Feeling Warm in an Old House

mxyplxNovember 11, 2012

I read with some amusement and much amazement about moving into drafty cold old houses with much ambiance. Having grown up in same in Minnesota I think you are nuts but I digress.

None of the various methods I've seen in all your posts seem to consider humidity. Comfort air conditioning would have the humidity at about 70% while in the winter in MN it was about 20%. So you'd feel cold even if the temp was 70F.

We put a big old kettle on the stove pilot light (they had pilot lights then) and after awhile it would start singing and steam up the place or at least the kitchen. I can still hear that thing singing. The windows would steam up etc and we felt warm.

A couple radiators in the front room had decorative covers with a top that would open and there was a reservoir for water presumably to help the humidity. By the time I came along - 1935- they were no longer used but I don't know if I just don't remember correctly, just didn't work, leaked, or everybody got lazy. Nobody alive to ask now.


I was quite proud when I got big enough to install the big heavy solid wood storm doors in the fall.

One of my sisters lived in a 3 story house close to the Canadian border. All the windows were taped and painted shut. Likewise the storm windows. Opening them in summer wasn't worth it.

We wore wool clothing. Tho I live in Never Never Land (California) I still have a pair of long johns called a union suit I believe. 100% wool high quality that didn't itch. Very thick. Button in the back. Bot em in 1952 for $40 at Daytons (now Target) which today would be $420.79 figuring 4% annual rate of inflation.

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In the driest/coldest months I keep a 2 gallon kettle simmering on the range all day. And of course an evaporative fan-forced humidifier. I keep it around 45% RH. I have oil/hyrdonic. I'll take a pass on the wool union suits, however.

    Bookmark   November 11, 2012 at 10:29PM
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mxyplyx: Did your family and their fellow Minnesotians also use bales of hay to "bank" around the foundation? Used to be common practice here along with the heavy "winter door" as you described, but I haven't seen either for 20 years or so.

My own house which dates from 1870 did not have a central heating system until the 1920's, then cellar coal furnace with a floor grate to bring the heat up into the living area. Prior to that an oil stove in the kitchen seems to have been the sole heat source for many, many years. How they kept the pipes from freezing is an enduring mystery.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 11:53AM
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How they kept the pipes from freezing is an enduring mystery.

They didn't have pipes, at least not the way we have them now. Our house had a pitcher pump directly up to a dry sink in the pantry from a cistern/spring in the cellar. In extreme cold you just let the pipe from the pitcher pump drop its prime and you're all set - there's nothing to freeze.

If the chamber pots freeze at night, so much the better as they don't smell.

Our mid-19th c house though it now (since 1959) has indoor plumbing to the single bathroom on the first floor and supply lines to the H&C kitchen taps, can be winterized in about 10 minutes flat just by opening the pipes in the basement. We have no central heat so no steam or hot water pipes to freeze.


    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 6:51PM
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No hay bales - we lived in MPLS. And since you asked :-)

Our house wasn't all that primitive really. It was well insulated. It had double glazed windows. It was built in 1920! My father built it. He built several hundred. He said he had built 3 with the double glazing. When I asked why only 3 he said people just were not ready for something like that. There were several other things which I don't remember that he passed on for the same reason. He was way ahead of his time. He was a graduate engineer and understood things not just some joker that nailed houses together. I know he had trouble getting his carpenters to build things differently than they'd done it since time began. They would bauk at the simplest innovation.

The windows on the first floor were single hung and the bottom part of the window sash continued down into the wall and supported a screen. So when you raised/opened the window the screen came up. That way no storm windows or external screens were needed. The upstairs had French Door windows and I don't know if they were double glazed. I spect so but I did move away in 1959. The bedroom windows might have been double hung.

I recall the double glazed windows came on the market right after WW2 because salesmen were always at the door. I was 10 then. My oldest sister, 18 years older, told me Pop had patented that concept and nobody could make em till his patent ran out I guess about mid WW2. I have searched the USPTO and cannot find his patent for that but he did have 6 patents on other things. If you Google "who invented DH windows" it will show they were invented in the early '30s by Libby Ownen Ford but searching the USPTO for "Double-Hung" back to 1790 I found the earliest was 1922 by an individual - not LOF. Perhaps another search term would find more. So my sister must have been wrong and for that matter so is Google. Perhaps Pop tried but couldn't - dunno.

Mom died in 1989 and I flew back from Ca and was locked out. Ha! I pried up one of the bedroom windows that I knew the screen was split (had been since before I was born) and crawled in. The neighbors called the cops. :-)

They switched from coal to oil before I was born in '35 then to gas when I was about 10.
Pop's machine shop had a furnace with a big floor register maybe 4-5 feet square. We'd get our coats on then stand on that for a few minutes let the heat soak up in before going out. My sister's (17 years older) house (near the Canadian border) had a bathtub. I took a bath in it in 1959 then moved to California. Next time I took a tub bath was 1997 when I came back to visit. How incredibly rustic.

Well that's enough reminicing from an old man so I'll pinch it off here.

    Bookmark   November 12, 2012 at 11:40PM
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Thanks for this interesting thread.

Our house is a small cape cod with boiler heat (hot water radiators). We keep little pans of water on one or two radiators, and also use an ultrasonic humidifier for those extra dry/cold days. I bought a digital barometer from edmunds scientific a while back and it's a great little device.

On a side note, how come humidity indoors makes you feel warm inside, but mild, damp winters makes one feel cold outside? Or is that just my imagination? BTW, if we're going to have winter, I want a real one like the old days. I'm in Virginia.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 7:26AM
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correction: meant to say "hygrometer" (I think), i.e the one that measures relative humidity.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 7:45AM
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liriodendron: I once owned a house with a cistern in the cellar and hand pump in the kitchen just as you described. That's not the case with my present one. In-town municipal water supply began in the 1880's using wooden pipes (elm tree sections bored out through the middle or hollowed halves rejoined with straps). It was strictly gravity feed but did have rudimentary fire hydrants as well. The fire threat in old towns with close spacing of buildings, wood frame construction and lots of open fires, kerosene lanterns, etc. was ever present. The water system was built primarily because of the fire danger, but individual houses were permitted to tap into it.

The original piping in the house was the old style lead pipe. The only thing I can imagine for freeze prevention was the oil stove in the kitchen. There were no pipes elsewhere and if kept burning 24/7 the stove might have been enough.

    Bookmark   November 13, 2012 at 12:50PM
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Went to New Brunswick in Jan. I was befuddled by the pine branches stacked around foundations, I thought it was left over xmas decorations, a local custom. Wrong, insulation.

    Bookmark   November 16, 2012 at 7:50PM
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