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Turning to the ‘Bottle’ to survive the chill

By rob taylor  |  Posted: January 31, 2013

A surefire foot warmer!

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IF I were a profit of doom I could easily remind you of the fact that the popularity of hot water bottles has always appeared to rise during times of social, political and economic depression. They are cheaper than central heating, all you have to do is fill with hot water and snuggle up. A perfect solution to this bout of present day excessive fuel bills, so cuddle your "hotty botty" and forget about the hard times of the economy.

I'm not suggesting this, but our ancestors had a very simple idea of keeping their horses and cattle close to their beds for comforting warmth. This may have been acceptable for those 19th century cottages; though one could do without the pigs rooting on the floor and the chickens sitting above your head on a beam. There isn't even the attraction of the "lord of the manor’s" sleeping arrangement of a straw filled pallet that could draw me away from a duckdown quilt.

Chill There has always been a great divide when trying to survive the chill. During Victorian times the aspects of household life between the rich and poor was full of contrasts.

For those at the very top of the hierarchy, they showed every sign of prosperity by employing servants to do the manual tasks of keeping them warm. They were also there to be seen doing so, but that was not their most important function, they were there to dance attendance on the master and mistress, even sharing the intimate activity of getting them into bed when they retired.

Young servants who were overworked, underpaid drudges, had, before their employers retired, to go through the evening ritual of preparing the bedroom. Consequently before she could rest her weary head after a long day she still had to drag herself to tidy the bedrooms, take the dirty shoes and boots down the back stairs to be cleaned and turn down the sheets of the beds.

Then the arduous task of filling the copper warming pans with hot coals and carrying them up three flights of stairs and tucking them in the beds to ensure no one in the family experienced the touch of cold sheets.

Pale faced and aching she was then at liberty to go to bed in a cold attic, clutching her stoneware hot water bottle, and sleep happily, we hope, until she got up with the lark the next morning to begin her duties, and you've guessed I suppose, to empty the cold ashes from the warming pans.

The Edwardians devised many cunning, "cheap" ways of surviving the chill of winter.

Warm bricks were used, not the kind used for building, although they would have probably given just the same comfort, but ceramic bricks which were warmed in the oven of the range, and then wrapped in a piece of old flannel. Later came the stoneware hot water bottle monogrammed "BED."

 We may smile when we see them displayed at antique fairs, but ladies from the Black Country certainly got great comfort from them as this comical picture postcard sent during W.W.I. suggests; however this lady preparing for bedtime is holding something that looks like a "tin can."

 War The outbreak of war in 1914 came as a shock to many people, yet at first there was little anxiety, for few wars in which Britain had been involved had really affected the people at home. Fighting usually took place far away, however the scale of fighting in W.W.I.

developed into something beyond anything previously seen. To boost morale many artists designed picture postcards to ease the tension of families.

"I've had to use a warming pan since the army captured my old man" was sent during this period to Mrs B. Pugh at 85, Guns Lane, West Bromwich on January 27th 1918 by her dear friend. She wrote "Dear Elsie, Hope Bert will soon by back home and will be alright."

 Although at this point morale was good, on the whole, despite the high casualties; even so in 1918 this comical gesture must have been appreciated by Elsie Pugh. Maybe a warming pan couldn't replace "hubby," but she saw the funny side.

At the latter part of the war the government realised the importance of keeping prices down to prevent undue hardship.

However, it was not successful in restraining most prices in the shops, but fortunately it had some control over coal prices; therefore we may assume Elsie could afford a few hundred weights of the nutty black stuff to keep the home fires burning, and enable her to use the embers in her tinny warming pan. The harmful effects of war, was the constant uncertainty about a loved one.

Winter This comical greeting was just one of many in the Pugh family collection. One sent a few weeks later was from Bert asking Elsie to be at home as he was coming back to her. She wouldn't need a warming pan or a hot water bottle for the rest of the winter in 1918; and perhaps Bert got his old job back - Elsie put her cold feet on him! For young ladies during the 1920's, everything was new and flippant, consequently they must have regarded a hot water bottle as outmoded; they had possibly forgotten the practicality of clutching a comforting "hotty botty" when the weather turned cold. However, when the chill of winter filtered through the air I have a feeling every practical Modern Miss took from an upstairs cupboard a hot water bottle that had been mouldering away all summer, and with unexpected energy jumped into bed to enjoy its warmth.

Up until the Twenties for some life was rosy, but not for the masses, then it became the only period in living memory when the cost of living went down. There was more money around to spend on luxuries.

The turning point was in fashion, when "larger than life ladies" with their cigarettes in long holders took to wearing harem pants known as "Smoking suits," and nightwear was fashioned as a cat suit. Every kind of fur, especially silver fox, was worn even when a lady retired to bed. This can be seen on this greetings card, "Good Night - Bon Soir," which was sent on January 25th 1923 to Miss Mabel Bayley, at 121, Pargetter Street, Walsall, from Muriel, Nora and Clifford with the message "Sweet Dreams."

 Was Mabel one of the new liberated ladies who went to bed in a red playsuit trimmed with expensive silver fox fur or was she a down to earth practical girl preferring a red flannelette nightie? Morale Appliquéed on to the card sent to Mabel Bayley is a typical hot water bottle which were mass-produced during the "Depression" of the twenties; once again when morale was low. This country never had a "Stock Market Binge" and thank goodness never had "prohibition" as in the U.S.A., or I have a sneaking feeling these "hotty botties" by night would have contained something a lot stronger than water by day.

If we now take a giant step forward to the 1950's, a fire no longer crackled in the bedroom fireplace as it had done in grandma's day. It's demise was a response to the 1956 Clean Air Act after years of dreaded smog, making the use of coal on domestic fires illegal. Some people had central heating but not many of us. At bedtime it was a case of dashing across the cold lino, landing on a woolly bedside rug, and jumping into bed with a comforting hot water bottle shaped like a rabbit or a cat encased in a jacket that grandma had knitted. I have still got her stoneware version, but I wouldn't dare toast my toes on it.

I have never really been able to understand why hot water bottles went out of fashion, and, so "just in case," one with a crocheted cover made by my Aunty Glad sits awaiting instructions in a wardrobe.

Presumably it was the "at the flick of a switch" electric blanket that saw the demise of the simple ribbed rubber comforter that kept us snug through many winters.

Although, during the 1970's power cuts we were grateful for their warmth. There was nothing more comforting than clutching a worn "Hotty Botty" in one hand and a sup of something hot from a flask in the other, until the power was turned back on.

Of course hot water bottles are still around with patriotic, woolly or flowery covers, but few people take them to bed.

Maybe part of doing so, used to be interesting, to see where they ended up.

Sometimes you woke up clutching it still warm, or you had forced it from you in the night and the next morning you discovered it cold and lifeless on the floor, leaving your toes freezing cold. With the winter turning chilly, it may be time to turn to the "Bottle."

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