The evolution of warmth
Sacramento really bundled up during its earliest winters, before the advent of high-tech housing and clothing
The nights are getting longer. The smell of orange blossoms finally has faded, and fireplace smoke wafts through Midtown’s empty alleyways. It’s winter, and it’s getting damned cold out there.
But, safe inside our houses, duplexes, condos and renovated Victorian apartments, most of us sleep soundly at night, oblivious to the frost gathering in the garden, the stray dog shivering on the sidewalk. For 21st-century men and women, winter warmth is only a question of options. We jog on rainy February mornings in fleece jackets and gloves made of Thinsulate or Polartec. We put our central-heating systems on timers to mitigate the crisp morning chill. We brew fresh coffee or microwave apple cider to drink in our heated cars on the way to warm offices. The runoff from a January rainstorm is drawn through storm drains into rivers surrounded by protected levees.
It wasn’t always so easy, though. Sacramento was not such a cozy place during its dawn. Temperatures probably were consistent with today’s—Sacramento frequently gets down to 40 degrees in January—but imagine how cold that feels when you’re ill or living in a tent, or when the rain just won’t let up.
First the floods, then the fever
The city’s most horrible winters probably were those between 1850 and 1853. Recounted in numerous historical documents and tales about the city’s past, those were years of floods, fever and fire.
The story of the city evolved from its most prominent feature, the Sacramento River. Sacramento’s relationship with the river upon which it depended took on new characteristics in the 1850s, said James Henley. Through his work at the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center, Henley selects the documents and artifacts that the city will retain as part of its history. As a city and county historian since 1966, he is an authority on our past and its sometimes brutal winters. During the 1850s, Henley said, “the river was the reason for the city’s permanence and was its biggest threat.”
A flood that began in December of 1849 and lasted into the new year devastated the town.
“We know it best because of a lithograph showing the Front and J street area looking much like Venice,” Henley said. “When water rushed out of the Sierra, Sacramento went under water.”
In addition to the water flowing from the mountains, the rivers were already full of precipitation. George Cline, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento, said the city’s normal annual precipitation is around 18.61 inches. During the winter of 1849 and 1850, though, the precipitation was close to 36 inches. “That’s really unusual,” Cline said. During one month, December of 1849, Sacramento had 12.5 inches of rain. In March of 1850, another 10 inches fell. “Boy, that’s really something,” Cline said. “Take away those two months, and it almost would have been a normal year.”
Before long, up to six feet of water covered the streets in the area we know as Old Sac. People relied on pole boats to get around. Those with businesses or homes in multiple-story buildings moved everything to the upper floors. People in one-story buildings had no choice but to move, either away from the area or to the natural levee, which was the highest ground nearby. That levee, essentially where the public market is in Old Sacramento today, only had a few inches of water covering it, compared with five or six feet of water on Front Street. Many people were living in the area along the river that lies between today’s I and R streets, Henley said.
The Sacramento Medical Center’s written history contains a description of the flood: “In 1850, floodwaters rose nine feet within 24 hours at 7th and P streets. With 15,000 square miles of drainage, many died, and others were left homeless.” Henley said most of the people who died suffered from illnesses or exposure caused by a lack of adequate shelter. There also were some drownings, he said.
Native peoples who had lived in the area moved to higher ground during the rainy season. Sacramentans built levees after the flood of 1850, but additional floods in 1852, 1853, 1861 and 1862 were the impetus for Sacramento’s most drastic solution: raising the level of the streets so they were higher than flood level.
If the submerged streets and cold, soaking homes weren’t horrifying enough, a cholera epidemic began to fester in the early winter of 1850. “The epidemic was killing so many people so fast that the city opened one large pit,” Henley said. Between 300 and 350 people who died of cholera ended up in that pit, covered in lime. Between 600 and 1,000 people in the town died—up to one-sixth of the city’s permanent population. Henley said that of the more than two dozen doctors in the town, the majority fled. Of the six or so who stayed, only two or three survived the epidemic.
The Sacramento Medical Center’s history states there also was a “high frequency of typhoid fever, rheumatism, erysipelas and pneumonia during the winter months of 1850.” Erysipelas is a contagious skin infection that causes swelling and redness of the skin as well as fever. Though treatable now, it often was fatal in past centuries.
“Mental illness was common,” the history states. “One physician commented that most of the crazy people left the states for the gold fields; that mental diseases were not developed but transplanted here. People waged a battle of life against disillusionment, hardships, intemperance and homesickness.”
