Monthly Archives: December 2014

Oil Heat and Mummy-Wrapped Bricks

Alsace bed warmer in glazed terra cotta brick.

Alsace bed warmer in glazed terra cotta brick.

What did we ever do without central heat and air conditioning?! On our recent warm fall days it seemed sinful somehow to turn down the thermostat and let the air conditioner run. When it’s in-between too warm and too cool at night for the heat pump, we don’t think it’s just right; we need that steady hum to lull us to sleep.

We didn’t have that option in my childhood home. Our house didn’t have central heat, it had a central heater. A shiny brown rectangular oil heater stood on one side of our dining room, its top grate serving as a handy warming tray for coffee cups and oatmeal bowls. A little door on the left allowed access to the burner, the edge of the door frame just the right height to rest your cold feet.

The straight-back chair in front of that stove door was available on a strictly first-come, first-serve basis. I read many a chapter of the latest Nancy Drew adventure sitting there, leaning the chair back to catch the light as I toasted my toes before bedtime.

Except for the adjoining kitchen the rest of the house was kept shut up to keep the warm air in and the cold air out. If we needed the living room to entertain visitors in cold weather, it had to be pre-heated. A coal grate filled the fireplace, sticks of kindling and wadded up newspaper stuffed beneath it for a fast light.

Unfortunately, cold-air leaks from the living room windows meant the only warm spot was directly in front of the fireplace. Your front would get warm while your back suffered from frostbite and you never got uniformly comfortable before it was somebody else’s turn.

The bedrooms weren’t heated at all but we had plenty of quilts and blankets and bricks. Didn’t everybody have bricks in their bed in those days? (See below) Mama made good use of some old coarse-weave drapery material. A brick was wrapped round and round with a length of it until it was nearly doubled in size. On cold evenings these mummy-wrapped bricks were perched atop the dining room heater and turned over several times until heated through and through. When the brick was just right, Mama and I would make a dash for the bedroom. She would turn back the covers and lay the brick at the foot of the bed.

I’d climb in, carefully rearrange my teddy bears and baby dolls on both sides of me, and stretch a little to be sure my feet could touch the brick. Mama would then tightly tuck me in like folding waxed paper around a sandwich. She pulled the top covers up around my ears and across the top of my head leaving only my nose and mouth uncovered to breathe through. Eventually my shivers would die down as the warmth from the brick emanated upward and I’d fall asleep “snug as a bug in a rug.”

In the late 1950’s the dining room and kitchen became summer-time cool spots in our house. Daddy installed a window unit in the back wall of the dining room and on really hot days turned it on full blast. With the air conditioner running all the doors had to be shut tight, this time to keep the cold air in and the hot air out. It was a little strange to come into the back porch from the yard all hot and sweaty, open the kitchen door and be hit in the face with a blast of icy air. Goose bumps were immediate and so was “Close the back door, you’re letting the good air out!”

It took some getting used to. There were no arm chairs and no couches, just the dining room table to lounge around and read the paper or do your homework. It was almost worth suffering August and September heat waves to enjoy a soft sofa or comfy rocking chair in the living room, rather than suffer cold earlobes and the noisy fan rattle in the air conditioned dining room.

I don’t remember ever having an air conditioned automobile growing up. Car heater yes, air conditioner, no. The little glass triangles in the front car door windows turned out, breaking the gale-force wind that would come in the rolled-down windows otherwise. If I stuck my head a little ways out of the back window, I could get enough “good air” to last until we got wherever we were going.

We’ve come a long way since those days. There may be an old brick around someplace, but no old drapes to wrap it in and no oil stove to heat it on. And we’re so used to the temperate temperatures in our heat-pumped condo, it’s not the slightest temptation to do without the “good air” in hot or cold weather.

Image is of a French / German (Alsace) bed warmer in glazed terra cotta brick, selling for a measly $57.00! It’s something of an antique so I guess that explains the price. “A few minutes before going to bed people used to put the brick on the stove. When it was hot, they inserted a metal rod into one of the holes in order to take away the brick from the fire. It was then warped in a thick cloth and put into the bed.”

Our bricks weren’t the fancy glazed kind, they were just left-overs from when the house was built or something. Worked fine, though.