How did people survive the cold in the old days?

History Hub
23 January 2023
by Kylie Ora Lobell

Generations ago, it was not so easy to function. Winter survival was anything but guaranteed.

People had to take extreme measures just to get through the cold and snow for months out of the year.

Winter survival, from the Middle Ages to the last century, might surprise you.

They’d Wear (Even Wet) Wool

During medieval times, men, especially outlaws, would keep warm in the winter by wearing a linen shirt with underclothes, mittens made of wool or leather and woolen coats with a hood over a tight cap called a coif.

Even if the men lived outside and it rained, they would wear their wet woolen clothing to stay cozy. Hypothermia can occur anytime when the air temperature is below 60 (yes, 60) degrees Fahrenheit. These outlaw men had to maintain the proper body temperature to avoid it.

A better option for clothing for the wintertime was leather from a deer or pig, which men would use to make into cloaks or hoods.

They Hibernated – With Their Animals

In France and Russia, people would sleep for many hours of the day when winter hit. A civil servant who was in Burgundy in the winter of 1844 wrote that the men they would “spend their days in bed, packing their bodies tightly together in order to stay warm and to eat less food.” The citizens of the French Alps would “hibernate” with their cows and pigs during the winter months.

A similar occurrence was taking place in Russia. The British Medical Journal reported in 1900 that peasants in the country’s Pskov region would sleep for one-half of the year. According to the report, once a day, the peasants would get up, eat a hard piece of bread, and take turns to make sure the fire keeping them warm was still lit.

In the United States, the Sioux would survive the harsh winters in South Dakota by storing food like dried meat, corn, beans, and potatoes.

They Threw Every Bit of Food (Even Fruit) Into Stew

When it was too cold to till the fields from September 29 to February 2 in the Middle Ages in Russia, people would survive on stew. They would make a pottage of boiled vegetables and grains, and put every type of food they had into it.

They would even throw fruit in, since they thought it was unhealthy to eat raw fruit. Villagers would include cheese and eggs as well, while members of the upper class would eat it with pigeon, butter, figs, cheese, grapes, red wine, and mutton.

House in Winter, painting by Gustave Loiseau, 1911, Source: Wikimedia Commons
House in Winter, painting by Gustave Loiseau, 1911, Source: Wikimedia Commons

They Had HUGE Fireplaces

In the United States during the 1700s, wealthy people had fireplaces in every room of their homes. Simpler houses would have one big fireplace made of brick or stone that people could walk into.

Stratford Hall, a mansion on the Potomac, boasted a fireplace that was 12 feet wide—roomy enough to fit an entire ox. Some of the early fireplaces required logs so big they had to be dragged into the house with a horse and chain.

Lifestyles had to adapt to the cold. With no central heating, schoolhouses relied on fireplaces and, later, wood stoves to stay warm. All of this needed as there has been a long list of cold winters in the United States.

Besides the most amazing winter survival techniques, what were your ancestors up to? You can learn all about them with  Ancestry –  including details like where they were born, how long they lived, and even what they looked like.