Keeping Warm during the 17th-19th Century

11 Aug

It is on a cold winters night that there is nothing like climbing into a warm cosy bed previously heated by today’s modern centraly heated houses,or electric blanket, or even hot water bottles. But not so for our ancestors. Not only were there. no adequate windows in the medieval residences of England,the strong winds created draughts strong enough to blow out candles while being carried from room to room.The first sign of the approaching winter weather when frosts did not help keep beds from becoming damp and severely cold, was daunting to say the least for our ancestors. However, by the time of Elizabeth l , the problem had been solved and the warming pan was heartily welcomed.

 Early Copper Warming Pans.

The metal pan was hinged and could be filled with glowing embers or coals, the pan when placed between the sheets could be moved around the bed by the handle attached to the pan. We know from records that Queen Elizabeth’s warmer was made of gold,decorated with small diamonds and rubies. Unfortunately there are no pictures for us to see but sounds exquisite and priceless if it ever came up for auction.

 A late 17th to early 18th Century Copper Warming pan.Note the beautiful patina aquired through centuries of polishing.

For todays collectors the problem is there are “as always” plenty of reproductions around and have a convincingly “aged ” look about them so it can be a little difficult to tell the original from the fake…But don’t despair as there are give-away things to look for.

Firstly knowing the history of shape and style in warming pans and the second is knowing your metals.The earliest examples date from the Mid 16th to around 17th century. solid cast and turned iron or steel handles,the lids of solid brass with deep pans. I feel sorry for the poor servants who had to carry them. Live coals were used at this stage and because of this holes had to be pierced into the lids of the pans so that the coals did not go out when the lids were closed. The lids on these early pans are beautifully engraved and pierced by the metalworker sometimes working the coats-of-arms for a specific family for whom the pan was intended. These elaborately designed bedwarmers were of course for the rich mans pocket.

By around 1700 there were plenty of plain warming-pans on the market aimed at the less wealthy so could be bought quite cheaply for around three shillings. The earlier examples were too heavy with their solid wrought-and cast iron handles and by the 18th century wooden handles were introduced conveying expert turnery in beach,oak and other local woods. Technical advances had also improved the production of English copper which meant there was little danger of its cracking or faulting in use.

 18th / 19th Century  Copper Warming pan

Now that the new copper with its rich glowing finish,had swept into popularity decoration was minimum and as the pan was now to hold embers instead of live coals the lid could now be solid ,piercing was not necessary. It is these warming- pans  that were most popular from the first quarter of the 18th century through to the mid 19th century and highly collectable.Over the years the copper appears to have mellowed to a rich glowing colour and the handles have that beautiful patina aquired through years of careful polishing. The earlier 18th century models are much heavier and the pan deeper,but from then on were much lighter also, because embers were being used instead of coals the pans became much shallower.

 This warming pan displays the beautiful piercing decoration popular on the early copper warming pans.

If you have a sharp eye for telling the difference between an old warming-pan and new, you may spot a bargain.Look for the colour differences between old and new…..Any piece of old copper has a much pinker,glowing tinge to it,and much smoother-looking finish than modern metal,and the wood no matter how well it may be stained,cannot achieve that rich deep sheen which comes from constant polishing through the centuries. But of course the most obvious clue to telling whether or not a warming- pan is original is the fact that,it was used to serve a purpose,therfore it will inevitably show signs of wear and tear. There are usually signs of small fractures around the hinge or on the shank where the metal pan is fixed to the handle.

The handle itself will show a pattern of uneven shades where parts would be worn more than others through frequent use. And finaly is the metal thick enough to carry the embers safely ?.If the answer is no,then you have a reproduction. However there are some really nice reproduction warming-pans to be had. But for me, it would have to be the real thing.

 This is a Victorian Warming Pan Handle but you can see how the patina has built up during this much later period.


Posted by on August 11, 2012 in Uncategorized


5 responses to “Keeping Warm during the 17th-19th Century

  1. Mike Zeidler

    October 7, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Hi Rita, you seem to be very well informed about warming pans! We have one with a handle that looks very like the one in the picture of your ‘early copper warming pans’ shot, but it doesn’t have any hinges and there’s something rattling around inside. Any idea how it might have worked?


    • ritaroberts

      October 16, 2012 at 5:34 pm

      Hi Mike Sorry for the delay in answering your question. If you could send a picture of your warming pan it would be better for me to identify and hopefully solve your mystery.


  2. misha

    January 6, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    My mother had a solid metal(steel?) disc that she would place in hot water, wrap in towels & place in our beds. It had a loop on one end to lift it out of the boiling water. It looked like a 10″ solid & heavy pocket watch. Does anyone know what they were called & if I can find one today?


    • ritaroberts

      January 22, 2016 at 10:22 am

      Hi misha. I have never heard of the item you mention but I am curious as to what it is. I will do some reseach and if I find anything I will contact you. Thanks for reading my blog.


  3. ritaroberts

    May 10, 2021 at 1:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Ritaroberts's Blog.



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