Posts Tagged ‘pole screens’


A few days after Jane [Austen’s] birth a blizzard struck and paralyzed all the south of England, making travel almost impossible as snow drifted deeply and blotted out all signs of roads and tracks. On four nights in January the temperatures sank so low that even urine in chamber pots underneath beds became frozen. It was weeks before a thaw occurred, and even then the spring was very cold, so Jane was not taken out to Steventon church for her christening until early April 1776. – Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels, Deirdre Le Faye

In Ways to Keep Warm in the Regency era, Part 1, the post ended with the invention of the Rumford fireplace, a vast improvement over previous fireplaces in which most of the heat from a fire went up the chimney and smoke billowed into the room. Not all people during the Regency period could afford the more efficient new fireplaces. There were ways, however, to capture heat and to prevent feeling ice cold on one side while too hot on the other.

Mid 18th century Wing Back Chair, England

Mid 18th century Wing Back Chair, England

Wing chairs

Arranged in a circle around a cozy fire, wing chairs served a dual purpose, conserving heat and protecting the sitter from draughts. English homes were notorious for chill draughts entering under doors and through ill fitting window frames. The highs backs of these chairs and wings, sometimes known as cheeks, prevented cold air from swirling around the head and upper body, and at the same time prevented heat from escaping past the sitter. High backed wood settees served a similar purpose but were not quite so comfortable.

Room screens

Also known as draught screens, room screens have been used since medieval times as a protection against draughts. Thought of as a necessity, they partitioned off long halls and kept draughts from entering too close to the heated portion of the room. They could also serve as protection against too much sun in the summer in a room that faced west.

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Family Physician A Manual of Domestic Medicine, 1886

Draught Screen 1744

Draught Screen 1744

Of the tribe of fire screens and draught screens there are so many varieties that it is impossible to mention more than a tithe. The purpose of the former is so apparent as to need little commendation. So long as we are scorched baked or fried at one side of the room and frozen at the other so long shall we require at times a screen between the fire and those nearest it. This screen may take the form of transparent glass or tinted cathedral glass in leaded squares. It may have its panels of brocade, or old leather of rare needlework by skilful fingers, or of painting on panel in oils or in water colour. – The Furniture Gazette 1881

pole-screenPole screens

A beautiful addition to any room, decorative pole screens served an important function in the 18th century: The tall thin screens shielded people’s faces from the direct heat of the fire. In the 17th and 18th centuries both men and women wore makeup to hide blemishes. (It was said that before he turned fifty the Prince Regent’s face had turned waxen and copper colored from make up.)  The cosmetic preparation worn to hide small pox was thick, and made up of wax and white lead. The lead was toxic, especially when warmed, and the heat from a fire could be life threatening. A pole screen protected the face from intense heat and prevented the wax from melting and the cosmetics from interacting with the skin.  Pole screens were fitted with sliding panels that could be enlarged or diminished as needed. The earliest panels were made of wicker, but these were replaced with beautiful needlework or embroidered panels that came in many shapes and sizes – oval, heart-shaped, rectangular, etc. By the late 18th century, skin disfiguration caused by plagues was no longer as prevalent as before, and smaller polescreens became more fashionable.

The Bedroom

The bedroom remained a primary focus for staying warm. Privacy was a luxury only the rich or rising middle classes could afford. Most poor and working class families shared rooms (or lived in a one-room hovel), and children often shared a bed and huddled together. For the privileged, life was vastly different. A half hour before the family retired, a servant would enter the bedrooms and start a fire in each room. They would also warm the bed sheets with bed warmers.


Bed warmers

Brass bed warmer open

Brass bed warmer open

Bed warmers like the one depicted in the image above were made of brass tin or lined copper, and had long wood handles. The round metal pan was hinged so that it could be easily filled with hot coals. The pan would then be moved gently back and forth between the sheets to warm the beds on cold evenings. These bed warmers gradually fell into disuse in the 19th century after hot water bottles made of rubber became affordable and widespread.

Four poster beds

The thick hangings that surrounded a four poster or tester bed kept cold draughts out and body heat in. Popular since before the Elizabethan age, their design changed with the times: ornate in the 16th century, plain in the 18th century, and a rich but restrained neoclassical style in the 19th century. The bed and bedding materials varied according to wealth. Luxurious hanging made of velvet or brocade were often worth more than the wood bed frame, and in times past the rich would take the hangings with them as they traveled, leaving the wood bed behind. As improvements in insulation and draught exclusion were made, the four poster bed became more decorative than functional.

Four poster bed

Four poster bed

Night caps (also known as jelly-bags in the 19th century).

