Posts Tagged ‘regency winter’

Copyright @Jane Austen’s World. Gentle readers, as you know, the northeast has been socked in by snow, ice, gale winds, and bitterly cold temperatures today.

George Scharf, Sketches of People in Snow. Some scenes of winter have never changed.

This is a perfect time for hunkering inside and drinking hot chocolate. Or is it?

Image @City of London. This young lady is wearing pattens to protect her shoes.

My nephew’s children will go sledding, others will go ice skating, and my dog will bound through the snow drifts with undisguised glee, as people have done for ages.

Winter Amusement, Hyde Park, after Ibbetson, 1789. Note the bare feet on the young child in rags. (Foreground)

As early as the 17th century, the noted diarist John Evelyn noted: ” Having seen the strange and wonderful dexterity of the sliders on the new canal in St James’s Park, performed before their Ma[ties] by divers gentlemen, and others with Scheetes, after the manner of the Hollander,s with what swiftnesse they passe, how suddainely they stop in full carriere upon the ice, I went home by water, but not without exceeding difficultie,s the Thames being frozen, greate flakes of ice incompassing our boate. Pepys entry is as follows: St James’s Park Dec 1 1662. “Over the Park where I first in my life it being a great frost did see people sliding with their skeates, which is a very pretty art.”


Dutch steamers on the frozen Zuyder Zee. The leather straps are quite visible on these skates.

Skating has been around since 3,000 BC or thereabouts and stone age skates have been uncovered in bogs. But it was the lowlanders who took to the sport with glee, using wooden platform skates with iron runners as early as the 14th century. At first, skaters strapped their skates around their shoes with leather straps and propelled themselves forward with wooden poles.


William Grant, The Skater, 1782

Then, the Dutch invented a narrower double-edged metal blade that allowed them to glide with their feet, and the poles became obsolete.

1824 Skating Dandies Showing Off

Many 19th century images exist of people skating on frozen streams and ponds, and sledding or sleighing.


1820. In the distance on the right, one can see a man chopping through the ice to allow his cattle to drink water. On the left, another man is spreading grain to feed his animals.

“..moderns sledges are used, which being extended from a centre by the means of a strong rope, those who are seated in them are moved round with great velocity, and form an extensive circle. Sledges of this kind were set upon the Thames during the hard frost in the year 1716 as the following couplet in a song written upon that occasion 1plainly proves:

“While the rabble in sledges run giddily round
And nought but a circle of folly is found” – The sports and pasttimes of the people of England

By the mid 18th century, Robert Jones described paired ice skating, or figure skating in A Treatise on Skating (1772).


The Timid Pupil, 1800. Both this ladies feet are placed together, as her escort gently leads her over the ice.

Sleds and sleighs have been used for centuries to transports logs, people, and good over frozen waters all over northern Europe for centuries.


Frozen river in The Netherlands with townsfolk skating and sledging using various forms of sleds pushed by people, and one pulled by a horse. By Vermeulen

Called coasting, sliding down hills and inclines on hand sleds or sledges provided hours of pleasure, as well as a practical way to get around over frozen landscapes and water. Wooden sleds pulled by a rope are still a familiar sight today.

19th century porcelain (figures in 18th century dress): man pushing woman on a sleigh

Fancy sleighs pulled by horses (or reindeer in the frozen north) transported groups of people, often in comfort, for their feet were placed upon footwarmers that were heated with hot coals, and their bodies were covered by thick furs or blankets.


Victorian sleigh. The travelers are protected from the cold by muffs and a thick blanket. Even the dog wears a coat. Note the bells on the horses.

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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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