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How did the Washingtons stay warm during the 18th century?

Wood-burning Fireplaces

Keeping warm in the 18th century was not an easy task. Most homes, including Mount Vernon, had wood-burning fireplaces. This meant that even with a fire burning, parts of a room might not get above freezing on the coldest days. An enslaved attendant would be tasked with the continuous work of maintaining the fire.

Many Virginia families selected one smaller room to spend much of their days and dressed in many layers. While at Mount Vernon, it is possible the Washington family spent much of their time in the Little Parlor, the smallest sitting room on the first floor. George Washington probably spent much of his time in his Study.

Bed Curtains and Warm Blankets

In preparation for cold nights, beds were outfitted with heavy wool bed rugs and additional blankets. In the Chesapeake region, rugs were often imported from England and were especially popular in the years before the Revolution. 

A brass bed warmer could take off the chill between the linen sheets. The warmer’s hinged cover, decorated with engraved and pierced designs, flips open to fill the pan with hot coals or embers.

Bed curtains were drawn closed each night to provide the sleeper with privacy and protection from cold drafts. In the early morning, an enslaved maid lit a fire, allowing the room to warm before the Washingtons or their guests got out of bed.

Little Parlor found on the first floor of the Mansion. MVLA

The Washingtons' bed with a bed rug and bed warmer. MVLA

The Washingtons' bedroom fireplace. MVLA

How did the enslaved community stay warm during the 18th century?

Crowded Conditions

The standard slave quarter on Mount Vernon’s five farms was a rough one-room log structure with a wooden chimney, measuring about 225 square feet. Some dwellings were slightly larger and divided into two rooms, each housing a different family. As many as eight people could be crowded into a single room. They slept on pallets or on the dirt floor.

Woolen Clothes Rations

Enslaved field workers like Priscilla, a “laboring woman” at Dogue Run Farm, received just one suit of clothes, a single pair of shoes, and a wool blanket per year. Included in the clothing ration were one or two specialized articles for summer and winter. Made in mass quantities, the linen and wool garments were coarse, plain, and often ill-fitting, uncomfortable, and not especially warm.

Despite the poor clothing, enslaved workers were still expected to work from sun up to sundown. During the winter, this meant shorter workdays but could still mean working at least seven and a half hours a day outside. If the weather was especially bad, workers might get reassigned. In 1786, after eight inches of snow fell, all of the women were assigned the indoor task of “picking the Wild Onions from the Eastern shore Oat for seed.”3

Learn More about the daily life of the enslaved population

Replica slave cabin at Mount Vernon. MVLA

Fireplace found inside the replica slave cabin at Mount Vernon. MVLA


1. George Washington Parke Custis, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, By His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis, With a Memoir of the Author By His Daughter; and Illustrative and Explanatory Notes by Benson J. Lossing (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J.W. Bradley, 1861), 167.

2. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1799, 1805 with some further account of life in New Jersey, translated and edited by Metchie J.E. Budka (Elizabeth, New Jersey: The Grassman Publishing Company, Inc., 1965), 97, 107-108.

3. George Washington, Diary Entry, February 14, 1786.


Klingenmaier, Richard. Keeping Warm in Early America. The Friends of Carlyle House Newsletter, Carlyle Connection, Winter 2015.

Robinson, David. Coping with Cold. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, The Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2009.

Thompson, Mary. “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019.

Staying Cool at Mount Vernon

In the 18th-century world of Martha and George Washington, beating the summer heat meant employing a handful of methods and tricks.

Learn more