Myth # 67: Ceilings were lower back then because they kept the heat in.

(Heard by Sara Rivers Cofield on a historic house tour.)

This is a fact, not a myth–at least, it is true in the northern colonies/states. Lower ceilings decrease air space and so concentrate the heat from the fireplace in a smaller number of cubic feet. That’s why in the South before air-conditioning, houses were often built with high ceilings, so the heat would rise and leave the lower portion of the room a little cooler. And in the North, before central heating, ceilings were often built lower. 

Builders had all sorts of clever techniques to help keep a house cooler or warmer, techniques that are usually ignored or forgotten today when the thermostat instantly adjusts the temperature. To keep cool, they might site the house to face prevailing winds, put windows opposite one another to allow cross breezes, or build exterior fireplaces and chimneys rather than interior to dissipate the heat, build separate kitchens to keep the all-day cooking fires away from the main house, use central hallways with doors at each end to encourage a breeze, and build tall ceilings and large windows. As heating and cooling costs rise, we may well see a return of these techniques in new homes. 

One Response to Myth # 67: Ceilings were lower back then because they kept the heat in.

  1. Tom S says:

    I’ve thought that it was also done to allow for overhead oil, gas, or kerosene lighting. This became much more prevalent in the late 1800s with the invention and spread of the central draft lamp and later mantle lamps that continued into the early 1900s until electric lighting displaced it (which didn’t happen as fast as we think it did). As light output increased from these brighter burners, so did the heat. You can’t hang that kind of lighting a few inches from the ceiling (unless you’re fond of building fires). High ceilings provide room to hang the lighting away from the ceiling and space for the heat to dissipate while also providing room for people to walk under it. Even then, lights were not bright – there was no substitute for daylight. Larger ceilings allowed taller windows and more useful daylight. The rationale for ceiling differences in the antebellum south and colonial New England is not the same as that for that for homes in the industrial age. Turn of the century (19th to 20th) homes built in central New Jersey, where I used to live, had small rooms, but also had 12 foot ceilings. Certainly at that time something other than keeping heat in was the main driver of ceiling height.

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