Oh Baby, it’s cold outside! We hope this epistle finds you cozy and warm.
Chances are, unless you are reading this outdoors, that is the case, because we have warm homes. That is the result of our species millenia-long preoccupation with regulating our body heat. Not just our species, really, but we are the ones with the opposable thumb and the oversized brain pan, so we can do a little more about our situation than maybe trying to build a nest.
Maintaining body heat, that rather specific temperature of 98.6℉, is crucial to living. We are tuned to that temperature so that the multitude of chemical reactions in our bodies that keep us alive will best be able to occur. If we get too hot (hyperthermia) or too cold (hypothermia), things start to misfire. If this goes on too much or too long, well, let me refer you to our recent article on euphemisms for death.
So, over millennia, us clever humans invented clothing, bedding, and shelter, all to maintain that oh-so-important body temperature. We learned to eat most everything that was not nailed down in order to fuel our internal chemical fires. Oh, and we invented fire, because it really helped a lot. When we advanced to the stage of wearing warm clothing, in a warm bed, in a warm house, with a fire crackling in the fireplace, well, we had become the dominant creature on the planet and the survival of our progeny was all but assured.
Keeping that shelter warm, even when we were out looking for food, improved our odds even more. There are numerous methods of providing heating: fuel oil, propane, biofuel – no, this isn’t an ad – coal, wood stoves, even space heaters. As you already know, this was not always the case.
Where are we going with all this?
Recently, while standing in Squiretown, in the pitch black on a frigid night at a very old home – don’t ask – it struck us that it would be nice to get home and get inside. It also struck us that, 200 years ago, the inside of a house probably wouldn’t have been all that much of an improvement over the outside when temperatures plummeted.
Houses were built to recapture as much heat as possible and were often just one room, with the fireplace being the focal point. Rooms would be added as needed. Typically, a kitchen would be added second, to keep the heat from cooking use during the summer and, conversely, to provide more needed heat in the winter. Lofts for sleeping children were not uncommon and utilized escaping heat, as well as providing a bit of privacy. Building up, rather than out, would also capture rising heat.
Much attention was paid to staying warm, rather than getting warm. Piles of quilts, and multiple bodies to a bed helped. Three Dog Night is not just the name of a rock band with a bullfrog, it is also a description, of disputed origin, of a night so cold that you need as many canine friends as you can get sharing your bed. Flannel nightclothes, stocking hats and of course footwarmers came into play. Sometimes, a house was so cold that the bedsheets were freezing when you went to climb in, thus the bed warmer was born. After a nighttime trip to the backhouse, one hoped the bed was still warm upon return.
As we noted above, utilizing escaping heat was very advantageous. What was more advantageous was not letting it escape in the first place. The answer for this was insulation.
Many things have been used to insulate homes through history. Mud was a popular one; it also helped hold houses together in the days before nails. Horse hair was another. Tapestries were very popular in medieval castles, and not just to look at. Stones and bricks could insulate and could also act as heat sinks, thermal masses, absorbing heat during the day and radiating it out again at night. The logs in log cabins were effective insulators as well, with a little help from mud in the cracks. And let us not forget asbestos, everybody’s favorite carcinogen, that kept the heat in the steam pipes till it got where it was wanted. Cellulose and fiberglass became popular and mostly still are, with a few upgrades.
What do we find locally, in the walls of older houses undergoing renovation? Sometimes mud, sometimes crumpled newspaper, sometimes beach grass or leaves.
Yes, seaweed was a popular insulator for a time. We do not have a lot of information on exactly how it was used, but we imagine stacking and sun-drying were involved. Some some sources indicate you just slap it up still wet It probably did not win out on the Fragrance Factor, especially while it was still drying. Then again, with the general lack of showers and adequate laundry methods, what’s a little rotting seaweed amongst friends and family? Best thing about seaweed? It doesn’t burn.
Today, in a world of HERS ratings, LEEDS certifications and an alphabet soup of other designations, spray foam insulation, and products that seal up any leaking air so tightly that one must install a fan that runs non-stop to provide fresh air(!), we don’t think about the fact that we are warm, except on those rare times when our heat breaks. We have special windows, radiant heat and a variety of different methods, all designed to keep us cozy from head to tootsies.
We are told there is a storm coming in a couple of days (Note, not responsible for poor predictions from weather people; we are going on faith here). We wish you a warm weekend, with plenty of heat and insulation. And all the dogs you need to survive.