Even though Christmas is still a month away, it is not too early to discuss snow, since here in New England we had "appreciable" snowfall across most of the area just before Halloween. (And if that is the last flake I see all season, it will be just fine with me.) However, the way this recent New England snowfall was handled is very different from how appreciable snowfalls were handled in old England during the Regency. Our Regency ancestors would be quite surprised, even shocked, by the time and effort we put into snow removal in the twenty-first century and even more so by people who venture outdoors while a snowstorm is in progress.
Attitudes and practices for living and dealing with snow in the Regency . . .
The climate of the United Kingdom today is relatively moderate. The British Isles do not get a lot of snow, and seldom much of it in a single storm, unlike the volume of snow which can fall in North America. Such was not the case during the Regency, when England, like the rest of Europe, was in the grip of a unique climatological pattern known as the Little Ice Age. This period of overall lower temperatures lasted for about three hundred years, beginning about 1550 and ending about 1850. Most meteorologists believe that the primary trigger for these lower temperatures was reduced solar activity, but the situation was occassionally exacerbated by powerful volcanic eruptions, such as that of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, which threw volcanic material high into the atmosphere. These small air-bourne particles partially blocked the sun, sometimes for several months, and triggered significantly increased precipitation, much of it, in winter, of the frozen variety. Therefore, English Regency winters had more frequent snowstorms, with significantly more snowfall than is typical for British winters today.
And what did our Regency ancestors do when there was a heavy snowfall? They did not, like many of us today, rush out to shovel it from the walkways and roadways in their vicinity. Many of them simply ignored it, stayed in their homes and waited for it to melt. Particularly in rural areas, people had already laid in most of the supplies they would need for the winter. The majority of farm fields were fallow, awaiting the arrival of spring for planting. The few farm animals which had not been slaughtered were usually housed in barns or sheds near the farm house, within a walk-able distance, except in the aftermath of an extremely severe storm. Over the years I have come across several letters and diary entries, written during late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century winters, which referred to activities which took place in the aftermath of a snowstorm. Not once was there any reference to "shoveling snow." But there were many references to "making paths." Based on the descriptions, it appears that most people did not move the snow, with a shovel or any other implement, rather they packed down the freshly-fallen snow to make a firm walking surface to those outbuildings to which they would need to go in order to care for their animals. There was only one brief mention in one letter which led me to believe these paths may have been made with a tool consisting of a flat board and a rope, similar to those used by folks who make crop circles. Using such a tool to pack down the snow would be faster and easier than trying to shovel the snow off the path. Country people usually had sturdy foot-wear, such as hob-nail boots, which gave them good traction when walking over packed snow, so there was no real need to shovel it aside, even if the idea had occurred to them.
Snow was not usually shoveled on large country estates, either. Instead, paths would have been made between the main house and any nearby out-buildings. However, there were occasional references which indicate that the gardens on some country estates were cleared of snow by the gardeners. In most cases, this was done to protect the valuable plantings rather than for the convenience of the family in residence. The gardeners used shovels and/or rakes to clear the snow, and hauled it away in wheelbarrows. Roadways in the country were not shoveled, as there was no need. Most stables on country estates had a sleigh or two, or they had vehicles to which runners could be fitted in place of wheels to enable them to travel easily over the snow, unless the snow fall had been extremely deep. In areas which got a lot of snow, horses, especially draft horses, were sometimes fitted with special winter shoes which gave them a better grip when travelling over a snow-packed road. And once there had been enough traffic on a road to pack the snow down firmly, even carriages could easily travel over it, because the motive power was all with horses. The carriage wheels did not need to get traction, in fact it was better that they did not, as it was easier on the horses who were drawing the vehicle. Though it was common for those who lived on country estates to pay calls on their neighbors, such visits were usually curtailed after a very heavy snowfall until the snow had melted and the roads were once again passable for the horses. Most people today would experience a severe case of cabin fever after even a day inside, but those who lived during the Regency would have taken such circumstances for granted, without excessive vexation.