Knitted wool or silk stocking caps provided warmth while sleeping. This distinctive cap was also used other than for sleeping. From the 14th-19th century it was known as a skullcap and worn indoors by men when they removed their wigs. Women wore a more ornate mob cap during the day, to bed, and outdoors under their hats.

Nightcaps are no protection against snoring

Nightcaps are no protection against snoring

Foot warmers

18th-cent-foot-warmer Foot warmers were small, practical and transportable. Most foot warmers were simple wood, tin, or brass boxes with metal trays that held hot coals. The sides were poked with holes in a patterned design, and a rope or metal handle allowed for easy portability. Women and children would carry footwarmers to church or inside a carriage. They were used in a cold room as well. Women’s long skirts would hang over the warmer, providentially holding the heat around their feet. By the end of the 19th century, footwarmers were primarily used in sleighs and carriages until the advent of the automobile

High-sided Church Pews:

For about 54 shillings a year a family could rent a high sided pew whose tall wooden walls protected worshipers from winter drafts. Family members would sit close together and share the heat from a foot warmer. The pews were often individualized by family members who brought in their own pillows or fabrics, and even furniture. Pews in the galleries were for parishioners who could not afford to rent a box downstairs.

Family Pew, Tichborne

Family Pew, Tichborne

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First Image, Rossetti’s Bed

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Brrr. The coldest days of winter are upon us, prompting me to wonder: “How did people in days of yore keep warm?”

Surrey in winter

Today we can turn up the heat with the merest flick of a switch, but during the 18th and 19th centuries people had to make do in draughty and leaky houses with their high ceilings, ill-fitting windows, and lack of central plumbing and heating. Planning and a great deal of effort went into gathering fuel and maintaining fires in open fire places. Much of the heat escaped up chimneys and draughts were always a problem. Without the aid of room screens and fireplace screens, a  person could feel both hot and cold  at once standing in front of a fire. The upper crust might have had more resources to purchase good quality fuels and hire more people laboring on their behalf, but many a fashionable regency woman wearing a thin muslin gown covered by only a Norwich shawl would  catch a deadly cold or pneumonia from wearing such inadequate covering. This phenomenon was so common in the early part of the 19th century that it was termed “the muslin disease.” – Rakehell.


Travel in winter was not easy. Carriages and conveyances were unheated, and many people sat outside exposed to the elements. A footwarmer and fur blanket over layered winter clothing helped to stave off the cold for those who could afford such luxuries, but most people had to bundle up and deal with the weather as it came. Writing to her husband John  in 1798, Abigail Adams describes winter travel conditions in the colonies, which were not unlike those on most roads in England at the time:

We came five and thirty miles to this Place. From New York our poor Horses have waded and dragged the Carriage through Snow banks and Mud, till I have dreaded their failure. They have Supported the fatigue however a mervaille and even Sloan as lean as a lath has brought along Frank in the Saddle very well. We have yet five and thirty miles to Phyladelphia.

I took a ride in the Sleigh yesterday afternoon towards Milton. The whole Earth looks like mid winter, and the Snow is 4 and 5 foot deep, in Banks driven together and consoladated so that it will lie at the Sides of the Road till next March or April. At Plimouth and Hingham there was very little, not much at Weymouth but the nearer you advance towards Boston the deeper it is. If it had fallen level it would have made excellent travelling.- 25 November


Bundling up in layers of wool, fur, cotton, and linen was the first line of defense. The following passage of people entering an inn describes how they removed their outer wear when traveling:


Meanwhile passengers are busy taking off coats one two and three in succession those were the days of bona fide great coats, nowadays become lessened and merely overcoats.Chins appear out of their many wrappages of silk, and fur caps are bundled into pockets. Stage-coach and Mail in Days of Yore A Picturesque History of the Coaching Age … By Charles George Harper

People wore layered clothing made of wool, flannel, or fur. Typical winter outerwear included hooded capes, great coats, scarves, cloaks, shawls, scarves, muffs, gloves, mittens, thick socks, stockings, long wraps, caps, hats, and ear mufs. Sitting in open sleighs, carts, and carriages, people would tuck comforters, quilts, or blankets around them, and bring umbrellas to protect them from freezing rain. Fur sets and fur trimming made of beaver, fox, bear, and marten were common. Seal skin coats prevented wind and rain from penetrating to the skin, and swans down muffs kept delicate hands warm and protected. A foot warmer heated with coal would complete the traveling ensemble.

Morning dresses, April 1797

Morning dresses, April 1797

It must be added that people were more accustomed to the ambient temperatures than we are today. When I lived for six weeks in New Zealand in winter in a house without central heat, I quickly became accustomed to the cooler temperatures. (In fact, I now keep my house much cooler than I did before that protracted visit, a fact I quite often forget when guests come over.)