To make matters worse for early residents of the city, a fire raged through Sacramento in November of 1852 and destroyed a large number of buildings in the business district. Such catastrophes would be devastating to any city today, but they were especially tough on Sacramento’s early population, which the history describes (based in part on Dr. J. Roy Jones’ Memories, Men and Medicine) as “miserable, famished, filthy human beings, many of whom were diseased, depressed and despondent immigrants, all the easy prey of death.” Talk about your winter gloom.
A colder century
Even in the best of circumstances, though, surviving winter in the 19th century took effort. In the years before central heating, synthetic fabrics and some of technology’s greatest advances, the instant riverside community was a cold and dirty place. The city lacked many basic services, buildings weren’t well-insulated, and heating systems were hardly adequate.
“Certainly, in winter, heating was at a minimum,” Henley said.
The buildings of the 1840s weren’t made with double-paned windows and the thick insulation we’re used to. Through his work for the city, Henley did the research for the restoration of Old Sacramento, including the critique of architectural styles and building renovations. Early homes and offices would not have been warm “like we think of warm and secure,” he said.
Ships’ carpenters who had jumped ship to mine for gold, only to find carpentry a more lucrative trade, made many of the very first shelters in Sacramento. Often, these carpenters used found materials. “A number of sailing ships had been abandoned, and so these carpenters used wood and cloth from the abandoned ships,” Henley said.
In the earliest days, when the city formed a “T” along Front Street and up J Street, some folks lived in tents made from ships’ sails. Henley said one writer at the time described the ever-present “blue glow” at night caused by lanterns lit beneath the indigo canvas of sail tents.
In 1850, as the city was forming to accommodate its 6,000 or so permanent residents and a transient population of around 75,000, buildings commonly were made of wood or brick. Because brick was not in the style of the period, when it was used, people chose to plaster or paint over it. Adobe wasn’t in common use except on a few buildings, such as Sutter’s Fort and an early hospital.
Cline, at the National Weather Service, said no temperature data is available for the 1850s but that the weather would have been fairly similar to weather today: quite chilly during winter nights. Sacramento’s coldest months are January, with an average low of 40.1 degrees and an average of 4.18 inches of precipitation; February, with an average low of 44 degrees and an average of 3.77 inches of precipitation; and March, with an average low of 46 degrees and an average of 3.15 inches of precipitation.
In such cold, damp months, people of the 1850s relied on fire for heating their homes and offices.
“Up until the 1900s, the fireplace, the kitchen stove and a couple of petroleum products were the major sources of home heating,” Henley said.
Henley said wood-burning stoves were the most widely used in Sacramento during the 19th century. Coal was in use for heating but not for cooking in the 1880s, he said. Commercial buildings could afford steam-heat radiators in the late 19th century, but not many homes had that luxury.
“People carried their warmth on them,” Henley said. “They weren’t counting on buildings for warmth.”
Henley recalled photographs taken during the 1850s at a morgue. In the photos, the dead seem to be wearing “three and four vests … maybe two coats and an undergarment” for warmth. During winters of the 1850s, “people wore multiple layers of clothing,” Henley said.
Geri Royer, a docent at Sutter’s Fort, said the number of layers probably depended upon several factors: the type of building in which a person lived or worked, the type of heating apparatus available and the type of work a person did.
“At Sutter’s Fort, the walls are 18 inches thick,” she said. That would have kept out much of the cold during the winter. She said most period stoves worked quite well, especially in small rooms. Even in the tents, she said, people probably managed well. “Inside a canvas tent, you light up a lantern, and you’re going to stay warm,” she said.
Still, it was not unusual for men to wear three or four shirts at a time. Men had a variety of clothing styles, especially of shirts, and they had coats of various lengths. Most men’s clothing was wool of different weights.
Both men and women wore wool stockings that extended above the knee. They would roll the stockings down and tie them with a ribbon, Royer said.
Men wore straight-leg pants that extended to the tops of the shoes, and some men tucked their pants into their boots.
People of the 1850s had most of the accessories we associate with winter. Scarves of the time would have been hand-woven or knitted from wool. Many styles of hats were popular during winter, including wool-felt or beaver-felt hats, stocking caps and watch caps. Gloves would have been either leather or wool, which often were easier to come by than cotton.
Women wore even more layers of clothing than did men. Until around 1910, women, restricted by rules of etiquette, wore long skirts even while skiing. American women did not really begin wearing pants until the 1920s.
Sherry Hatch, a registrar at the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center, said women wore a combination of items including cotton or maybe lightweight wool underdrawers that tied with a drawstring; corsets; corset covers; a chamise or long, full slip; up to four petticoats made of lightweight wool, flannel or quilted cotton; dresses with full skirts (this was pre-hoop); shawls; cloaks or capes made of wool (there were no coats for women, per se); and bonnets or caps.
“Women wore many layers, even in the summer,” she said.
