Foot warmers: hot coals, hot water

Foot warmer Winton Mecca

This dual-purpose foot warmer and hot water bottle was first sold in 1910. Royal Winton brand, "Mecca" design, made by Grimwades, England. Photo by HomeThingsPast.

Ceramic hot water bottles were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As well as filling hot water containers to warm your bed, you could buy earthenware bottles to use as foot warmers or hand warmers too. Earlier foot warmers used to hold hot coals, or glowing wood, not warm water. In the same way, traditional bed warmers filled with embers were once more usual than hot water bottles.

If you were travelling in cold weather you would hope to have a foot warmer of some kind in your unheated carriage, sleigh, or train compartment. In the 17th and 18th centuries a pierced metal carrier for hot coals was a common solution for anyone who could afford one. They went on being used in the 19th century, while other styles of foot warmer came along too.

The simplest were punched tin in a wooden frame with an earthenware or iron pot inside. Brass was more stylish, and silver warmers were used by the wealthy, although you couldn’t actually rest your feet on them. Poor people travelling by wagon or sled could carry pre-heated stones or bricks with them, or even baked potatoes and flatirons, as described in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.

tin brass foot warmers

American foot warmers. Brass, top left. Others pierced tin and wood. Sketch from an early 19th century book.

In the US these warmers were called foot stoves and were taken to church on winter Sundays to keep feet warm during long services. It seems the name and style was inspired by the Dutch style of foot warmer, called a stoof or stove, discussed below.

In bitter winter weather women carried to meeting little foot-stoves – metal boxes which stood on legs and were filled with hot coals at home, and a second time during the morning from the hearthstone of a neighbouring farm-house or a noon-house. These foot-warmers helped to make endurable to the goodwives the icy chill of the meeting-house; and round their mother’s foot-stove the shivering little children sat on their low crickets, warming their half-frozen fingers.
Alice Morse Earle, Sabbath in Puritan New England, 1891

As rail travel took off, foot warmers moved onto trains. First class rail services in cool climates often supplied foot warmers. These might be metal or earthenware containers for hot water, metal holders with hot brick slugs or even chemicals inside. Some later trains were designed with built-in “foot warmers”:  areas of the floor with heated piping running underneath, for example. Early cars followed the same pattern. Before the days of fully heated vehicles  foot warmers were included in the design.

Dutch foot stoves

foot warmers, Dutch stoves, in van Brekelenkam paintings

Mid-17th century paintings with women using foot warmers of the fire pot in wooden box kind. All by Dutch artist van Brekelenkam.

The Dutch used to be known for a certain kind of foot warmer found alongside other household furniture: a pierced box with an earthenware or metal pot holding glowing coals inside. They called it a stoof (stove) and you can see it in countless paintings from the 17th century on, like this one by Cornelis de Man c1670.

Dutch foot stoves warmers

Typically Dutch foot warmer (top) without its inner pot. Also a foot-warming "stove" from Northern Germany with stone top. Photos by Johan and Nyks

These foot stoves were also common in northern Germany. A stone slab was an alternative to the wooden top with holes. Similar foot-warming “boxes” were known in other countries too: see this French chaufferette. In Britain open fires were the most popular way of warming yourself indoors and foot warmers were not much used in the home, but some craftspeople had an earthenware pot of coals for heating their workshop, and this might be placed under a footstool.

Foot warmers are visible in the paintings, but they could be completely hidden under a long skirt or cloak. They were used more by women than men. Did men’s boots keep them warmer?

More on the Mecca foot warmer and other ceramic foot warmers

After the first plain cream queensware “Mecca” warmer in 1910 (“finest English Ivory Queens Ware”), they were made in various other “Royal Winton” decorative finishes and several different sizes.

Grimwades Ltd., Stoke-on-Trent, one of the best-known firms manufacturing an exhaustive range of popularly priced, useful and ornamental earthenware and china, and famous for their hygienic wares for the kitchen and pantry….An unique feature of the exhibit is the Mecca bed-bottle or foot-warmer in a variety of choice decorations. What nicer present for an invalid friend or wounded soldier!
1915 Guardian report on the British Industries Fair

British earthenware foot or bed warmers. Photo by Steve Parker

A more common shape of earthenware foot warmer, popular in the UK, was made by many different manufacturers (see photo left). Doulton’s were lent to passengers on an English railway.

Pictures

Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here: wooden “stove” with holes, stone-top foot warmer, earthenware warmers. Also see this post on making your own tin foot warmer. More picture info here

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{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }

Keith April 25, 2012 at 10:40 pm

My hot water bottle was similar to the ones in the lower image, & quite large. I used to have a towel wrapped round it to stop it burning me & more comfortable to hold in bed.
The french in Canada used similar warmers as the foot warmers & the ladies placed them under their seats beneath their dresses in winter.
Good post, thank you.
Regards, Keith.
A Woodsrunner’s Diary (blog).

Reply

lel April 26, 2012 at 10:42 am

My memories are of hand-knitted hot water bottle covers (for rubber bottles)! Some soft, some itchy.
That whole thing about warmers under skirts seems slightly weird today – but I guess it was great in winter.

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Harold Burd July 31, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Can some one please give me an idea what a charcoal fired foot stove is worth. The info I have says it was used around the 1890’s Its a metal box with a wood fram around it. It was used by the Puritans

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Christine Waters September 30, 2013 at 9:05 am

I have 2 ceramic water bottles one a penguin the other a teddy bear presumably for children’s use. The penguin is stamped Velray made in England. Can anyone shed more light on these?

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