Thursday, January 22, 2015

Central Heating and the Cooling of Family Relationships.

Little has been written about central heating’s effect on family life, and less still has suggested that it may be for the worse. Yet that is my bold contention. To say that mine is a lonely stand would be an understatement. In fact, I have yet to meet anyone who will even pretend to agree with me, least of all my husband, who grew up in the frozen wastes of North Dakota. But to me, the conclusion seems inescapable: the advent of central heating dealt a crushing, perhaps even a mortal blow to the nuclear family.

Consider, if you will, Plug, the Neolithic cave man, huddled with his family around an open fire. They are warm, or at least their fronts are toasted almost to the point of spontaneous combustion while their backs freeze in the bitter night air. As long as the fire burns, they are safe from the unwelcome advances of the friendly neighborhood saber tooth tiger. The winsome Hlug eyes their dwindling supply of firewood apprehensively. Will it last till morning? Her gaze rests on her teenage son, Glug; she shudders as she remembers the piteous screams of Vlug, her firstborn son, who strode off into just such a night as this in search of more firewood, and never came back …

(Anachronism alert: we all know that teenagers were an invention of the early 20th century, and that Glug must therefore have been either a boy or a man, but this does not affect the overall message: if you want to survive, stick together!)

Fast forward to medieval times, to spectacularly cold castles in which rich tapestries serve as a barrier between the bitter cold and damp of the bare stone walls, and the inhabitants bravely striving to obey the songs of the period and "make merrie.” (Hard to do when your hue is blue.) Before the advent of the chimney around the 12th century, banqueting halls had a nasty tendency to fill up with smoke whenever the wind direction changed. Better a hall full of smoke, however, than marauding Vikings! Safety in numbers meant that, red eyes or no, this was where anyone interested in keeping safe and/or warm spent much of their days, and definitely their nights.

Fast forward again to the mid-twentieth century, to the England of my youth. Common sources of heat included a coal stove or fireplace, a one or two-bar reflective electric heater, and in some homes, the luxury of an open gas fire (perfect for toasting crumpets.) Typically, only one room was heated—the living room. And kitchen, if the oven was in use. If I wanted to indulge my teenaged angst, which was by now quite fashionable, I was free to do so in the privacy of my bedroom. If, that is, I didn't mind my body turning as blue as my spirits.  Saber tooth tigers—not a problem. Marauding Vikings—ditto. With personal safety out of the mix, the only incentive to sociability was keeping warm. To rewrite the old hymn, “Shall We Gather By The Fireplace?”

So you may imagine my horror when I learned of the newest development in Scandinavia: open plan houses. Instead of having one room that was a fortress against the cold, with stuffed rolls of fabric keeping out the fearsome drafts that otherwise whistled under the doors, these northern wastrels designed houses with no doors (except on bedrooms), so that the whole house had to be heated. Imagine that—family members roaming freely through a uniformly warm house!

One winter, a lengthy power outage gave our family the privilege of experiencing several thousand years of heating history. For three days we huddled round the wood-burning stove in the basement. It was our sole source of heat, and all our meals and cups of tea originated from its flat top. As evening drew on, and the brief hours of daylight came to an end, I read aloud by candlelight while my husband wreaked his culinary magic on the stove top. To all intents and purposes, the rest of the house, in all its Arctic splendor, ceased to exist. We rediscovered our inner caveman, and we liked it. I even harbored hopes that the experience would be transformative—that this feeling of family unity, this contentment in togetherness, would carry through the return of electrical power.

Not a bit of it! When the lights came back on with a suddenness that had us all blinking like myopic owls, the children seemed almost to dissolve; I discovered them moments later, returned to their natural habitat—their very own, electric lit and heated rooms. They all enjoyed the outage, but showed no interest whatever in recreating it; my suggestion that we should have one electricity-free day a week (a month? a year?) was met with incredulity as one of my daftest ideas ever (believe me, in my family’s eyes that’s saying something.)

We never had another outage that lengthy; the City of Everett cut down the trees nearest the power lines, and thereafter losses of power were measured in minutes, not days. And yet, all these years later, the children still recall those days as “awesome.”  

Because without central heating, family living really is “chill.”


  1. Hi Alison, I stumbled over this via Mark Shea. Nice writing. I'll have to visit on a regular basis. I'm still suffering harassment on Facebook from Mrs Elliot.

  2. Thank you, Stephen, for your kind words. What a sign of the times it is that my first comment comes from New Zealand, which was so recently discovered thanks to The Hobbit. Three cheers for JRRTolkien!