On their feet, they wore little boots, with laces and very low heels for walking. Up until the middle of the 19th century, shoes were not yet made for the left and right foot separately, so all shoes were a sort of uncomfortable rectangle.
Hatch said men had higher-heeled shoes for riding horses, and thigh-high boots for riding and hunting. “They were used almost like chaps,” she said. Miners wore tall boots, too, to keep their legs out of the water.
“They had to stand in water to mine, and that water, even in the summer, was very cold,” Hatch said.
Another reason for tall boots and layering was that people were outside much of the day. “People did not sit inside the way we do today. Their recreation time, if they had any, was usually in the evening, after chores were done. During the day, they would have been working,” Royer said.
Layers of warm clothing were pioneers’ saving grace. Of course, “layering” is still a buzzword today, especially in relation to outdoor winter sports. The progress we’ve made has been in the materials, in the technology. People of the 1850s, for instance, obviously had no access to rayon, nylon, acrylic, polyester or spandex, which weren’t invented until years later. They probably couldn’t have imagined such space-age materials as polypropylene, Gore-Tex, Thermax or Capilene. For blanketing and clothing, people relied on layers of wool, silk and cotton—natural fibers that keep a person warm when standing still but don’t really allow moisture to escape when the body is in motion.
Technology began to improve some things, though. For instance, the lock-stitch sewing machine, invented in 1846, improved the quality and comfort of shoes and boots. And, in 1844, a process called mercerization was developed for making cotton tougher.
Waterproofing is another good example of 19th-century ingenuity. Royer said people used bear grease for waterproofing, by melting it down and spreading it over the outsides of their shoes. Wool also was good for keeping out rain because it contains a lot of lanolin, she said.
Umbrellas, which had been around for years, were improved by Samuel Fox’s steel-ribbing design in 1852. And blue jeans, Levi Strauss’ famous invention, were popular among miners beginning in 1850.
Still, the winters of the 1850s were overwhelming for many who passed through Sacramento. The town had “no public water system, no sanitation system, no sewers, no protection from fires, virtually no fire department … and no garbage pick-up, so refuse is left where it falls. Two hundred mules are leaving town each day, and guess what they leave?” Henley said. “In winter, the city is an awful, churning, mucky mess. … It’s not a town for the faint of heart.”
By the 1900s, many things had improved for Sacramentans. Winter weather must have been easier to live with after the invention of the earmuffs in 1873, the first rubber shoes in the 1860s, and the power loom in 1884, which improved the strength of cotton threads.
When inside, people could enjoy the warmth of the electric stove, which was invented in the 1890s and had begun to replace the messy wood- and coal-fueled stoves used in the past. If people were lucky, they lived in a home with a furnace.
New home designs were in the works, as well. “Around the 1900s,” Henley said, Sacramento experienced “a revolution in architecture, from Victorian to bungalow style.” This change brought about the down-draft heater, or gravity heater. Basements would house an oil-fired heater with a floor register on top of it. Heat would rise to warm the first floor, and, eventually, the second story would get so warm, people would open windows.
Henley said the 19th century brought two other winter life-savers to Sacramento: the street railroad, or electrical trolley system, in 1895; and the safety bicycle at the end of the 19th century. “By 1900, a fair amount of the labor force biked to work” instead of walking, he said. Sure, biking can be an even colder mode of transportation, but you dramatically cut down your traveling time.
“By the 1900s, it’s becoming a more comfortable environment to live in. We’re getting pretty sophisticated. The technological revolution has made a lot of things nicer.”
As for the holidays in 19th-century Sacramento, Henley said they weren’t what they are today. People celebrated many of the same holidays we do today, but in different ways. For instance, Sacramento’s pioneers would have celebrated the Fourth of July, but they would have done it with cannon fire instead of firecrackers, Henley said.
Historical documents show a few winter-solstice events in the community before the turn of the century, and many people celebrated Christmas, which was a private, religious holiday rather than the nationally celebrated, commercial extravaganza it is today. “There were strong Christian values here in Sacramento, and a lot of churches came into town,” Henley said.
The Christmas tree was just becoming an interesting thing in America around the time of the Civil War, years after the Gold Rush, he said. People in Sacramento during the 1850s would have celebrated Christmas with traditional family meals.
“There’s very little commercially produced food,” he said, “but there is a lot of canning and home preservation. Fruits, nuts and that sort of thing would have been treats. Basic things we think of at holiday meals, such as roast meats, cakes, pies, etc. were plentiful. For the affluent, there’s a very substantial variety of gourmet foods.”
Holiday celebrations also were times for drinking, an antidote to the cold. “By the turn of the century,” Henley said, “Sacramento has great big active breweries.”
Some things never change.