The recent severe cold weather brought some things to mind that I had not thought of for many years. In the days when houses were heated with wood or coal, our upstairs remained unheated, at least during the winter. Stairways leading to those upstairs rooms were enclosed and the doors to them were tightly shut to keep heat from escaping to the upper level. The difference in temperature from one side of that door to the other was marked.

Some of those news stories of people without electricity reminded me of how it was when we were children, living in rooms that were not heated. In our old house the bedroom faced the south and west so when prevailing winter winds roared our unheated bedroom was cold. Once in bed, the mound of blankets kept one warm throughout the night, but often the hard winds and blowing snow kept one awake.

Old houses creaked and groaned under the onslaught of those winds and the blast of snow scrapping against the side of the house was noisy. It was the same when we were children at home. It’s easy to remember the cocoon of warmth you experienced underneath the blankets and quilts breathing in the cold air of the room just prior to getting up. To delay actually crawling out of bed, you blew your breath out and watched the steam rise, testing to see how cold it was outside of that bed.

You were toasty warm and relaxed and had that feeling of well being and home. But you had to prepare for that first initial process of throwing back those warm covers and actually getting up. It took some stamina. These were unheated bedrooms with linoleum floors that burned on the feet when you bounced out of bed in the morning and raced downstairs to warm your feet beside the coal burning stove. Once you got toasty, you raced back upstairs to get dressed as quickly as you could. Then it was back downstairs to warm up again by the stove.

It took just as much stamina to go to bed in the evening. After all day of cold air, those beds were frigid and took some time to warm up once you crawled in. Sometimes flailing one’s feet quickly back and forth warmed up the bed by friction, often with a snap and a crackle that produced colored green arcs of static electricity. Sometimes we moved our hands on purpose just to watch those colored streaks of static electricity light up. But soon body heat would have that cocoon heated up enough that sleep could claim us.

We never suffered from sleeping in a cold room; you learned to cover up to your nose and keep everything underneath the covers. Chances are some of those blankets were crazy quilts made up from scraps of material left from making us clothing for school. With the pieced top first, a layer of batting and a flannel backing these tied quilts made warm blankets with little cost. They were also good at producing that static electricity.

Another memory during the cold of winter was the chamber pot. When we were smaller, the chamber pot made that last call before bed a bit warmer than it would have been going down the path to the outhouse. These enamel pots with lids were standard objects in bedrooms of that day. This, of course, was before the advent of indoor plumbing. It was the same era that had us taking a bath in a huge galvanized tub in the kitchen beside the wood stove.

Now, I don’t remember ever waking up with snow on my bed, but my Dad spoke of this phenomenon when he was a child. That was back when houses did not have tight or double windows. It just added some insulation between you and the cold air. The blankets must have been good insulators, as well, or the snow would have melted. Either that or the bedroom was that cold!

Our ancestors had the initiative to invent bedpans, long-handled pans with lids filled with coals from the fire, which were used to warm beds prior to slipping under the covers. When our children were small I warmed bricks by the fire, slipped them in a fuzzy casing and put it at the bottom of the bed to warm their feet. It felt good to find something warm underneath the cold blankets and helped warm up those cold beds.

Now one can buy electric blankets, heated mattresses, heated water beds, heat pads, all to keep you warm in a heated house. So, I guess cold is relative. Those of us who remember those times didn’t think anything of the idea of cold beds and bare feet on cold, linoleum floors. Most of us would have a bit of trouble going back to that after sleeping in the warmer rooms of today.

Did it make us healthier and give us more fortitude? Perhaps it did. I know it did not hurt us at all. I also remember that it was not constant. Before long winter was replaced with spring and windows were opened to bring in that fresh air and summer would soon follow when those bedrooms became almost too hot to sleep in. Cold was relative, here today and gone tomorrow. But, while you were experiencing those cold days and colder bedrooms, you appreciated that heat just a little more.


Jeannine Roediger has lived on a family farm all her life, first as a farmer’s daughter and now as a farmer’s wife. She writes weekly for the Times Bulletin and enjoys gardening, quilting, cooking, bird watching and writing.