December 18, 2022
By Arthur H. Gunther III
There’s this thing about radiators. Not long ago they were old-fashioned but are now in vogue with home renovators overpaying scrap dealers. They are unheard of in many parts of the nation that don’t need central heating. And they were once a best friend in the household. All in all, this sounds almost like society and its trends: likes, dislikes, who is in, who is out.
When central heating began to replace inefficient fireplaces and gravity-feed, one floor-register furnaces in the late 1800s, beautifully designed, even ornate cast-iron, steam-filled radiators appeared in every room, not only bringing unheard-of warmth but probably increasing the birth rate as at least one chill left the primary bedroom.
Even more sociology: Radiators, in greater use through the 1940s, came in all sizes, big, tall, in-between. Some were fat, some skinny.
They invaded the kitchen as well, with models that included plate warmers – little built-in boxes. In the hallway, kids placed their wet mittens, the wool drying out in distinctive fashion. (Close your eyes for a whiff of back then.)
The delivery man, fresh from the February cold, might linger against a wonderfully warm radiator as the lady of the house signed.
Steam systems, later replaced by hot water, would bang you awake, and the sweet sound of escaping steam told you that the covers could be pulled down and another day could begin.
In the early 1950s, as technology “progressed,” radiators were first replaced by convectors, metal-encased wall boxes with hot water piping and aluminum or copper fins. But soon, an even so-called cleaner look came, the baseboard heater, again piped hot water and fins. Today, in early systems installed 60 years ago, the original dust bunnies remain at floor level.
In the new age, especially in old-home restoration, some are returning to radiators, paying top money for heavy cast iron and rediscovering how warm they can be, and that they are the gift that almost keeps on giving since after the boiler shuts, the metal big boys keep radiating heat.
Sometimes we should never reinvent the wheel.
The writer is a retired newspaperman.