Archive for the ‘Household Thermostat Wars’ Category

Household Thermostat Wars

January 23, 2022

This is the third blog in the trilogy about household heating. I covered the ubiquitous coal fire method, much fancied back in the 1940s and 1950s, in Parts 1 & 2. In the current blog, I shall address the more modern and widely used method of central heating. I hasten to add that I am not about to write an essay on this topic, nor am I able to provide a detailed analysis of its use and/or its forms of delivery. I shall, however, share with you something of my own experience.

In our house we have a system of radiators. The water that pulses around this circuit is heated by our gas boiler. Of course, compared with the messy chore of making up a new coal fire in the grate, every day, central heating seamlessly runs in the background, once installed and set up. However, if something goes wrong, it can be bad news. Our heating boiler packed up one New Year’s eve – try getting a heating engineer to come and sort that out! Our boiler does the hot water, too. Very chilly.

The thermostat control is positioned on one of the walls. The question arises as to what temperature the thermostat should be set.

I feel the cold; my partner does not. Her preferred thermostat setting is cold for me, whereas mine is too hot for her. The accepted view seems to be that it is easier to wear more layers when cold than it is to revert to summer clothing when hot. I think my own biological thermostat must be a tad wonky. I will attempt to illustrate what I mean by this.

As for sleep wear, I have not one but THREE woollen dressing gowns (small, medium & large sizes). The small size is my natural fit. However, as the weather gets colder, I can wear the medium over the small, and then the large over the medium. By that time my torso is looking veritably box-like.

It goes without saying that in the winter I wear the heavy, brushed cotton PJs. I believe the technical term for the material is ‘Wincyette‘ – rather a nice name for a little girl, I think. As for my feet, they may well find themselves snuggled into a pair of woolly hiking socks. You will doubtless be relieved to know that I do not actually wear my hiking boots under the duvet, although I have sometimes been tempted!

I will not infrequently wear a woollen beany hat to bed on cold nights. Years ago my grandma knitted me a tea cosy (before the invention of T-bags, that is). In order for it to fit over the teapot, it had a hole for the handle and a hole for the spout: I could put it on my head and pull my ears out through those holes – very cosy!

Over the Wincyettes I wear equivalent sweaters to those I wear about the house in winter. The main long-sleeved sweater is usually something serious with heavy knitted ribbing, possibly with a zipped front. The one I currently favour is lined with a layer of lambs wool. I should perhaps mention that underneath the long-sleeved sweater I also wear what used to be called a V-neck pullover or tank top (short-sleeved, in wool).

I now turn to the question of underwear, the same specifications work for both day and night. Of course, I make use of a thermal long-sleeved top and a pair of thermal Long Johns. Beneath the thermals I also wear a pair of briefs and a sleeveless vest. These are made of open-mesh cotton, and thus provide good insulation. The holes in the mesh act to provide many small pockets of air next to the skin. If I remember my ‘O’ Level physics (passed in 1960, btw), metals are great conductors of heat (hence metal saucepans). Although hot air can be blown around as an effective conveyor of heat (think of hair dryers and fan heaters), it has to be warmed up first. So the heat from my body does not easily travel from my skin into these little pockets of air which are not going anywhere.

As for pottering about in the house, I sometimes wear a flat cap. We lose a lot of heat through our heads! I’ve also got a pair of woollen gloves with half-length fingers, and they are great for changing channels on the TV remote control. Well, I think that just about covers everything I want to say on this topic. The trilogy is hereby closed. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Coal Fires – some further thoughts

January 17, 2022

My old school friend Dave Marshall reminds me that we used to have a pair of tongs and a poker hanging from a metal holder, kept on the hearth. The hearth in my old house was tiled. A long (extending) toasting fork was also left ready to hand, leaning up against the fire surround. This was used when the fire had died down; it was best with no flickering flames in evidence. A slice of bread would be speared with the toasting fork and somebody, usually perched on a small wood and raffia foot stool (I made my Mum one at woodwork classes in school), holding the bread to the hot coals. Of course it was not unusual for the odd slice or two to get burnt. A bad burn meant scraping the burnt bits off with a knife in short sharp strokes, almost with a flick of the wrist. In most families, there would usually be one person who had a preference for the burnt slices and they would be earmarked accordingly.

Once the toast had been done on both sides, it was removed from the fork and put onto a plate for buttering. Yes, back then we used warmed full-fat butter, and lots of it. Absolutely gorgeous. Well, the bread was brilliant, too. We never ever bought sliced loaves; always white ‘tin’. They were so called because they took their shape from the baking tin in which they were cooked in the oven. Our baker’s shop was a short walk away at the end of the road. He got up early and baked for the day, each day. I grew up assuming that all bread was as delicious as what we routinely ate. It wasn’t until I moved away from home and started work that I realised that many people ate mass-produced sliced bread. By the way, our baker was called Mr. Shufflebottom and you can imagine what fun the young boys in the street had with that name!

