by Jeannie Swales
It’s worrying when an object in the collection of a museum is something you remember using regularly in your childhood.
This stone hot water bottle is very similar to one that I can remember my parents using to warm my bed when I was small. This one’s a little more glamorous than mine, with that raffia collar, presumably to prevent the integral handle slipping through the fingers – I seem to recall that was always a problem! But otherwise, it’s essentially the same.
Getting into a warm bed on a cold night has always been a luxury that the human race has valued. Metal, often copper, warming pans are believed to have been used in cold Northern countries from the 16th century onwards. Looking like frying pans with perforated lids and long wooden handles, they were filled with hot coals from the dying fire and placed under the covers to warm a cold or damp bed.
They’re the kind of thing that would give today’s health and safety officers many a sleepless night – I wonder how many beds caught fire because of their use?
Some bright spark finally hit on the fact that hot water was as warming as embers, and a lot less dangerous, and the stoneware bottle was born. A simple heavy ceramic (occasionally glass – understandably, far fewer of these have survived) bottle with a handle at one end and a cork or screw-on cap at the top, these often had a flat bottom, and could be used as foot warmers on cold carriage trips. I found one account of Victorian ladies on long journeys warming their feet on a stoneware bottle while their voluminous skirts trapped the warm air it created, keeping their lower bodies warm, too – very cosy!
In the mid-1800s, vulcanisation was first applied to rubber – a chemical process which made basic rubber much more durable. The first rubber hot water bottle is believed to have been patented in 1903 by Croatian inventor Slavoljub Eduard Penkala. A fascinating man who invented a mechanical pencil, a type of fountain pen, a bluing agent, and a rail-car brake amongst many other things, he also contructed Croatia’s first aircraft in 1910.
The rubber hot water bottle is still popular today, and has even enjoyed a recent resurgence of popularity, despite competition from electric blankets, microwavable wheat bags and other innovations. It’s even possible to get glamorous designer covers – although none will ever be as good as my childhood favourite, Walter Hottle Bottle.
Let’s hope that the families taking part in tomorrow’s Sleepover at the Rotunda, part of Scarborough Museums Trust’s contribution to the national Museums at Night event, don’t need hot water bottles. There may still be some places left – please call the Rotunda on 01723 353665 for more information.