Think you've had it tough this winter? Chill out.
Just think of what winters were like, say, 100 years ago.In 1891 you'd have had your choice of shifting a hot potato from pocket to pocket, warming cold-stiffened fingers over a candle, or toasting your tootsies on a "pig," a ceramic jug filled with hot water.
And there were less conspicuous ways then for winter to get the best of you.
"Just about everybody got bedbugs in the winter," says Ron Brister, chief curator of collections for the Memphis Museums System. Bedbugs were particularly prone to infest bedding made of feathers, corn shucks and other organic materials used as ticking.
As if the mere thought of bugs in the bed weren't disgusting enough, the little offenders bit, hence the expression, "Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite." (The "sleep tight" part of the phrase came from tightening ropes that held the mattress in place.)
"From the bedding, they would get in your clothes, and they would spread from house to house as you went visiting. They were more common in the winter because it's harder to bathe and clean your clothes," Brister said.
Depictions of the "good old days" always seem to include a pot-bellied stove or glowing hearth surrounded by ruddy-cheeked children and serene grownups.
It's just another urban myth, Brister says. "People would be amazed at how wet and cold and dirty people were. Woodburning fireplaces were used, and later in the century, coal fires replaced the wood fire because of the ease of obtaining fuel. Coal smoke is a bilious yellow color, so I imagine the city was filled with sulphurous smoke and soot was all over the place."
Keeping a baby dry was no mean feat during the winter, adds Jeanne Crawford, director of the Woodruff-Fontaine House in Memphis' historical Victorian Village. "I remember a cousin of mine born in about 1880 talking about children. No one wanted to hold a baby because they were always wet. It took forever to dry the clothes in front of a fire."
One dressed for the climate outdoors as opposed to indoors, and often the difference wasn't that great.
"As 20th-century people, we bundle up when we have to go outside between heated cars and offices," Brister says. "But a hundred years ago it was the opposite. They dressed for the weather and peeled down if they could."
No question our ancestors felt the cold, and the sensation of constant warmth was unknown. Still, they probably adapted to the climate better than we do today.
"If you're exposed to cold or heat the body will do what it has to do to defend against either," says Dr. Clark Blatteis, professor of physiology and biophysics at the University of Tennessee medical units. " . . . After a while the body becomes habituated, or used to the cooler environment."
Author Mary Winslow Chapman recalls a chilly childhood.
"It never occurred to me that you couldn't be cold," said Mrs. Chapman, whose Raleigh, Tenn., home was built in stages between 1875 and 1900. Cold nights is described in "The Dwelling Place," a novel by Chapman's mother, Anne Goodwin Winslow:
"You'd take a hot brick that had been in the fireplace all day, then at night you'd wrap it up in umpteen blankets and put it in the bottom of your bed, and it would still be warm even in the morning."
Company in the wintertime was scarce, Chapman said, perhaps because of experiences like this guest's, also from the book:
"The next morning when he came down, he turned his back to the fire. My grandmother said, 'Oh Mr. James, I'm afraid you were cold.' He said, `I had a little trouble buttoning my collar button, but I warmed my fingers over the candle.' "
However stiff one's fingers, there seemed to be no end to the inventions for warming the feet.
Brass footwarmers filled with hot coals were used in carriages. "Pigs," or ceramic jugs filled with hot water, were popular in the tuberculosis hospitals, Brister said.
And you might have left home without your mittens, but not your potato, Crawford says.
"I remember my father saying he would be given a hot potato to put in his pocket while he walked to school, and he could shift the potato from pocket to pocket as each hand got cold."
So cheer up. This winter wasn't all that bad, after all.