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Warmth and beauty

April 3, 2011

Your great-great grandmother Cecelia (Grandpa John’s mother) told me tales about Minnesota in the wintertime in the early part of the 20th century. She spoke of sleighs and heavy capes with hoods, and lap rugs (heavy blankets) and heated stones, and even more efficient, baked potatoes under the rugs to keep the sleigh riders warm, which could then be used for dinner upon arrival at their destination. They would also use the stones or baked potatoes under blankets to warm a cold bed. Minnesota was cold!

She also told me about the slaughter of chickens on the farm and how they ran around without heads; about scalding and scraping the hair off of pigs during the butchering process; and how she was taught to rid the farm of unwanted dogs—catch ’em by the tail, rub their rear-ends with an old, dry corncob, then pour kerosene on it. Yikes.

It’s interesting to ponder that just as my grandmother Cecelia didn’t know about nice warm cars and had to do her best to keep warm in a sleigh, my sisters and I didn’t know about efficient heating. We had no idea we were cold in our rooms because Grandma Beanie bought us nice warm blankets, flannel jammies and nighties, fluffy slippers, and nice pink rugs to place beside our beds. The rugs protected our bare feet from the cold linoleum floor, which we also didn’t know was all that cold. Because we had rugs, you see?

We lived in rooms that had no heat ducts because many homes built in the first decades of the 1900s were equipped with gravity furnacesaka octopus furnaces. Aside from being the huge, old, creaky and decidedly scary-looking thing in the basement, the memory of which most every home has a version residing in the mind of some once-upon-a-time child, the fundamental idea behind the operation of the furnaces was—you guessed it—gravity! The monster “tentacle” heat runs were located in the center of the house, and heat would rise through those runs to the first floor of the home, to eventually (theoretically) reach the second floor.

They looked like these – can you imagine how creepy these would look downstairs now? There was one down there. Hehehe.

It was a nice thought, but modern studies of gravity furnaces show that they operated at about a 50% efficiency level. If only 50% of the heat made it to the first floor of the home which was just a couple of feet above the monster in the basement, how much of that 50% made it to the second floor, without benefit of heat ducts or air air blowers, and with drafty, uninsulated walls and inefficient window seals? Yeah.

Grandpa John, explaining the system of heating in our house when I was a child, told me that because heat rises, and because the upstairs is right above the other heated rooms of the house, we got our heat from those rooms. The kitchen is at the center of the house, and the stairs to the basement (home of the octopus) are right near the kitchen. Because the stairs going up are on top of the stairs going down, he said we got a lot of heat from the stairs and the kitchen, too. It must have been true because I don’t recall ever feeling particularly chilled as we roughed it in our ductless rooms.

Grandpa John was telling me about the behavior of heat in the natural world because I had asked about a phenomenon occurring on the windows in our rooms during the winter. Heat from the octopus, rising further to escape the first floor, went straight up the stairs, especially when we left the door at the bottom of the stairs open, he said. And we did leave it open of course, to aid the heat on its upward journey, and because I was frightened up there before my older sisters came to bed. The little attic spaces behind the knee walls that were my daytime delight were my nighttime terror.

But on the coldest nights, my fear flew away in the midst of the magic that was happening. The inside of the windows upstairs became covered with ice, shooting out in crystalline beauty in all different directions on each pane. Grandpa John told me that it occurred because heat from the downstairs caused condensation to form on the windows, and then the very cold outside air on the other side of those very thin panes of glass froze the water from the condensation. Looking at the the eastern exposure window at the top of the stairs (the window through which you and I watched the lunar eclipse) as the sun rose on a crisp winter world caused a catch in my breath on more occasions than I can count. Before the sun or the daytime warmth of the rooms had time to melt the ice, the window panes were studies in ethereal artistry that existed between moments of hard reality. We had breathtaking beauty on the windows, and not much can beat that to warm the cockles of one’s heart.

So, kids today are warmer than my sisters and I were, my sisters and I were warmer than your great-great grandmother Cecelia, and I would lay a bet that Cecelia was warmer than her forebears. None of us can really compare our relative warmth, can we? We all live with what we know, with what we have, and with what we can achieve using the tools at our disposal.

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