The History of Coping with the Cold of Winter
When January brings us temperatures in the single digits, most of us turn up the thermostat or pop a container of soup into the microwave to whisk away the chill. If we lived four or five hundred years ago, it would not be as easy to snuggle up and keep warm.
Winters then were more severe, but people were more acclimated to the cold. At first, European settlers in the New World lived in caves or mud huts dug into the ground. As groups formed they began to fell trees to build log cabins. These usually consisted of one large room with a fireplace for cooking and heating. Candles provided the only source of light. In winter they huddled near the fire for warmth and sat on high-backed chairs to keep the cold drafts from the dirt floor off their necks. Windows were simply openings in the logs covered by oilskin cloth to keep out wind and rain. Before retiring, hot stones that had been placed in a brass container were removed from the fireplace and passed through the cold sheets in an effort to warm them. Indoor plumbing did nor exist, and a trip to the outhouse on a winter night was not a pleasant experience. Water wells were shallow because they were dug by hand; they frequently froze in winter. Stones had to be dropped down into the water bucket to break the ice so they could use it. Travel in winter was limited because many families could not afford a horse or donkey and were required to walk most of the time. The horse drawn sled was the best mode of travel in winter as the ground was usually covered by snow. Even so, there were few roads, hardly any bridges, and travelers had to negotiate many obstacles.
Most settlers spent winter indoors. Men could not work the land or perform outdoor maintenance chores. Children were assigned tasks like gathering eggs and tending small animals. The women canned and preserved food and smoked whatever meat they had. They spent time at the spinning wheel with wool that would be spun into cloth. They sewed sheets and clothing for the family. Because they did not have modern heating conveniences, clothing was their most important asset.
Early Americans were influenced by fashion and trade with England. The wealthy imported wigs, velvets and brocades, but this was not the case for most colonists. The lower class had to make their clothes from a coarse fabric they called “Lindsey-Wolsey.” “Dress” clothes were those you wore outside the home. To “undress” meant that you would be dressing to stay at home. Kind of like staying home today and wearing sweatpants. But don’t think the clothing was really comfortable.
Let’s look at woman’s apparel first. Gowns consisted of a bodice and skirt joined together. Underneath lay a visible underskirt and stomacher, which was a panel pinned in front of the bodice A decorative apron and lace neckerchief finished the outfit. The costume was supported by hoops and stays; undergarments that extended around the midsection. These were made of wood, whalebone or metal! She wore stockings made of cotton, wool, silk or linen held up by garters that were tied like ribbons. Dark leather shoes held together with a buckle adorned her feet. In the home, she wore a cap to keep out dust. When outdoors she wore a wool coat and a hat covering the cap. Mittens were fingerless and elbow length. Perhaps, she would carry a muff in the shape of a tube to keep warm.
Men wore durable linen trousers to the ankle or breeches to the knee for special occasions. Linen shirts were usually white and extended from neck to knee. Oversize shirts tucked in britches served as underwear. They wore stockings, garters, and similar shoes to women. Men added a wool waistcoat in winter as well as a three-cornered hat which could be carried under the arm.
Babies wore long sleeved gowns with aprons on top to keep out dirt. A biggins hat made of linen or wool was tied around the neck. Toddlers had straps of cloth sewn on the shoulders known as “leading strings” for the adult who was walking them. Sometimes a “pudding”, a padded roll on the forehead, would be worn to protect the child from falls. Around the age of six or seven boys and girls transitioned to adult clothing.
Hope you are warm and cozy right now. Think about the early settlers and be grateful for modern conveniences!
Barbara Ann Mojica,