Not so Cozy: Cold Winters in Cabins by the Fireplace

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Photograph shows the inside of a small cabin where an African-American couple sits on opposite sides of the room; the walls are covered with newspapers and posters; a dog is asleep at the woman's feet. Photo taken by Cook, Geo. S, photographer. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
Photograph shows the inside of a small cabin where an African-American couple sits on opposite sides of the room; the walls are covered with newspapers and posters; a dog is asleep at the woman’s feet. Photo taken by Cook, Geo. S, photographer. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

These days, there is no more of a cozy sight for folks than a glimpse of glistening snow falling down through the window and a nice fire blazing inside a mountain cabin’s fireplace.  Indeed the very thought of such a sight has us ready to begin slurping some hot cocoa and beg to winter like it’s 1899.

As romanticized as we have allowed such a thought to become in our minds, the truth is something far different.  As one Appalachian commenter wrote, “Far from being ‘cozy’, a fireplace was a miserable way to heat a room in really cold weather.  Most of the heat went up the chimney.  You burned up on one side and froze on the other.”

The commenter isn’t alone in their memories of typical Appalachian winters from a generation ago — especially regarding the drudgeries that came with heating a residence with wood stoves and fireplaces.  Many who grew up burning wood as the sole source for heat recalled of how the fires would “burn you out of the front rooms” while people in the back rooms of a house would freeze.”

Couple these experiences with poorly insulated homes — to the point that waking up with a dusting of snow on one’s blankets wasn’t entirely outside of the realm of possibility — and you have the recipe not for a quaint and cozy lifestyle, but rather one of great difficulty.

“My parent’s home was up in the mountains and they only had one large and open fireplace.  The whole house would get so cold in the winter time, except for the area right around the fireplace,” recalled a relative once, adding, “During the winter months, all of the beds in the home would be moved into the living room around this fireplace just so people wouldn’t freeze to death.”

“Us kids would go to sleep with every blanket and quilt in the house thrown on our bed and usually during the night, Mama would throw some coats on top of the blankets just for good measure — and you’d still be able to see your breath when you woke up some mornings,” stated one Appalachian Magazine reader.

Perhaps this was the reason people didn’t sleep in so late back in those days!

Because the warmth put out by a fireplace was confined largely to the area specifically in front of the open fire, those whose families heated with them recall jostling with their siblings “much like baby piglets push for milk” for a prime spot in front of the fireplace.

To help better insulate homes, many resourceful Appalachian residents began creating a homemade paste as applying old newspapers to their walls to protect the inhabitants from the outside elements.  Newspapers were widely distributed and unlike books, they quickly became useless within a matter of days.

Yes, it is true that Appalachian homes were more often than not filled with love and the warmth of family; however, upon a closer examination, in the dead of winter they were also very cold places.

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