My great aunt’s meat mincer

Before I leave the topic of toast, I have to say that occasionally my great aunt (who was a great cook in the old-fashioned English way) made a joint of roast beef for Sunday lunch. This was then sliced cold for the main meal on Monday. After this, the remaining scraps of meat were scraped off the bone and fed into her mincer. This was a strange metal object, made of steel, which had to be screwed to the wooden kitchen table. She would then feed the scraps of meat into the funnel at the top while turning the handle. As if by magic, mince-meat would emerge from an opening lower down. She would typically make a cottage pie which we ate with lashings of gravy and vegetables on Tuesday. Had the Sunday joint been a leg of lamb, she would have made a shepherd’s pie.

Things needed to be eaten fairly quickly since we, like most other folk, had no refrigerator (although we did have a shaded pantry with a cold tile floor, leading off from the kitchen at the back of the house).

Let me return to the topic of toast for a moment. On Sunday my great aunt would pour off the juices from the roasting pan into an earthen ware bowl and let it cool. The fat solidified into what effectively became an air-tight lid. This we would cut into and spread on our toast, taking a little of the browned juices from the roast lying beneath the fat. I have to say that this tasted heavenly. The only thing that might have surpassed such a delight would be her bread-and-butter pudding (to use up a stale loaf) into which she threw a liberal handful of sultanas.

My friend David also mentioned that he had a pot of wooden spills sitting atop the mantlepiece. His, like mine were multicoloured and were about 1/4 inch wide and 12 inches long (back then, that would have been abbreviated as 12″). And to return to weights and measures, there were 12 inches to one foot (typically written 1′ (with the single mark). Hence the spills were 1′ (or 12″) long. They were used by the cigarette smokers and any of the men who smoked a pipe (none of the women did so in my family). One simply took the spill, held it to a flame or a hot coal until it lighted, brought it up to the cigarette or pipe, and puffed away. There was no talk of cigarettes being linked to cancer. People coming back from overseas were allowed to bring 200 cigarettes through the English border customs free of tax duty and thus these cigarettes were very cheap indeed. I seem to remember my brother bringing the fiendishly strong Gauloises cigarettes back from France. Family get-togethers in the lounge sitting rooms quickly developed a dense fug of cigarette smoke. My mother did not smoke cigarettes and she did not drink alcohol. I sometimes wonder how she coped with it all. Well, I think this is enough on the topic of coal fires. In the next episode of these linked blogs, I shall come up-to-date and talk about central heating thermostats. Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.

Coal Fires: a Personal Reminiscence

January 14, 2022

Let me start by saying that I regard myself as fortunate to live in a house that has central heating. However, this can be problematic when the occupants have ideal ambient temperatures that are discrepant. I live in a household thermostat war zone. I hope to deal with this in a series of subsequent blogs but, for now, I have decided to talk about my experience of coal fires when I was growing up as a boy in the 1940s-1950s. I suppose that this blog might be construed as a prequel, of sorts.

Back then I lived in an extended family household with three generations, in a semi-detached house. The primary sitting rooms (a small one upstairs, a larger one on the downstairs floor) were heated by coal fires. Bedrooms and other supplementary rooms were heated by one-bar or two-bar electric fires. In the drafty hallway there was an old-fashioned Paraffin heater which had its own special smell, not entirely unpleasant as I recall.

My sketch of the family home

If we needed heat in the kitchen, my mother would light the gas oven and wedge open the door. As a young boy, I was allowed to get washed and dressed in the kitchen during the icy months of winter. For hot water, we had to boil a kettle on the stove and mix in a bit of cold from the tap. All a bit basic. My bedroom was on the ground floor and I had to use the outdoor toilet. This was a tad breezy in the winter. There was no electricity out there and my mother left a candle in an enamel holder on the floor, together with a box of Swan Vesta matches, for trips after dark. I digress, let me get back to the main topic.

Coal Fires
On a winter’s evening there was nothing quite like a coal fire. I was thoroughly happy watching the flames leap and dance, while the smoke curled, wiggled, and wafted up the chimney. Although the coals started off jet black, as they burned they gave out the most wonderful palette of red and orange. Their flames added hints of blue, yellow and white. The ash provided a range of greys spanning from charcoal black to titanium white.

Perhaps it is worth saying that we had no television; my mother rented a radio from a company called Radio Rentals. On winter’s nights our coal fire provided us with a visual point of focus. We watched the coal fire as closely as youngsters nowadays watch the screens of their tablets, laptops, or smartphones. Occasionally, the radio might be switched on, although my mother, my great aunt and grandmother preferred to sit and read their library books. Often the sound of silence was only disturbed by the quiet ticking of the clock and the pops, snaps and crackles emanating from the fireplace.

