Friday, December 17, 2010


My mother still lives in the house I mostly grew up in, a farmhouse in a town west of here built in 1835. My parents bought it from a descendant of the original homesteader, honored in town records as Captain William Dudley. He was not a sea captain, but the leader of the local militia, which they still had in those days.

The Dudleys never installed central heating. There were big fireplaces in the dining room/kitchen and the living room, both served by a single central chimney and both with ovens attached to the side (you put hot coals in the bottom compartment and baked in the top); and a stove in the master bedroom upstairs, feeding into the same flu. A livestock barn was attached to the south side of the house, curiously -- they didn't seem to understand about solar gain -- where the prized horses would spend the winter. They had boxes built up on the exterior to a height of about 6 feet, which they would fill with compost in the late fall. There was no insulation: between the clapboard and plaster on lath was just air. They lived that way until 1965, when they sold the house, whereupon my parents installed insulation and oil-fueled hot water heat.

The Dudleys, and all of their compatriots in the 1830s and for a long time after that, spent winters huddled in the parlor until they retired to their bedrooms and crawled under heaps of quilts. In the mornings they would break the ice in their washbowls.

With what seem like modest technological innovations, I can heat my new house in Windham County very effectively with a single wood burning stove, albeit probably a bigger and better one than the Dudleys had. Fiberglass insulation and double glazed windows are all it takes. Well, that's more than modest. Putting two sheets of glass in an airtight frame with xenon in between is pretty futuristic by 19th Century standards.

Nevertheless, if I go away for a while, the house gets damn cold. It's a passive solar design, but that's a relative term. Around the solstice, the sun rises at about 7:00 and sets at about 4:15, but it's only above the trees for about 6 hours. Even so, it makes a big difference for that time, and the house can hold on to a bit of the warmth even overnight. But if it's a cloudy day, I get bupkis.

I have to leave some baseboards on when I'm away so the pipes won't freeze, but I do the minimum, because I am a) socially responsible and b) cheap. The house is pretty cold when I first arrive, maybe 45 degrees. It takes a good 20 minutes for the stove to get hot, and another half hour for it really to start pushing up the temperature even in the living room. Getting heat spread around the whole house takes hours.

Still, compared to the way the Dudleys lived, this is incredibly luxurious. But how many Americans nowadays would put up with it? You turn the dial, and the heat comes up, instantly. That's the only acceptable way to live.


  1. I think it's good for the body to experience some cold that way. We're very lucky that we have the capacity to build such tight and efficient houses.

    I know of someone who set himself the goal (which he met) of going one full year without using any heat except that incidental to his body, light bulbs, cooking, etc. No oil/wood/gas-type heat. He lives in Michigan (lower peninsula). He said it is doable, but winter was a bit rough.

  2. we have a switch on the wall, actually a fairly complex programmable thermostat, to turn on an oil-fired central heat system, but we pine fir a woodstove. we are shopping for a woodburning fireplace insert, as we have a massive brick fireplace. suggestions welcome.

    people have used sawdust and horsehair, among other low tech stuff, for between the walls insulation. bugs were a sometimes a problem.

    when last i traveled in europe, some 40 years ago, many places had double casement windows with a 6 inch space between, which was perfect for keeping milk and cheese cool. xenon.