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Foot Warmers - A large foot warmer alongside a rare round foot warmer with their respective metal boxes to contain the coals.
A large foot warmer alongside a rare round foot warmer with their respective metal boxes to contain the coals.
Back in 2008
Colonial Sense attended a Christmas House Tour in Middletown, Pennsylvania. One of the stops was Saint Peters Kierche built of red sandstone, two stories high in 1767. We were provided with home made cookies and hot mulled cider as we sang traditional Christmas carols. We remember it was on a bitterly cold night with strong winds. Since the church had no heat source working, our friend who was standing to our right was trying to sing carols with chattering teeth. Our thoughts were if it is this bad now, how did our colonial forefathers manage to sit for long periods of time sometimes as long as four hours in church and carriages without no available source of heat? One of the first items to freeze is your hands, then your feet. Did they use a source of heat to warm up these vital areas?

Foot Warmers - Sick Woman, Jan Steen, c. 1665. Notice the foot stove on the lower left corner.
Sick Woman, Jan Steen, c. 1665. Notice the foot stove on the lower left corner.
Portable heaters have been used since ancient times to heat our extremities, either with charcoal or oil. Others used heated bricks, stones, boiling water, or lumps of iron placed in appropriate containers. China used pottery filled with hot coals. Japan used a slow burning charcoal composition placed on a belly pocket stove with a perforated sliding lid curved to fit the person. Late in the 1600's spherical balls of metal with screw caps were filled with hot water to warm the hands. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England owns an object which it catalogued as "a brazen ball to warme ye nunnes hands."

A personal stove or scaldino used in Italy was made of terra cotta or bronze, shaped in a vase form with a lid. Pictured in the Biblia Pauporum of 1410 is an oblong rectangular box with a movable grate and strap bars around the sides which contained fuel. This hand and foot warmer could also burn wood.

Sir Hugh Platt (1552-1608) was an English writer on agriculture who wrote in 1594 at Lincoln's Inn in London
Warming pinnes, or froes, are put into thin cases, and those cases wrapped in linnen baggs, to serve to heat bedds, and to cast one into a kindly sweat. The like device is used in conveying such iron pinns into hollow boxes of wood, first lined inwardly with metal, either to laye under their feete when they write, or studie, in cold weather, or in their caches to keep their feete warm.


Foot Warmers - Twelfth Night, Jan Steen, c. 1668.
Twelfth Night, Jan Steen, c. 1668.
The Dutch used the foot stoves in the Low Countries in the 1600's. Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679) was a Dutch genre painter who show examples of the foot stove in at least three of his paintings, Twelfth Night, The Sick Girl, and The Doctor's Visit.

The use of foot stove spread throughout the colonial land especially in areas like New Amsterdam by the Dutch customs. There seem to be no references to the use of foot stoves in inventories because they were not highly valued by the first American colonists.

Foot Warmers - An 18th century carved oak foot warmer, Dutch/Scandinavian. Of square form, all-over carved with geometric motifs and with fan spandrels, the top board pierced with an endless knot, the front with slot-in door, lacking handle. Sold at Bonham's October 1, 2014 for $796.
An 18th century carved oak foot warmer, Dutch/Scandinavian. Of square form, all-over carved with geometric motifs and with fan spandrels, the top board pierced with an endless knot, the front with slot-in door, lacking handle. Sold at Bonham's October 1, 2014 for $796.
The stove or stoof in Dutch used a pierced wooden box with a metal or earthenware pot to hold the coals inside. This type of stove was also common in northern Germany. The Dutch also made foot stoves of elaborately ornamented brass. Some intricately decorated examples with carvings and piercings may occasionally be found.

By the eighteenth century, the use of foot stoves with a pierced tin and wood construction was essential in America, but sometimes it could prove to be dangerous. A third of the First Church of Roxbury was destroyed by the use of foot stoves in 1744. This use of foot stoves was prohibited after the fire.

