Real Cold, Fake Fire

The cold is real. The fireplace is not.

Winter has taken hold in South Jersey, and although it’s not down to single digits (yet, fortunately), the mercury likely won’t be creeping up all that much for the next couple of months. Or longer, if that smarmy groundhog has his way, but that’s another discussion for another day.

Fireplaces have long been the central source of household heating, and understandably so– wood has historically been easy to access in many parts of the world and starting a fire has long enticed humans since, well, a human started the first fire.

In my basement–yes, the same one where we inherited shag carpet— we also were the beneficiaries of a fake fireplace taking up half of one wall. It looks respectably real but serves no other purpose than to perhaps spark conversation (see what I did there?).

This got me thinking about the history of home heating. Most contemporary Americans in cold climates are used to natural gas, oil, or electric heat. But what about other ways people have kept warm in the past?

Here are a few ways that people have heated their homes over the years:

  1. Highland cattle: Anecdotally, during a bus tour of Scotland years ago, I recall the tour guide talking about highland cattle, which are known locally as “hairy coo” (aka hairy cow). These docile cows with thick hair were, according to the guide, kept in the homes of Scots on cold nights so they could warm up the home from their body heat. I can’t confirm this elsewhere online, but it makes for a cool (or should I say “coo”) story!
  2. Hypocaust: According to, ancient Romans essentially invented central heating, described as follows…

In many Roman buildings, mosaic tile floors were supported by columns below, which created air spaces, or ducts. At a site central to all the rooms to be heated, charcoal, brushwood, and, in Britain, coal were burned, and the hot gases traveled beneath the floors, warming them in the process. The hypocaust system disappeared with the decline of the Roman Empire, however, and central heating was not reintroduced until some 1,500 years later.

3. Compost: I really don’t understand how this guy created this compost-fueled heating system, but the fact is that composting does churn out some great heat. If you figure this system out, give me a holler!

4. Music: This theory has not been scientifically tested (to my knowledge), but listening to Robert Palmer’s “Some Like It Hot” may induce body warmth by osmosis.

Okay, well, this post kind of fizzled out, didn’t it? Next time I’ll try to do a better job of stoking the fire.

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