadia (to convince them I said it was listed under the “other museum-related duties as assigned”), and Melissa and Lisa lent their voices as well.

Become a Victorian at the Oshawa Museum!
Become a Victorian at the Oshawa Museum!

When asked about some of things I do here, I bet having a choir-like practice in a kitchen is one of last things people would think expect me to do. But it’s one of the joys here – to always expect the unexpected! If you would like to head over to our YouTube channel you will be able to watch Do you want to be a Victorian? Or if you would like to see what Victorian life was like, come on down to the Museum!

Check out our latest video on our YouTube Channel:
Do You Want to be Victorian

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