Before the invention of central heating, options for remaining warm in the home were limited, and families would often huddle by the fireside for warmth. Away from the hearth, alternative options included the portable bed warmer, which were originally made from metal or earthenware and filled with hot water to keep you warm through the cold winter nights. Although effective, they were perhaps not the most comfortable device to sleep with.
In the collection of objects at Berwick Museum and Art Gallery we have another example of a portable device that would have been used in the same way; a beautifully ornate, brass-handled, fruit wood and walnut-carved Dutch Frisian foot stove. The item dates to the mid-18th century and depicts a bird with a berry in its beak, painted in red and green. The foot stove was very popular in from the 16th to 18th centuries. Most were plain in style, with their main purpose to keep feet warm rather than to be displayed for aesthetic value. However, those purchased by the more affluent classes were highly decorative, such as the example at the Gallery. Featuring brass and other metals, these stoves were of higher build quality, but far more dangerous to use when heated.
The device was heated by adding a small ceramic bowl or dish with hot coals or glowing wood, allowing the heat to pass through the hole in the top of the box. The feet would then be placed on top of the box whilst the user sat on a chair. They were designed to be portable, and could be taken on journeys. In 19th century America, the items were deployed on trains for first-class travellers.
The Dutch foot stove, known as the ‘stoof’, featured regularly in 16th and 17th century Dutch paintings, such as The Chess Players by Cornelis de Man, and An Officer Paying Court to a Young Woman by Gabriel Metsu. One of the most famous paintings in existence also references this humble device; you may never have noticed that in the background of the 1657 Milkmaid oil paint on canvas by Johannes Vermeer, a wooden foot stove is depicted next to the iconic blue delft tiles on the kitchen floor. Critics often argue that Vermeer wanted us to assume the milkmaid was lustful, and the foot stove was often used to symbolise female sexual arousal, as it would be placed under the skirt of a woman as her feet rested, heating the body below the waist. A counterview to this argument is that the presence of the stove demonstrates the room is cold.
The 20th century saw the reduction in popularity of personal heating devices with the introduction of central heating systems. However, foot stoves evolved into the hot water bottle over time, manufactured from robust and heat-resistant rubber, and they remain a firm favourite today for those looking to gain a little extra warmth in bed.