Friday, November 19, 2010

Make Your House Tight & Snug: Preparing for Winter, Part I

By: Garet Livermore, Vice President for Education

Chill November's surly blast makes fields and forests bare and old man Winter with his frosty beard will soon be upon us.” - The Cultivator, Journal of the New York Agricultural Society, December, 1860.

Today we have the luxury of dealing with the change of seasons by simply turning up the thermostat and laying in a stock of snow-melt and other winter necessities of the 21st century. In the middle of the 19th century – the focal period of The Farmers’ Museum’s Historic Village – anticipating winter was a much more demanding, higher stakes activity that took up a good part of people’s times throughout the year, not just in the few weeks of Fall between the times of the leaves having fallen and the first significant snowfall. This blog entry is the first in a three part series, “Preparing for Winter.” In this series I will look at getting the house tight and ready for winter, laying in a supply of wood to keep the house warm and building and keeping the home fires necessary to get you through a long northern winter.

Planning for winter began right when farms were laid out, to simplify and manage the extremes of our northern climate. Farmhouses were placed close to roads to ease access and snow clearing issues, while barns and barnyards were set to shield humans and animals from the worst of the weather while maintaining an efficient work area. In extreme northern locations, farmers would actually build their houses, barns and outbuildings in a single, connected structure so they would always be sheltered during storms. The danger of fire taking out an entire farm was too great to do this in most of the Northeast.

Most early settlers in rural New York came from New England and were used to dealing with long, cold winters. The designs of their houses reflected this experience. Predominant forms were Cape Cod, salt boxes and federal styles well adapted to the climate. They featured large centrally massed chimneys which provided for several fireplaces and large amounts of brick to hold heat, steep roofs to shed heavy snow loads and relatively small rooms with low ceilings to conserve heat. Visitors to the Lippitt House at The Farmers’ Museum often comment on those rooms and ceilings, believing that their size is because “people were shorter back then”. Actually it is simply one example of a New England saltbox house built to conserve heat during the upstate winters.
In the early 19th century open fireplaces were the predominant form of providing heat for comfort and cooking. The fireplaces of this time were heavily influenced by the work of Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753 – 1814), otherwise known as Count Rumford. Thompson was a scientist and inventor who is credited with inventing, amongst other things, the kitchen range, drip-coffee pot and thermal underwear. A Massachusetts born New Englander, it is fitting that his most influential work was the Rumford fireplace, which offered great improvements in fireplace efficiency and effectiveness in heating. His fireplaces were relatively shallow, to project more heat into the room and had a very narrow “throat” or opening into the chimney which increased the draw of the fire to reduce smoke and enhance combustion.

As anyone who has done a “gut restoration” can tell you, there are many interesting things to be found in the walls of an old house including shoes, skeletons of small animals and sometimes, for lucky renovators, coins and currency. One rarely finds insulation, though. This wasn’t because insulation wasn’t known at the time: it was. In fact, the concept of building insulation has been around for centuries, dating to at least Greek and Roman times. In early America, insulation was an expensive proposition and only used in buildings built in very exposed, windy locations. Sometimes the insulation consisted of loosely laid brick “nogging” placed between the vertical elements of buildings framed. Other times builders would tightly pack sawdust, wood chips or other material in the walls of houses creating a heat barrier similar to today’s fiberglass batting. Most often, farmers simply “banked” the house by piling straw, hay or other loose materials against the foundation to keep the cold winter winds out of their cellars. This helped keep their potatoes and other foods in the cellar from freezing and spoiling, and also helped keep the house a bit warmer. The illustration at the top of this blog post shows a house “banked” for winter.

In the latter part of the 19th century many entrepreneurial businessmen started recycling industrial by-products left over from textile mills and factories as insulation. These included wood fiber from lumber mills, animal hair from slaughterhouses and cotton and flax remnants from textile mills. Each of these shared the characteristic of being fibrous material that was well suited to make into batts or panels for placement in walls. Perhaps the most unusual insulation material in common use was eel grass, the “seaweed” that you see piled up in windrows along New England’s beaches. Its use in homes started in Colonial times and extended through the 1940s. Samuel Cabot of Boston created a product called “Cabot’s Quilt” in 1893 where he stitched compressed eel grass between two layers of Kraft paper. The insulation was on the market for many years and because of its sound deadening qualities, used in many theatres and office buildings, including Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center in New York City.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are you missing a door to the Jonas More house? Chris Ohstrom told me to take anything I wanted in the huge barn where he stored the More house in Burlington back in the late 1990s and I may have inadvertently taken one of the doors to this house. It has the exact panel configuration and paint history as one of the doors (unrestored) now back in place since the raising of the Jonas More place anew.

I'm not absolutely sure but I thought you'd like to know where it is.

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