As most of us remember from our school history classes, almost half the original Pilgrims died during the first year of hardships exacerbated by the severe winter and inadequate housing. The people who followed them also had to learn to deal with the winters on these shores, especially the northern shores.
On 21 December 1797, John Innes Clark of Providence, Rhode Island, described this first month of winter as follows: “This month has been more pleasant. It is however, exceeding cold, the thermometer in our dining room with a good fire being about 48 degrees.”
That's not a typo. A good fire warmed the room to only 48 degrees. Today, most of us keep our thermostats between 68 and 76.
Anything that needed to be kept from freezing was kept on the mantle above the fireplace. Things like ink and milk. Not that the fireplaces were much like we have today. They were constructed with a straight chimney and no dampers, so that heat escaped up and cold downdrafts were common.
Still, the hearth was the center of the home during winter. It was the only source of heat and the best source of light. Families sat near the fire, the women with spinning wheels, knitting needles, or sewing projects, the men with harness or tools that needed mending. It was said that a person's front and back were never warm at the same time.
Bedchambers were generally not heated. People slept in layers of wool clothing, with caps on their heads, and under piles of warm blankets. Beds were much narrower then than what we have today, which also helped to keep and retain body heat.
Many colonists adapted clothing from the tribes around them, making coats and leggings from deer hides, hats from various animal skins, and women's muffs from rabbit furs.
One historical note that fascinated me was that taverns on the roads leading to Boston were spaced at eight-mile intervals. The reason was that a man and horse could go that far before needing to seek warmth and shelter during the brutal winter months.
Pegg Thomas writes "History with a Touch of Humor."