DSC02838Here’s a wood and punched-tin foot warmer, by an unknown maker, from the mid 19th century.  It measures 9″ x 8″, and is 6″ tall. The wood frame and turned balustrade-style supports are constructed with mortise and tenon; there are no metal nails. The punched-tin sides feature a circle-and-diamond pattern, simple but decorative. A small tin bucket (now missing) would have been filled with hot coals and tucked inside; the punched holes on the top and sides allowed the heat to filter through. The top is braced with two extra pieces of wood, so you could rest your feet on it without touching the metal, and a metal handle allowed you to carry it around as necessary.

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This is a fairly typical form of American foot warmer; there are plenty of similar artifacts to be found at auctions and antique stores, most with the same turned supports, but with a variety of designs punched into the tin. If foot-warmer-collecting (actual or virtual) strikes your fancy, there are many other forms to choose from, from metal or ceramic hot water bottles to carpet-covered footrests (with a cup of hot coals inside) to soapstone blocks with metal handles to heated bricks, flatirons, and even hot potatoes. Foot warmers were used in carriages, sleighs, and trains; 19th century sources also note their usefulness in (large, poorly heated) churches.

The Sandy Spring Friends Meeting House, built 1817, in an undated photo.

The Sandy Spring Friends Meeting House, built 1817, in an undated photo.

Our foot warmer was donated in 1953 by Mary Briggs Brooke (1875-1964), a Quaker who lived all her life at Falling Green in Olney. According to Miss Brooke, this foot warmer was used “in the Sandy Spring Meeting House,” probably by multiple generations of Brooke ladies. It seems likely that it was used in the carriage or sleigh to and from the Meeting House, as well as during the service itself. Thanks to yearly summaries in the Annals of Sandy Spring, we know that some 19th century winters were mild, while others were not; for examples, winter 1871-72 was described as “of unprecedented severity,” and January 1875 was “the coldest… since 1867.” On today’s roads, Falling Green and the Meeting House are about 3 ½ miles apart; my quick and probably inaccurate internet search tells me that 4 miles an hour is an acceptable average speed for a horse and buggy – so let’s say it was an hour’s drive each way in an unheated (and possibly uncovered) vehicle. You can see why a foot warmer would be a useful item!

Buggies parked at the Meeting House, in an undated photo.

Buggies parked at the Meeting House, in an undated photo.

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