The use of the word stow was often used the colonist's inventory prior to 1800. Agnes Lobdell of Boston suffered a fire 1760 and reports one of her losses as "1 Tin Stow" with a value of two pounds and five shillings. Easter Tinkom mentions "1 Stow & frame"; Rachel La Mottee, "Stove & pan," at three pounds ten shillings; and Jonathan Mason, "1 Tin Stove & Case."

Foot Warmers - Looking inside a large size foot warmer which measures 10"l X 10"w X 7 1/8"h. Most foot warmers in antique shops are smaller than these measurements.
Looking inside a large size foot warmer which measures 10"l X 10"w X 7 1/8"h. Most foot warmers in antique shops are smaller than these measurements.
Although there were variations to the making of a foot stove in America, the most common type was a wooden frame with four turned corner posts holding together the top and bottom of the frame. Enclosed in the wooden frame perforated sheet iron box having a hinged door which would hold a tin container used to store the hot coals. On the door and sides of the tin box designs of hearts, stars, circles, diamonds, and other elaborate examples of folk art.

The design was the most interesting feature of the foot stove and often commanded the price of the piece. However, through these small openings heat radiated to the extremities of the colonial women, men and children. Often it was the women and children that would carry and use the foot stoves to the pews of the unheated church.

Foot Warmers - Pewter Foot Warmer made by Henry Will in New York (1761-1763) - Yale University Art Gallery.
Pewter Foot Warmer made by Henry Will in New York (1761-1763) - Yale University Art Gallery.
Foot stoves commonly now known as foot warmers came in other variations. Henry Will, a German born pewterer in New York City and Albany made a pewter foot warmer between 1761 and 1793 now in Yale University Art Gallery. Another unusual and rare form of a foot warmer is made in a cylindrical pattern. Sometimes foot warmers were made without the wooden frame made for safety protection.

The most common use of a foot warmer was in the four hour services held on Sunday in local churches. During the midday break, parishioners would head to a shed know as Sabba-day house which consisted of a shed with horse stalls at one end and a fireplace at the other end. Here they would break for lunch and place fresh embers in their foot stoves before they would head back to the second service.

Foot Warmers - An 18th century Dutch brass hexagonal wedding presentation foot warmer with decorations of hearts, flowers, and busts of man and woman which sold at Pook and Pook September 23, 2003 for $2,530.
An 18th century Dutch brass hexagonal wedding presentation foot warmer with decorations of hearts, flowers, and busts of man and woman which sold at Pook and Pook September 23, 2003 for $2,530.
Foot warmers were also used in unheated carriages or sleighs in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. As American people soon discovered the ease of rail travel, the foot warmers found their home on trains. Sometimes foot warmers were provided with first class rail service. The portable foot warmer was a precursor to the later design of the train which had built in foot warmers.

As traveling become easier with heated cars and carriages especially in the populated villages and cities, it is certain that the foot warmer remained in use in the late nineteenth century in remote parts of the country. As use of the ceramic hot water bottle came into use in the mid-nineteenth and twentieth century and heating improved in the homes and churches with casts iron stoves of the American people, the foot warmer was relegated to simply an antique reminder of earlier times.

The foot warmer has decreased in value over the years. Kovels' Antiques and Collectibles Price Book List 1990 puts a value of punch tin hardwood frame (9 inch) foot warmer at $155 and a wood and tin foot warmer (1800-1820) at $225. The larger and round foot warmers would sell between $250-500 depending upon the design. It was common to see an average foot warmer at the York Antique Show with a price of $225-250. Now a pine and punched tin foot warmer with a heart design sold at Pook and Pook in September 2015 for as low as $74. A 19th century American wood foot warmer with circular piercings and initials E.C. with an estimate of $100-200 sold for $98 at the same sale.

We now think of foot warmers only as antique; however, they were essential inventory in the early days of colonial America. Source: Research & text by Bryan Wright

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