The fire place in our sitting room (a sketch I made some time ago)

Before I go on, perhaps I should explain my duck-like signature at the bottom right of my sketch. I have a very common English name (John Smith). I also have a middle name (Lewis). The signature spells out Smith J L. The S starts at the top of the duck’s head, provides the curve of the neck and the outline of the body back to the tail. The ‘mith’ part of ‘S-mith’ represents the ducks back, maybe with some wind-ruffled feathers. The ‘J’ forms the basis of the duck’s head with the L providing its bill. 2011 dates the sketch.

During the winter, the coal fire was a source of endless impromptu games for us, based upon what we saw in the fire grate. “I can see a fish!” I might say. “That’s not a fish, it’s an elephant,” my brother might respond. There was no limit to the number of items that might be discerned in and amongst the coals of the fire: sometimes faces, sometimes objects. These shapes would occasionally trigger outlandish imaginative fantasies. Indeed, they might form the start of a story that we could make up and, as the evening drew on, the plot might be tweaked in response to yet new shapes as they emerged from the coals while they burned. For example, a reconfiguration of shapes might often occur whenever the fire was given a stir with the poker. In passing I should add that that the first time I was asked to give the fire a ‘poke‘ was tantamount to a rite of passage for me!

Decades later when I studied for my B.A. in Psychology I made a connection between the Rorsach Ink Blot test and these fireside pastimes. This psychological test was originally developed by Hermann Rorschach as a tool to be used in psychiatric diagnosis. The patient is invited to look at a series of inkblots, and to provide an interpretation of each blot. The rationale behind this is that any stories or descriptions produced by the patients had to come from within their own minds, as it were, since an ink blot is nothing but an ink blot, objectively speaking. In this way, it was hoped that glimpses might be gained of difficulties residing in the ‘unknowable’ unconscious mind of the individual. I make no comment on the veracity of all this; suffice it to say that it had some popularity in the early part of the 20th century amongst some clinicians and academics of a psychoanalytic persuasion, I believe.

Back home, we all had fire-related jobs and chores to do. My father had died when I was a baby so he does not feature in this account. My mother acted as the matriarch of the family. She used to clear out the ash from the burnt down fire of the previous evening, cleaning up the mess in the fireplace with brush and dustpan, keeping any coals not fully burned through for use in the next fire. She would then lay the fresh fire for the new day, before leaving for work.

As I grew up, I began to take on some of these duties. When needed I was sent round to the hardware store at the end of the street to buy some kindling wood to replenish our supply [these stores existed within a short walk or bicycle ride from most houses in any given town]. Later I learned how to use the previous day’s newspaper by rolling it up and twisting it around to help with the kindling. I was shown how to lay the new coals atop the kindling.

Of course, you needed to have a plentiful supply of coal, and most old-fashioned houses had either a coal cellar or a coal shed specifically for its storage. Coal was bought from the coal merchant (there were no supermarkets, of course). My family typically bought 20 cwt sacks at a time. That is twenty sacks weighing ‘one hundred weight’ of coal. To unpack the ‘cwt’ abbreviation, the ‘c’ is Latin for 100 and ‘wt’ stands for weight. I am tempted to explore British weights and measures a tad further, but I will restrain myself from getting too bogged down at this juncture. Briefly, then:
1 cwt = 8 stone (where 1 stone = 14 pounds) – thus 1 cwt = 112 pounds (8 x 14 = 112)

My great aunt had the job of standing with a piece of paper and counting the sacks in (I think she used the system of ‘five-bar gates’). My grandma had a small sweet and tobacco shop at the time and I think they saw this activity from the perspective of routine stock-taking.

Five bar gate

By way of explanation, when counting, a horizontal line is drawn for each of the 4 four items as they are counted, with a diagonal line drawn to represent the 5th item. The 5 lines thus represent graphically a 5 bar gate. I think nowadays 6 bar gates are more common (having five horizontal pieces of wood with one diagonal across them for the 6th). Be that as it may, let me return to my account.

Once I had grown a bit and started at primary school, I was deemed strong enough to be sent down to the coal hole (in the basement) to fill the scuttle and bring it up to stand by the fire. I seem to remember our coal scuttle had a rather nice shape and was made of brass. Of course, in the 1940s there was no discussion of the possibility that coal fires might be contributing to global warming and climate change, at least, not in my house. I shall not be dealing with that issue in the presently evolving series of blogs.

Well, I have not said all that I want to say on the topic of coal fires, but I fear I must bring this blog to an end else you will get a dose of information overload and I would not wish that upon you. I shall continue with this introduction into the delights of coal fires in my next blog. At present I am merely inching closer to my planned analysis of Household Thermostat Wars in the context of controlling the central heating boiler.
Speak to you later, my dear blogophiles.