By Suzanne Norquist
“How did someone come up with the idea to heat a bed with electricity?” That’s what I asked myself as I put my new electric blanket on the bed.
People brought heat from the fireplace to the bed as early as sixteen hundreds, usually as a heated stone or in a warming pan. This frying-pan shaped device sported a long handle, would be filled with embers, and slid around under the covers before someone got in to sleep.
The lid to the pan might be perforated or solid. The air holes would keep the embers smoldering but could make the covers smell like smoke as well as increase the risk of fire.
Alternatively, bricks or rocks might be heated in the hearth and placed between the sheets. One such stone used was soft soapstone (or talc). Its density helped it retain and radiate heat, making it the ideal choice.
Someone concerned about fire risk might choose to use a container of hot water. Initially, pottery or metal (wrapped in a cloth) was used, and later rubber.
An advertisement for a rubber hot water bottle in the April 3, 1902 edition of the Durango Wage Earner described it this way. “The kind that beats the old-fashioned flatiron as a bed warmer.”
Inventors constantly tried to find new ways to make the bed toasty. For instance, a Delaware, Ohio, man created a system to use heat from a hurricane lamp. The lamp sat under the bed, and a funnel carried the heat to a warming bar. A long wire allowed the user to adjust the flame without climbing under the bed. I found an advertisement for it in the May 5, 1901 edition of the Rocky Mountain News.
Even before electricity became widely available, people speculated about its use in heating. An 1896 article in Harper’s Magazine includes electric bed warmers in its list of possibilities.
Soon after, inventors peddled various devices to take the chill out of the bed. An advertisement in the September 28, 1905 issue of the Canon City Record says, “Got cold feet? Get an electric bed warmer at The Palace. Beat the hot water bottle all up.”
In the February 8, 1907 issue of the Surface Creek Champion, a piece told about how electricity was modernizing homes. “Among some new inventions are an electric pad for heating the bed, which certainly is a good deal less trouble, even if a little more expensive, than the old-fashioned warming pan.”
Sometimes, people attempted to create their own bed warmer with a lightbulb. I found more than one article in 1912 newspapers about someone catching a bed on fire with this method.
At that same time, Sidney Russell patented the first electric blanket, a bulky, heavy device often used in hospitals and sanitariums. Patients who needed to sleep outside to get fresh night air benefited from its warmth. A similar commercial product became available in the 1920s.
Early electric warmers mimicked existing warmers, placing a layer of heat between the sheets. An April 5, 1913 advertisement in The Monte Vista Journal describes an electric bed warmer. “A metal box in which an incandescent lamp can be inserted for warming a bed has been patented by an Idaho man.”
Others were very unique. In 1927, Milton Fairchild invented a blanket-less electric bed.
Various improvements were made over the next two decades. However, the electric blanket as we know it today didn’t develop until after World War II. It came from Navy engineer George Crowley’s work to create electrically heated suits for pilots. General Electric patented the blanket version.
”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?