Of course, snow also fell in the cities, but then, as now, there was a slight heat-island effect in large cities. So many buildings close together would trap and retain a few degrees more heat than an isolated building in the country, thus speeding the melting of the snow. For that reason, snow tended not to last as long in the cities, again, unless it had been an unusually heavy snowfall. If the snow was light, the servants of each house in the better neighborhoods would often sweep it off the front steps and the pavement out into the street. Merchants in the fashionable shopping areas would do the same. There were no laws regarding the removal of snow on one’s property during the Regency, nor did any city authority take responsibility for clearing snow from the roadways. However, after a very heavy snowstorm, in the better areas of a town, groups of men were often hired by the wealthier residents to shovel the snow off the roadways and sidewalks (pavements). Typically, these men were accompanied by a large, open horse-drawn wagon into which they would shovel the snow. When the wagon was full, it would be driven to a large open field outside the town to be dumped. In those cities which were situated on or near a river or a lake, the snow would usually be dropped into those bodies of water.
The first snowplows were introduced in the 1840s, but they did not so much clear the roads as they smoothed and flattened the snow pack. If the snow had been completely removed, sleighs would have become useless. These early plows were essentially a large wooden box about the size of a wagon with a large wooden plow blade attached to the front. These plows were horse-drawn and required teams of from four to six strong draft horses to drag the plow over the road. Snow plows were not motorized until the early twentieth century, after the introduction of the automobile. At that point, the design of the plow blade had to be changed, as it was then important to clear the snow off the road, since the motive power of the engine required good traction for the wheels to propel the vehicle forward.
When snow was shoveled in the Regency, either in town or country, the same shovels which were used for digging soil were employed for the purpose. They were typically made with iron blades and wooden handles. These shovels were fairly heavy and required a strong person to wield them. By the 1870s, many aspiring inventors were at work on designs for shovels specifically intended for snow removal. Some of them had serrated teeth to help scrape away the snow, others had sharp edges to cut the snow. One of the first patents for a shovel designed specifically for both scraping and scooping snow was filed by a woman, in 1889. The first patent for a snow shovel with a plastic blade was not filed until fifty years later, in 1939. The small, walk-behind snow blower was first introduced in the 1950s. Imagine what our Regency ancestors would have thought of one of those!
The various late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century references to snow which I have read suggest to me that most people of those times considered snow part of the natural environment, but a most powerful element, to be respected and not ignored. The idea of moving vast amounts of it, as we do today, would have utterly astonished them. They were more likely to "make paths" and walk over it than they were to expend much effort to remove it. Though the actual removal of snow from Regency city streets did occasionally occur, it was usually only in the aftermath of a very severe storm which left behind so many inches of snow that streets were completely impassable. Anyone during the Regency who suggested clearing roadways or walkways before the snow storm had fully passed, as many cities do today, would have been considered quite odd, perhaps even a candidate for Bedlam. Most people would have sought shelter as soon as a snow storm began and would have remained inside until the storm had completely passed. Snow in the Regency was the same as it is now, but their attitude toward it was very different than ours.
For the most part, Regency authors do reflect that attitude when they set scenes during a snow storm. However, there have been a few instances when the characters go on about their business outdoors while the storm continues, even though there is no pressing need. In the Regency, only someone with their attics to let would have even considered travelling during a snow storm, unless faced with some dire emergency. Snow was considered a powerful and dangerous natural force during the Regency. Right-thinking people respected that and did not willingly expose themselves to danger. So dear authors, please keep that in mind before you send one of your characters out into a snow storm without a very good reason. Also, particularly if your story is set in the country, remember that most people would not even consider shoveling snow, instead, they would have made paths over its surface. Those paths, however, could be quite slippery for someone without the proper footwear. Such a snow path might be just the place for the fashionable city-bred heroine to loose her footing and be caught up in the strong arms of the savvy country-shod hero.