It must be my age, but I seem to be increasingly aware of the cold. Even though this winter has been mild, a fleece throw or a plump duvet is never a bad thing to have to hand for snuggling purposes.
Before central heating, electric blankets and the duvet (how well I remember my mother buying our first ‘continental quilt’ or duvet which seemed terribly racy at the time!) beds were usually warmed by the good old hot water bottle! Smelling of rubber and occasionally given to springing a leak they were, nonetheless, immensely comforting.
As a child, I remember seeing an old copper warming pan hanging on someone’s wall and asking what it was. Being told it was used to ‘warm the bed’ in olden days, I spent a lot of time puzzling how you managed to not spill the hot water in such a weird, long-handled thing… not realising they used hot coals rather than water!
Warming pans were in use as early as the 16th century when life was an altogether chillier affair and such warmth must have been very welcome. Soon, containers using hot water were introduced, with the advantage that not only could you keep it in the bed with you, you also were also less likely to set fire to your bedding! As the discovery of rubber was still a long way off, these early hot water bottles were made of various materials such as zinc, copper, glass, earthenware or wood. To prevent burning, the metal hot water flasks were wrapped in a soft cloth bag.
‘India rubber’ hot water bottles were in use in Britain as early as 1875. The hot water bottle, as we know it today, was patented in 1903 and is manufactured in natural rubber or PVC. Not surprisingly, by the late 20th century, the use of hot water bottles had declined around most of the world. Not only were homes better heated, but newer items such as electric blankets were competing with hot water bottles as a source of night-time heat. However, there has been a recent surge in popularity in Japan where it is seen as an ecologically friendly and thrifty way to keep warm, and very sensible too!
There are all sorts of bed heaters on the market now and some of them function like the older bottles but use a polymer gel or wax in a heat pad. The pads can be heated in a microwave oven, and they are generally viewed as safer than liquid-filled bottles or electrically-heated devices. Some newer bottles use a silicone-based material instead of rubber, which resists very hot water better, and does not deteriorate as much as rubber.
Today, hot water bottles come in all shapes, sizes and colours and you can get lovely chunky knitted or prettily patterned fleece covers. They are cheap to buy, quick to prepare and easy to use so perhaps, as the Japanese have discovered, it’s time they made a bit of a comeback!