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February 5, 2008

Keeping Warm: Knits and Heaters Preserved at MHS

Filed under: Our Favorite Things — Matt Anderson @ 2:18 pm

Clockwise from top: knitted hat, wrist warmers, scarf, mittens, dickey, and stockingsHow do you keep warm in a Minnesota winter when freezing is not just the temperature, but the condition you feel whether indoors in a draft or outdoors in the wind? Common sense, long traditions and modern technology combine to provide us means to keep warm until that long awaited spring weather arrives.

What could be more basic to keeping warm than a hand-knitted accessory? The Society’s collection of hand-knitted items includes great examples of beauty and practicality that date from the mid 19th Century to the present. Minnesota’s knitting history includes examples from Northern European immigrants who expected family members to produce knitted items as part of their everyday duties. Thus, among others, we have examples from skilled knitters who have made Swedish wrist warmers, Latvian mittens, and Norwegian stockings. Our collection of helmet liners, chest warmers and hand-knit stockings remind us that patriotic, charitable knitting warms hearts and protects soldiers.

Clockwise from top: insulated seat cushion, vacuum flask, soapstone foot warmer, fuel-operated hand warmer, and electric heaterA younger generation of 21st-Century knitters fuels the popularity of this craft to add their own style. Jayne Cobb, the character from the TV series Firefly, may have worn his ugly hat to honor his mother, but its popularity among fans is just as much about consciously creating the most glaringly offensive color combinations possible. Keeping warm has never been more stylish.

Cozy clothing is only one answer to the problem of keeping warm. Minnesotans have used a number of interesting devices for portable, personal warmth. Soapstone hand and foot warmers were early solutions. Once heated in an oven or in front of a fire, a stone could be wrapped in a mitten or placed in a pocket to provide radiant heat for a half hour. Fuel-operated hand warmers lasted longer – and lit cigarettes to boot – but were bulkier. Modern chemical-reaction hand warmers combine lasting heat with minimal size.

Portable kerosene heaters provided warmth for everyone in the room, but required open flames and liquid fuel. Electric heaters eliminated the fire and fuel, but required a nearby outlet. Seat cushions retailed under names like “Hot Seat” were said to work like magic. In fact there was a bit of illusion involved: the foam pellets inside reflected the user’s body heat rather than producing warmth of their own. Other devices added heat inside the body. What could be better, for example, than a thermos of hot chocolate or coffee on a bitter winter day? The Society’s collection includes an early brass vacuum flask, complete with cork stopper, from 1909, as well as the stainless steel and plastic bottle explorer Ann Bancroft used on her journey across Antarctica in 2000-2001.

The Minnesota Historical Society preserves a number of knitted clothing articles and personal heaters. The items in these photos are some of our favorite warmth-providing and chill-chasing objects from the Society’s collection.

Linda McShannock, Objects Curator

Matt Anderson, Objects Curator

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