Notes From an Old House: A Warm Bed in Winter

The author reminisces about what she had to do as a child, and still has to do today, to have a warm bed in a cold farm house during the winter.

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Bare sheets aren't enough to have a warm bed in the winter.


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Cool in summer and cold in winter, our old house is somewhat of a challenge to heat . . . but we try always to have a warm bed. There's nothing like shivering at night to make you worthless the next day.

Because fuel represents time, it was always scarce on our farm when I was growing up in this house. The only fire kept burning all night—and often the only daytime blaze too—was banked in the kitchen stove so the pump wouldn't freeze and the water in the reservoir would be warm to take to the barn in the morning. It's not surprising that we made up excuses to hang around the kitchen as late as possible . . . just to avoid the nightly traumatic battle with cold rooms and cold beds.

There have always been ways to raise the temperature of beds to a comfortable level before crawling in: warming pans, all kinds of hot water bottles, bags of heated salt or sand (or letting someone else slip in between the frigid covers before you). For years our family used one-gallon maple syrup cans filled with hot water, then brought to the kitchen in the morning to reheat all day on the back of the stove. Sometimes the tins leaked, though—and hot water does cool fast—so we started using flat soapstones "het up" enough to cook a casserole. (We carried them in heavy, white salt sacks slung over our shoulders, so that we looked like night-gowned Santa Clauses. The warmth at the small of your back feels great as you trek through the cold part of the house, but you have to keep bouncing the bag when you do this or you could have braised skin.)

The best way to use soapstone bed warmers is to place them between the sheets half an hour before bedtime, then move the rocks and lie on the warm spots. One bagged stone at the feet and one at the back make a cozy night. The sacks can be dragged around by foot or hand without touching the superhot contents . . . and, as the heat lessens, can be pulled up to lie flat against the back or legs.

Times have changed, of course, and my memory of the simpler life's weary parts make me almost glad to see one of our monthly bills: the statement from the electric company. For five years now my daughter and I (our home's present family) have used electric mattress pads bought from Sears. They operate like soil-heating cables to give a slow, gentle warmth with very little power, and—if turned on a couple of hours in advance—warm the bed to the perfect temperature by the time you're ready to climb in. Except by making tents of the bedclothes, though, we've not found a way to avoid cold noses.

Once you've got your nightly nest warm, the problem is keeping its heat from escaping . . . and that means insulating starting with the room itself. For the duration of winter pull drapes or shades over the bedroom windows, or cover the panes with newspaper. Since our sleeping quarters are too cold to use for anything but that, the lack of light doesn't matter. We come out of our darkened caves a little later than the groundhog.

The bed, too, is more comfortable if insulated somewhere under the mattress with a heavy layer of newspapers (especially if you use a straw or feather tick). A bed boxed in above with drapes is cozier and freer from drafts . . . as is one half-ringed with a mountainous range of extra bedclothes or old coats to back up against.

Muslin or percale sheets are fine for summer, but in winter we replace them with fuzzy cotton sheet-blankets. (A sponge bath before turning in really saves on the wash.) Covers shouldn't be tucked under the mattress all around . . . the should be loose enough that the sleeper can rock himself into them to form a half cocoon.

One of our winter beds—-not electrified—is layered like this: flat steel springs, newspapers, old rug, mattress, old blankets, cotton tick, feather tick, muslin sheet, bottom sheet-blanket, top sheet-blanket, woven wool blanket, patchwork quilt woven cotton blanket, cotton-batting-lined quilt. The last item is often necessary, but so heavy it can be tiring. The quilt could trade places with the feather tick, of course, but that's no lightweight piece of equipment either . . . in fact, it requires almost as much effort to turn as a mattress.

The most satisfactory nightwear is outing flannel made into long gowns or pajamas, always worn with heavy socks and sometimes with long underwear or a sweater. Slippery materials are cold, and sleeping without clothing is a matter of metabolism and mettle.

It was one of Grandmother's rules that a bed which has been slept in for a spell needs special care before it's assigned to a creature in need of warmth and sleep. There's something more than just body heat missing from such a nest, and Grandmother always gave loving attention to warming and restoring it to its proper cradling function.

One way or another, may you be as warm as we are on long, cold winter nights.