Wednesday, December 31, 2014

To Keep One's Self Warm

Object: Warming Pan, ca. 1770-1800
Accession#: 1900.0061

Winter presented a difficult time for families simply trying to keep warm, including the Randolphs. As one historian states, “for most American colonists, winter could be anything from inconvenient to challenging to deadly.” The fireplace provided the only source of heat until Benjamin Franklin invented the wood stove. A fireplace gives but takes away, as much of its heat goes up the chimney and pulls cold air back in to replace it. So heating a room could be a somewhat unsuccessful venture. The following quote, from the Farmer’s Almanac (1784), gives advice on how to keep warm during winter:

Take a piece of wood, fling it out the window into the Yard;  then run downstairs as hard as you ever can; when you have got it, run up again with the same measure of speed; keep throwing and fetching up until the Exercise shall sufficiently heated you.  Renew as often as the occasion shall require!

However, during the night when one might not be energetic enough for such an exercise and is ready for some rest, a warming pan might be filled with hot coals. It would then be used to warm the beds before being occupied.

Usually made of copper, warming pans were circular with a hinged cover that was perforated and etched with landscape designs or flowers. It would also be fixed with a handle made of oak. Better quality ones had handles made of mahogany that were “richly carved with elaborate designs.” An example of a warming pan similar to what might have been used by the Randolph family is this one in Wilton’s collection. It is made of brass, copper, and wood and has a long handle which ends at a round pan with hinged lid. 

Originating in England in 1740, warming pans were preceded by stone water jugs that would be filled with hot water. Similarly there was a foot warmer which was a pierced tin box in a wooden frame that was filled with coals and placed in coaches or in rooms. They might also have been used in church and set in the bottom of the box pew to keep worshipers warm. Warming pans were hung by the fire place for ease of use in one’s bedroom and as one historian attests, “Their burnished faces added glory to the stern faces of Colonial interiors.” They were inserted constantly and repeatedly into the bed as to not scorch the sheets, which might have been linen at that time. The Randolph family had as many as 5 bedrooms that each might have taken part in this luxury which would have been a treat for whoever was the first to hop into bed. 

Works Cited

Jennings, George Wilson. House and Garden, Volume 34. “Keeping Warm in Colonial Winter:

Robinson, David. “Coping with the Cold”. Colonial Williamsburg. 21 November 2014.

“How Hampton Citizens Lived in Colonial Times: Part 4: Colonial Fireplace: Source of Heat and
Light”. Lane Memorial Library. 21 November 2014. <>

“Keeping Warm in the Winter”. The Senate House. 21 November 2014.

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