Regency couple skating, c. 1800

Regency couple skating, c. 1800

To return to yesteryear, layered clothing was the key to keeping warm. All but the most fashionable regency women would have worn several petticoats (even 4 or 5), stockings and/or socks, leather boots or shoes, a dress over a chemise, a thick shawl, fingerless mittens, and the ubiquitous cap as they went about their housewively duties. Outdoors, they would have added jackets, scarves, kid gloves, and a hat over their caps to keep warm.

Gentlemen wore drawers and sometimes a girdle known as a stomacher, woolen waistcoasts over muslin or linen shirts, and a coat to complete the indoor ensembles. Their cravats and high shirt points protected necks, tall leather boots protected feet,  leather gloves, beaver hats, and multi-caped greatcoats completed the outdoor ensemble.

Gathering Firewood

Fuel came in the form of firewood, coal, or dried dung, depending on what a family could afford or was most easily available. Chopping wood took effort and was time consuming, and firewood needed to be seasoned to burn most effectively. The scarcity of firewood in deforested regions would force individuals to go far afield to search for logs and kindling.

Wood cutters

Wood cutters

F. L. Hartwell, a civil war soldier, wrote vividly about a soldier’s attempt to keep warm when camped out in mid-winter:

We have been very cold for the past 2 1/2 days as we had a snow & sleet storm from the northeast. we could not keep warm or even comfortable in beed [sic]or out as we could not all get around our fire at once, we have to go a mile from Camp to get wood to burn & green pine at that. How would you like that to burn at home well we have to go 2 times apiece in cold days making each 4 miles travel each day to keep us warm and cook by. – To My Beloved Wife and Boy at Home, p60. (Spelling and underline – the author’s)

Charles Crowe’s recollections in his Peninsular Journal (1812,1813, 1814) were as follows:

16th December

We reached Friera [Ferreirra do Zezere ?], after a tedious march, for we strongly suspected that our guide wilfully led us a circuitous route. Here we found a strong contrast to our last quarters, empty houses divested of everything, even of door and window frames, and our men had very comfortless lodgings. Some Officers had joined us from the rear, and we here mustered seven, all of whom repaired to a large mansion near the town. The owner fled to Coimbra when the French took possession of the country, leaving an old gardner in charge. This man very kindly brought a large quantity of wood for me to burn, for, excepting the kitchen, mine was the only room possessing a fire place. I soon made a good fire and resolved to spend a comfortable evening in writing home, and drying my little wardrobe. But I was soon found out, and five of our comrades came to spend the evening with me, and were so well pleased with so agreeable a companion, to wit, the fire, that they stayed late, and left me with a small store of fuel for the night, which was very cold, the room large, and my blanket damp. My great coat was my only covering, a deal form was my pallet, and my writing case served for bolster and pillow.

The Hearth:

For most households, the kitchen with its large open hearth and constantly burning stoves became the focal point for both family and servants in the evening. It was not unusual for master and mistress of the house to sit in the kitchen with the servants – the women sewing and the men reading – as they sat by the only source of heat and light at night.

18th century Dutch kitchen interior

18th century Dutch kitchen interior

The above illustration of a Dutch interior in a small house is reminiscent of family scenes all over Northern Europe, with the family gathered in one room, along with the family’s pets. The two gentleman in the Cruikshank illustrations below seem to live in rented rooms. One has placed his table/desk near the fireplace, in which a boiling kettle is steaming (no doubt to add to Cruickhank’s satire on jealousy). The sick man sits  in front of an open grate in a high-backed chair, which kept the heat from escaping. Coal fires were common in the city, where soot and smoke helped to create the pollution and fogs for which London was so famously known during the industrial revolution.

American Louis Simond, visiting London in 1810, remarked that ‘the smoke of fossil coals forms an atmosphere, perceivable for many miles’. Marianne, writing to Willoughby on a winter’s day in London would have needed to light a candle even at midday in order to see her pen and paper clearly. – How Clean Was Jane Austen’s London?


mr-woodhouse-2-2The wealthy could afford to have rooms heated when and where they liked, and whether it was cold outside or not. In this photograph, Mr. Woodhouse in the A&E version of  Emma is seen sitting by a fire expressly laid out for him in the drawing room at Donwell Abbey as the rest of the party picked strawberries. Such extravagance for one individual would have been impossible for a majority of the people at that time.  As the 18th century progressed, fireplaces became more efficient. Rumford fireplaces, common from 1796 – 1850, were designed to carry away more smoke and reflect more heat. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland was disappointed to note the brand-new Rumford stove that General Tilney had installed along with other modern improvements.

Comforts of a Rumford Stove, Gillray

Comforts of a Rumford Stove, Gillray

Next week, Keeping Warm in the Regency Era, Part Two.

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Top photograph: Surrey landscape

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