Notes From an Old House: A Warm Bed in Winter

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ANDREY BANDURENKO
Bare sheets aren't enough to have a warm bed in the winter.

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.

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