Revised Myth # 67: Ceilings were lower back then to keep 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.



7 Responses to Revised Myth # 67: Ceilings were lower back then to keep the heat in.

  1. Susan Sommers says:

    I have also heard that doorways were lower not because people were shorter (they were not) but because this was also a way to help keep the heat in.

  2. What is the period supporting documentation for lower ceilings?

    Higher ceilings as I have understood it create a more uniform temperature in a room via a convection current. This is beneficial for both heating and cooling a space.

    • Mary Miley says:

      Hi Thomas. Not sure what you’re asking. There are many historic houses with lower than 8-foot ceilings, especially in colder climates. There was no standard ceiling height, as we have today with the 8-foot ceiling.

      • hello.. Sorry I was inquiring as to if you’ve come across period documentation stating that a low ceiling is being built because they believe it will be easier to heat the space they are building.

  3. Mary Miley says:

    No, I haven’t seen any examples like that. Maybe one of our readers has?

  4. Joe Greeley says:

    When I worked at the Nantucket Historical Society for a summer, one of the places I interpreted was the Jethro Coffin House aka The Oldest House (ca. 1686 or so). We talked about the low ceilings and doorways as a heat conservation method and it certainly makes sense to me. Another thing we talked about was how the huge fireplace was not because they got gigantic fires going in it but because 1) for cooking they would have several fires/ coal beds going for different dishes and 2) in REALLY cold weather, they could get a fire going in the center of the parlour fireplace and then place a high backed settle very close to the fireplace. This would essentially create a smaller room and make best use of the heat.
    Another interesting factoid about the house is that, when making repairs after a lightning strike sometime in the 90s (I think) they discovered that the space between the lath and plaster and the clapboard had been filled with daub (clay and straw mixed together), presumably to act as extra insulation.

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