It snowed four inches last night and my husband came in after a couple of hours of clearing snow from our home, our daughter’s and our neighbors. As usual he draped his wet clothes over radiators in the dining room and living room. The sight took me back to grade school and wet wool.
My elementary school was heated by radiators warmed by a giant furnace fed with sawdust. Long radiators spanned the length of each classroom, providing great ledges for wet clothing. We covered them with wet wool hats, wet wool mittens, wet wool gloves and wet wool jackets when we arrived at school. Today few winter clothes are made of wool, having been replaced with all sorts of polyester fleece and down alternative fillings. But any readers of my age can easily summon the very particular smell of wet wool on a radiator. Not as unpleasant as wet dog, but equally distinct.
Sawdust as fuel for a furnace was fairly normal in the 1950’s in Oregon. Timber was the biggest industry, and sawdust from the lumber mills was abundant and cheap. Our odd school janitor took care of the furnace, surfacing only to clean up when a student “lost his lunch.” One day in fourth grade in fact, Jim stood up to start the Pledge of Allegiance and promptly was sick. The janitor hurried in and sprinkled the mess with—sawdust!
Coal, sawdust, oil, and natural gas have all been used to fuel furnaces throughout my life. But radiators have been a constant. Here’s to the smells of winter, not just of Christmas cookies and pine trees. Let’s pause a minute to remember wet wool drying on a radiator.