As I lay in bed in 2017 with the thermostat set in the low 70’s, I ponder the plight of our Colonial American forebears. They were just as in need of heat, yet spent much of their day working hard to keep themselves and their families from freezing to death. It was a daunting task in the best of circumstances.
Their main source of heat was the hearth. It could be huge by today’s standards, often measuring several feet in length. Yet the fire within served as oven, stove, and heat for the entire house. And while it may have seemed the warmth would be cozy, tales of frozen ink in inkwells just a few feet away from the furnace of fire stirs our imagination to see just how cold our ancestor’s homes were.
Huge iron racks held hooks or chains of various length where pots could be held over the fire. An iron swinging crane allowed cooks to access the pots without getting so close to the embers. Women’s gowns were general made of wool which resisted catching fire if they stepped too close to the flames.
A tin reflector oven with a turning spit inside helped meats cook more quickly.
A bee hive oven to the side of the main hearth was used to bake bread. Often the bottom of the oven was lined with oak leaves upon which the bread would be placed with a long-handled peel.
“Why don’t you and Sarah go aleafing while there’s still enough light of day? We want to have a good supply for the bread-making this winter.”
Excerpt from Road to Deer Run
The warm coals from the hearth were also used to bring warmth to other areas of the house as well. Bed chambers were notoriously freezing, so coals from the fireplace were placed into a warming pan and moved quickly back and forth between the sheets before slumber. If the warming pan was moved too slowly, the bed sheets could scorch.
Coals from the hearth were also put into foot warmers which could be set near a person’s feet at table or put into a sleigh so that rider’s feet would not freeze during a winter’s travels.
Fires in the hearth were kept going all night long. Should the coals burn out, a youngster in the home would be sent to fetch hot coals from a neighbor’s house. But most families had some form of flint and steel with which to start a spark that would become a blaze of warmth.
He leaned into the hearth over the kindling and wood. Taking the cloth, he held it next to his flint and struck it on the curved steel bar. Within a moment, a wisp of smoke told him the linen had sparked. He quickly set it inside the nest of jute and laid it on the leaves. A flame erupted and soon blazed into the warmth they longed for.
Excerpt from Saratoga Letters
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To purchase Saratoga Letters, click here
Andrea Stephens says
Thanks for sharing your love of history Elaine. I can imagine how cold our ancestors were. I was staying with my sister when a storm took out the electricity. Thankfully she had a fireplace and a woodstove so we did not freeze. I can’t imagine cooking all meals over the fire. We got by with potatoes wrapped in foil, hot dogs and a few other things we could put on a metal skewer. My brother-in-law had a good supply of wood already but he still had to cut more every day.
It sounds like you and your sister made do very nicely. Well done! I cannot imagine just how cold our ancestors were either, with no hope the “electricity” would come on! Brrrr!
We actually built a large wood burning fire place equipped with a crane. We use different lengths of steal hooks to help with cooking and I actually won a chili cook off contest with chili prepared in our fire place! It was hot work with constant checking but so rewarding and fun…
Tina Rice says
I really enjoyed your post Elaine, thank you for sharing your love of history. I can’t imagine how cold it must have been and the struggle to stay warm living during Colonial times.
We have a fireplace in the basement we have used to stay warm when the electricity goes out and have slept in front of it a time or two. A couple years ago when we had 3 blizzards that winter, our electric went out for a couple days. Since we don’t have the hooks/chains or an iron swinging crane in our fireplace (we have talked about putting them in but have not yet) it was difficult to cook meals there. So, we moved our gas grill over in front of the sliding glass door in the dining room and melted snow on the side burner for coffee, hot tea and to cook with, clean up, etc. We had plenty of snow so we didn’t run out. 😉 We then cooked on the grill. One good thing, we could put leftovers in a lidded pot and put it in the snow to keep.
Tina, I love your ingenuity! You would have made a wonderful Colonist! 😉 Winters can be such a challenge but you adapted beautifully!! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
Melissa Henderson says
Very interesting. Thank you for sharing the photos, too.
You’re welcome and so happy you enjoyed it!