Full Chisel Blog

October 7, 2012

Getting history correct – Bed warmers & Foot warmers

We have all heard the quaint story of how in the ‘olden times’ the pioneers/ancestors/colonists would fill their Fancy brass or copper bed warmers with the long turned wooden handles, with hot coals or embers from the stove or fireplace then use the bed warmer to warm the bedding material prior to retiring for the evening.

And those ubiquitous foot warmers in a variety of shapes; usually an exterior wooden frame to protect from direct contact with the heat, contained in a punched tin box with a door for loading ‘hot coals or embers’.  A wire bail handle is attached for ease of transportation and they were placed under lap robes or blankets in a wagon or sleigh to keep ones feet warm.

I have been wanting to correct this bit of arrant history for some time and finally decided to act.  Apparently people have heard this story and just accepted it as fact, and they keep repeating it in history books, etc., well I actually put it to the test.  It doesn’t work.

Putting hot embers in a bed warmer, closing the lid immediately starts to extinguish the hot coals, no air circulation.  Then if you take the slightly warmed bed warmer full of ember and move it around between the sheets and blankets, it leaves a mess, the fine ashes come out the holes on top and is totally unacceptable.

Putting hot coals or embers in a foot warmer then closing the door immediately reduces the available oxygen necessary for further combustion, extinguishing the fire within.  It doesn’t work.

And just how did they actually use these devices?  They heated up stones and put them inside to provide heat.  They stay hot, don’t need air circulation and don’t give off gases such as carbon monoxide, dangerous in a closed environment.  Look inside of an old foot warmer or old bed warmer, they are usually in terrible shape, full of dents from the hot rocks being repeatedly heated and used.




  1. Stephen,
    That is absolutely correct. My grandmother still used hers until the late 80’s. I always wondered as a kid if it was going to catch the bed on fire, but, like you said, no fire, just 100% heat under the covers. My grandmother lived in a house where heat on the second floor was minimal at best. The bed warmers and foot warmers were the way my mother and her siblings (13 in all!) kept warm prior to going to bed. I have used them and they are hard to find nowadays. I have been on a lookout for them because with the rising prices of oil and etc., we need to keep the heat down in the evening. I made my own for temporary use. I used a tin that held biscuits and drilled a few holes in them, and took some smooth medium sized stones and placed them in the oven, and when ready, placed them in the tin, closed the cover, and placed a towel under the tin and placed it at the foot of the bed. It sure beats the cold, and it does keep it nice and toasty for quite a long time. My grandmother used the smooth river stones that my grandfather found during his fishing days. Hope that this information is of some help.

    Comment by Joshua — October 7, 2012 @ 8:32 am

  2. Why put holes in the lid if it is to put stones in the box? My grandparents had a bed warmer, never used it in my days as modern mattresses warm up faster. I imagined it works like Solid Fuel Sticks Hand Warmers, but much larger.

    Comment by Damien — October 7, 2012 @ 9:05 am

  3. I think the holes are there primarily for decorative purposes. When I worked at Boothill Museum in Dodge City as a historical interpreter, we had a few bedwarmers at the Hardesty House and they were quite dented. As part of our “training” to answer questions, the concept of hot stones was put forth over the use of coals. The danger of fire is just too great. However, in addition to using the stones in the warmer, one possibility is to use a few coals inside to help with the pre-heat. However this doesn’t seem terribly likely to me as the metal on these pans seemed rather thin to me so the stones alone should have been sufficient. I’ve never examined a foot warmer box up-close.

    Side note, I worked at Boothill some 20 years ago and at that time, the emphasis was less on the recreated gun-fights and a bit more on accurate history interpretation. Things move in cycles and I think they have swung a bit more to the fantasy side to try and drum up some excitement. But eventually, the pendulum will swing back again. And I hesitated to use the phrase “accurate history interpretation” because that is a BIG can of worms!

    Thanks Stephen for your blog and thoughts and writings!

    Comment by Rob Young — October 7, 2012 @ 11:03 am

  4. Interesting article I never really thought about it, but I always wondered why the wood frames on the warmers wouldn’t catch on fire. Plus rocks would radiate heat much longer than a burning ember.

    Comment by Ron — October 7, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

  5. Interesting nugget. Both of my parents are from Switzerland,growing up in the 30’s and 40’s, and would tell us how they collected cherry stones (pits) and sewed then up in coarse linen bags. These would be placed next to the oven to heat up, and taken to bed in the evening.

    Comment by Edward Suter — October 7, 2012 @ 6:18 pm

  6. I dunno Stephen. Many of those old homes (certainly by the 18th century) had HIGH ceilings and high beds. So the CO2 released was very quickly spread and diminished before it became a serious problem. I dont doubt stones and believe it was more common as you say, but my gut tells me hot embers might have been used on occasions, lacking stones….

    Ive not read anything as to the proper stones. Many can explode when heated beyond a set point. Also, notably many of these warmers had vent holes. They werent sealed in completely. I own a 17th century bed warmer and either a 17th or early 18th century Dutch foot warmer and both have vent holes.

    I find it curious that

    Comment by Drew Young — October 7, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

  7. I find it curious that my father says his mother told him that bedwarmers were put in between the sheets. I believe this must have been done, yet again those high beds allowed for the warmer to be placed underneath, heating up the entire bed….as heat rises, it stays with the bed longer, rather than merely the sheets.

    Comment by Drew Young — October 7, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

  8. Up here in New England, soapstone bricks were the thing to use in beds, carriages and while sitting wrapped up in layers of clothes and blankets. Lots of soapstone and related rocks in and around New York state and the various NE states.

    Comment by Gary Roberts — October 8, 2012 @ 12:22 am

  9. I have an old foot warmer that resembles the one on this page, I want to sell it.

    Comment by Luis Felix — October 23, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

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