A Bed Warmer

Bed warmers spread to this area from Italy and are thus locally even nowadays still called "škadalet", which is a local version of their Italian name "scaldaletto", a word composed of the Italian words scaldare – to warm up, and letto – a bed.

Bed warmers are an interesting household item known mostly in the colder regions of western and northern Europe. At a time when there was no central heating inside dwellings, leaving a warm fireside in the evening and going to sleep in an ice-cold bedroom, in a cold bed and under a moisture-soaked blanket was a most unpleasant thing. Different ways of keeping beds warm were born out of the desire to have some of the heat from the hearth transferred to the bed. The oldest, easiest, and also cheapest solution was a stone or a brick, which was put into the fireplace for some time to heat up properly and was then transferred to a bed where it would emit heat between the sheets. A much more sophisticated device was a bed warmer, some sort of a warming pan, which was filled with embers from the fire; for a while, the smouldering embers would keep the bedding in the midst of which they were placed pleasantly warm. From the 16th century onwards, bed warmers were an indispensable item in the apartments of well-off townspeople and in castles in the countryside. As part of family property, they were handed down from generation to generation until they were replaced by rubber hot-water bottles and, at a later time, by electric blankets.

The basic bed-warmer shape is reminiscent of a lidded pan with a handle. In some places, unlidded bed warmers were in use – this sort of bed warmers warmed the bottom part of the bed, but not the covers. Some of the – usually – circular pans for embers had small legs that prevented the pan's hot bottom coming into contact with the lower sheet. The lid had air holes, allowing the heat to come through, and also artistic carvings. Some bed warmers also had openings (that made it possible for the heat to spread) in the upper part of the pan, as is evident from the bed warmer that is part of the Tolmin Museum's collection. The handles usually had a wooden handhold, but those that were made entirely of metal had to be long enough for users no to burn their hands when holding them. The end of the handle was usually designed in a way that allowed a bed warmer to be hung on the wall next to the fireplace, where it would be left hanging until the following evening. Over time, the bed warmers' design changed in line with fashion trends, but always largely depending on the owners' status and finances. People who did not have enough money had to make do with simple iron bed warmers, while those who were well-off could afford richly decorated copper or even silver ones.

The bed-warming procedure started about half an hour before planned bedtime. First, a sufficient amount of glowing coals had to be taken from the fireplace and placed into the pan, then some ash was spread on top, and then the pan was closed and placed between the sheets on the bed. To avoid the bedding getting scorched, bed warmers had to be constantly moved up and down the bed until it was sufficiently warm. Since standing in a cold room and moving a bed warmer around the bed was not exactly interesting, it is no wonder that another device was invented – some sort of a cage for the bed warmer. It consisted of a light yet sturdy wooden frame curved in a way that allowed the bedding to lay over it. There was a small shelf in the middle of it, usually covered with sheet metal, on which the bed warmer was placed. The frame would keep the bedding lifted up, allowing the heat to spread over almost the entire bed, without fear of the fabric getting scorched.

In addition to the risk of scorching, bed warmers had another less pleasant feature. Besides heat, there was another thing coming off the smouldering embers and through the holes, i.e. smoke, which filled the beds with an unpleasant smell and eventually also made sheets dirty. In towns, where coal or even peat was used instead of firewood, this smoke-related problem was even more serious. In order to avoid it, bed warmers without holes were introduced; they were indeed cleaner, however, due to lack of air, the embers inside of them would stop burning more quickly. Another improvement attempt was to replace the bed-warmer embers with hot water, which required the lid to be perfectly sealed, as otherwise beds would have ended warm, but also wet. Thus, a better option than water was replacing embers with an iron container filled with sand, which was first made red-hot in the fireplace. This method was the only option approved by doctors, who generally opposed bed warming, except when it came to patients or persons with disabilities. Healthy people were not supposed to warm their beds, not only because the smoke from the smouldering embers is harmful to some extent, but mainly because it was believed the heat makes the human body insufficiently resistant.

In spite of doctors advising against them, bed warmers remained a useful comfort-increasing household tool for centuries, in some rural places even up until the 1960s and 1970s.

The presented bed warmer was donated to the Tolmin Museum in 1954 by Marija Gabršček from Tolmin, locally known as "Podšolarca". This is a hand-made copper bed warmer; at the time it was donated to the museum, it was supposedly over a hundred years old.

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