Ways to be Fuel Smart: Traditional Wisdom That Really Works

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Not all that long ago, fiberglass insulation had not been invented, automatic oil burners were still in the future, and triple track aluminum storm windows hadn’t even been thought about. Just like us, though, people back then wanted to be comfortable at home in the wintertime.

Lacking many of the innovations of modern technology that we take for granted, they applied their ingenuity to keeping warm and happy while the wind howled around the corners.

We can be just as ingenious today. In fact, there is considerable overlap between yesterday and today. Many of the’ ideas in this section are drawn from the lives of present-day country people who still practice the arts of their forebears. Why? Because the old ways still work.

Some of the ideas may strike you as quaint or impractical. Then there will be the one that strikes you as both practical and valuable, and you’ll try it. I don’t intend to present an exhaustive encyclopedia of pioneer arts. Rather, I hope to pique your imagination into some new ways of thinking. Many of the ideas here are quite individual. The ways of one household were not necessarily the ways of another, because the people and the houses were different. The same problems required different solutions.

You and your house are different, too, so consider these ideas not only things you can do but guides to a way of thinking.

You might also consider asking the oldest members of your family about some of the old-time ways. They’ll be pleased that you want to learn from them, and you may hear some great old stories with nuggets of wisdom tucked away in them. The old-timers knew how to have a pretty good life without the advantages and the appliances we have today.

Yesterday’s Ideas for Today’s Savings

Consider the humble footstool. Its real purpose was to get your feet up off the floor where the coldest drafts are swirling around. Place a footstool at each comfortable chair in the living room and you might be able to turn down the thermostat by several degrees.

— Keeping your ankles warm contributes greatly to keeping your whole body comfortable. That was the idea behind gaiters, spats, and other ankle-warmers. Try heavy slipper socks for each member of the family to wear in the evening. The kind with leather feet will last longer. Just those warm socks may let you notch down the thermostat a degree or two.

— Another ankle-warming idea is to tuck a throw rug at the base of each door leading outside. Even a hardwood door- sill will eventually wear, allowing the chill to seep through when the wind blows.

— Another way to combat the floor chills is to bank the foundation of the house. Raw dirt against the house will eventually rot the wooden sills, but loose straw worked well in the older times, and hay bales or bagged leaves are often used in the country today.

— You can often identify an older house by the chimney rising through the middle of the roof. The chimney at the end of the house may have some aesthetic appeal, but most of the warmth it holds will be wasted on the outdoors. That central chimney spread all the warmth it could throughout the house.

— In rooms with high ceilings, install a ceiling fan. It will circulate the warm air back down to the living space.

— In earlier times, people carried a candle or an oil lamp with them from room to room to provide light only where it was needed. We can do something similar today by using lamps and smaller, directed light fixtures. Lighting the individual places where people are reading or working — what is known as “task lighting” — will be less expensive than lighting a whole room with a ceiling light.

— Another traditional body-warmer is the afghan. Originally this was a small rug from Afghanistan, and the term came to be applied to different designs of small blankets knitted or crocheted at home. Each well-equipped home had at least one afghan, draped over the end of the couch in the living room and used for keeping the legs warm.

Bed Warmers

We lived out past the end of the power lines for while when I was young, so winter warmth was achieved old-style. Each of us kids had a good- sized round stone as a personal possession, (You could use a brick.) Each night our stones were heated in the oven of the kitchen range, then my mother would wrap each one in soft flannel and put it in the foot of the bed. Nothing quite like that warm, flannel-wrapped stone to greet your toes as you push down through the cool sheets.

— When your back is warm, you’re likely to feel warmer all over. That’s probably why the vest and the sleeveless sweater were invented. Make sure yours is long enough to keep you covered when you bend over or lift your arms.

— You may have noticed that many of the old four-poster beds were perched on long, sturdy legs rather high off the floor. Well, the closer you get to the ceiling, the warmer it is. There was a practical purpose in that design.

— Three or four blankets get terribly heavy during the night. One alternative is the electric blanket, but it keeps the meter running. The old-timers counted on a down-filled comforter to keep them warm.

— The coverlet or bedspread on George Washington’s bed was probably more than just a decorative item. It was likely a closely woven, hand-loomed cover made of linsey-woolsey — a mixture of linen and wool. It’s a warm combination, particularly when paired with that down comforter.

— Another old-time favorite was the bed warmer — a covered, shallow brass pan with a long handle. Hot coals from the fire were put in the pan, which was passed between the sheets just before bedtime. The brass bed warmer also worked for roasting chestnuts, and later generations have used it for making popcorn.

— Today, almost all the shutters you see are purely decorative. Yesterday, they were part of the heating and cooling system. They would be closed on cold winter nights, and those on the sunny side would be closed to keep out sun heat on hot summer days.

• That big country kitchen was a homey place. In the winter, it was also the warmest place in the house, so it made sense that the kitchen was big enough for the whole family. Everyone would gather around the lamp in the warm room to finish homework, read, play games, or just munch on fresh cookies and chat.

— Many older homes had a summer kitchen added to the back of the house. It had a stove, a sink, and some storage space so cooking could be carried on without heating up the main house. The sink had a drain, but no running water, so there were no pipes to freeze in the winter. Off season, the summer kitchen was used as a storage room.

• A cousin to the man’s necktie and the woman’s fashionable scarf — both relatively useless items of apparel — is that snuggly old item, the shawl. Girls knitted them; grand mothers crocheted them for grandchildren; almost every body wore them, both indoors and out. They were a handy way to put on a little extra warmth around the neck and shoulders; less cumbersome than a jacket, less likely to muss the hair than a sweater. They were often made of light wool yarns in neutral colors that would harmonize with almost anything. A favorite shawl was a lifetime treasure. Usually wider and lighter in weight than what we would call a scarf, the shawl deserves a revival.

• Many older homes had a rack for drying damp winter clothing in front of the woodstove or fireplace. If you are using wood for some of your heat, a rack like this is still a great way to dry soggy mittens or boots, or even to warm up towels before taking a bath.

— The old wood-fired kitchen ranges often had a warming oven at eye level. The flue pipe passed through it to give it a moderate temperature. Breads, muffins, rolls, and pies were popped into the warming oven for a little time before serving, and often the dinner plates were warmed there, too — a custom now practiced in fine restaurants.

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