In Praise of Old Technology: The Hot Water Bottle

“O! Water Hot is a noble thing!” as Tolkien wrote, and he wasn’t wrong. Water Hot in a bath is a fine thing, Water Hot pouring over tea leaves is an excellent thing, and Water Hot warming up your bed is more or less the pinnacle of human civilization.

קיבוץ בית אורן (16)
After all, while poetry has no doubt been written to celebrate the joys of a toasty warm bed, I have never yet heard of cold damp beds being celebrated in story and/or song.

Through the ages, people have found a number of ways of warming their beds. Perhaps the most straightforward is to sleep right by the fire, although this does come with rather high penalties for tossing and turning in your sleep. Especially turning. There’s also the old Florida-on-the-front-Alaska-on-the-back issue.

Airing sheets in front of the fire before making the bed is a classic ploy, which I am certain I have read of in classic fiction, though I can’t now remember which novel. (Anyone else remember?) This just warms the sheets, though, nothing else.

Once the bed is made, you must turn to the bed-warmer: a thing like a metal box (sort of like two spoons facing, or a pair of frying-pans with holes in them) filled with glowing coals or stones heated in the fire.

An elderly land-lady taking a warming-pan to put in her lodgers bed, which is already occupied Wellcome V0011176
This is then waved through the bed – basically, it’s like an iron on a stick, for ironing the bedsheets warm in place. This was a long-used piece of technology, despite the risk of setting the sheets on fire if you weren’t careful (or at least toasting them a lovely golden brown).

Of course, these solutions were a once-off – no lovely lingering heat emanating through the night. One could heat large stones or bricks in the fire and wrap them in cloth, but essentially, you had bricks in your bed. Not the most comfortable of arrangements.

Hot water bottles were not much more comfortable when first invented. They were solid bottles of metal, ceramic, or glass, filled with hot water and then carefully wrapped in cloth. Same principle as the brick, basically, but with a different way of heating it.

Bottle, hot-water (AM 1987.250-1)
But rejoice! In the reign of Queen Victoria, someone had the bright idea of making them out of rubber. The brilliant Slavoljub Eduard Penkala came up with the classic hottie design shortly after the epic queen’s decease, and the rest is history. (Clever chap, Penkala: he also invented a solid-ink fountain pen (the mind boggles) and improved on the mechanical pencil.)

At last, a comfortable way of heating the bed without slaving over the fire, burning yourself (I believe this is what the corrugated sides are to defend against), or filling your bed with hard knobbly things.

Now, there are some people who will claim that the hot water bottle has been superseded by the electric blanket, and I will admit that electric blankets are a fine thing and I have used them myself in my time.

(Incidentally, it turns out that what most Commonwealthers call an electric blanket, North Americans call an electric mattress pad. It goes under you rather than over you, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that warm air rises and you’re trying to heat the air in the bed, not over the bed.)

Electric blanket Sharp HB-C11S
However, I dispute the assertion that electric blankets are superior to the hot water bottle.

You cannot overheat yourself with a hot water bottle. If you fall asleep with one in your bed, you will not wake up like a baked potato, dry as the deserts of Araby. Furthermore, if you do get over-warm, there are still cool corners of the bed for your feet to take refuge in.

You cannot electrocute yourself with a hot water bottle. (You can scald yourself with one, but usually only if you foolishly pour very hot water into a degraded bottle, or fail to put the bung in properly.)

You cannot run up a hideous electricity bill with a hot water bottle. Yes, it costs to heat the water in the first place, but an electric blanket only heats as long as the electricity is flowing in. A hot water bottle is a once-off energy investment (per night, that is).

The face of a man who has left his electric blanket going all night.

In fact, the Wikipedia article on hot water bottles notes that they are enjoying a new popularity in Japan (hardly a technologically backward country) because they are seen as eco-friendly and thrifty besides.

Hot water bottles are also a lot more portable than an electric blanket – button one into your winter coat and who’s the wiser? You can also apply a hot water bottle much more directly to any part of your person needing relief from pain.

But in the cold snaps we’ve had this autumn, I’ve discovered a new benefit to the hot water bottle. Because we fill ours with very hot water, and then tuck it into a bed with a wool-filled duvet and wool blanket over the top of it, it stays warm for a long time. In fact, the bottle is still warm to the touch the following evening.

What’s the benefit of this, I hear you ask? Cats. If you want to lure cats (which are, fundamentally, clawed hot water bottles with fur covers) to sleep on your bed, a hot water bottle is the way to do it, especially one which continues to exude heat all day.

Although admittedly, this does present its own issues. The other morning I woke up so thickly crowded about with cats that I had great difficulty negotiating my way out of bed. But if you ask me, that’s a good problem to have.

The hot water bottle, therefore, will be keeping its place in my treasury of old technologies.

Where do you stand on hot water bottles? Figuratively, that is. Please do not literally stand on hot water bottles. While they have many uses, that isn’t one of them.

3 Replies to “In Praise of Old Technology: The Hot Water Bottle”

  1. One of the aspects of using hot water bottles in my childhood and teens was the directive NOT to use boiling water. It needed to be hot, but the people who foolishly fill their bottles with water freshly boiled in a kettle are taking great risks. (rubber damage, possible plug area damage, leaks and scalds, and oh yes, a wet bed).
    I haven’t tried the cat-attracting properties of a hottie. Will do it next time I am home using one.

    1. We had been using boiling water in ours (living dangerously!) but now we put in some cold before adding the hot. Just using hot water from the tap wasn’t really hot enough to make the heat radiate – it just warmed the bottle.

    2. Alas, our hot water bottle is now showing signs of deterioration. I was inclined to mourn over it over-much, perhaps, but T pointed out that it was probably older than me – a good innings.
      But now we need to find a new one! Last night we had to resort to glass bottles filled with hot tap water, and this morning they were cold 🙁

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