Helen Chappell - March 2010


Steam Heat
Helen Chappell


When I moved into my new house, I loved the funky feel of an older place with great character. But I was a little wary about the old-fashioned cast iron radiators. I was coming from a place with a heat pump, after all, and I had grown used to modern conveniences. But I remembered the old cast iron radiators we had as a kid, and the oddly comforting sound they made when they banged in the night as the air rose from the furnace. I decided that pure nostalgia would work for me, and I settled into my new place.
When it snowed, and then turned brutally cold out there, I felt safe and comfortable inside with the radiators spreading a contented warmth. I didn’t even want to go outside: why should I when it was so nice in here? Radiators almost made me a couch potato. It was only with great difficulty that I’d shift my lazy carcass into layers of clothes and boots to get the necessities of life stocked in. I mean, why go out and slog through ice and snow when you have everything you need to stay in: TV, books, food, computer. Bears don’t hibernate as well as I did this winter in my lovely steam heat, even when it was set at a sensible 68.
Now that winter’s almost over, I can say that I have loved those radiators. I can understand why they’re making a comeback, why people will pay big money to architectural salvage places to get a few of these old beauties.
When I was a kid, we used to put our wet snow clothes on the radiators to dry out. I put my pajamas on them, so that they’d be warm and toasty when I went to bed. In those pre-dryer days, if something was still a little damp when you took it off the line, you could spread it out on the radiator to finish drying.
In our house the radiators were in metal covers, so I could even sit on the one behind by father’s easy chair and comb his beautifully straight platinum hair this way and that while he snoozed, oblivious, before the old console TV. (Why do men always end up with the long eyelashes and the great hair? It’s wasted on them, many of us women think.) I wouldn’t even think of tackling my mother’s hair; that job was reserved for her hairdresser, who washed and set it once a week, come hell or high water.
Heat was just something you took for granted and in those days, fuel oil was cheap. (Yes, this was a long time ago, when Eisenhower was president and dinosaurs roamed the planet.) It came from a giant, grumbling behemoth in the basement that my brother and I were forbidden to touch. So much so that there was a sort of chicken wire and frame pen around it to keep curious little fingers at bay.
The huge thing terrified me. It was like having a powerful god living in the cellar, one who was capricious and irritable at that. I would have been afraid of the air that banged and whined through the heating pipes at night if I hadn’t heard it all my life, until it became almost comforting. The voice of the heating god, heard through the land, even over my father’s world-class snores.
All of this came back to me with the radiators in my new place. After the bone-chilling winter we have passed through, my doubt about radiators has passed. It was so comforting to walk inside from a wind chill of -3° and be embraced by a gentle warmth that took the chill out of my aging bones and frosty extremities.
Unlike the postmodern heat pump, which would chuff out a little cold air before it decided to heat up, the radiators are steady suppliers of comfort.
And, of course, you can put things on them, like your towels and your robe and your pajamas so that when you get out of the bath, you can wrap yourself in toasty warmth, which you can’t do with a vent.
I can see why people who are remodeling old houses are really starting to get into those old ornate cast iron radiators, and why they’ll go over to the salvage warehouses in Baltimore and pay hundreds of dollars to lug something home. Something that was declared old-fashioned and out-of-date sixty years ago is suddenly stylish again.
They may be prosaic, dumpy and maybe even ugly, but they really do the job. They make you feel warm and comforted. And in a winter like the one we’ve just had, warm and comfortable has been a virtue beyond price.
Of course, watch this space because in a few months I’ll be complaining about the heat and humidity. Some things never change.