Keeping Warm With Brasero

Brrrr. . . Someone turn up the heat in here. Fiddling with a thermostat offers a fast and easy way to take the chill out of your home. But how did Spanish colonists in early St. Augustine keep warm? After all, north Florida is no stranger to frost. The answer is simple: Brasero.

A black and white photograph of a bresaro in the middle of a room.

A brasero (brazier) consists of a metal pan, usually brass or copper, mounted on an iron or wooden stand. Its warmth comes from brasa (burning/hot coals) kept covered with ashes in the metal pan.

You might note something missing from this heating system. It did not need fireplaces or chimneys, so most St. Augustinians did not build them. Instead, the brasero sat in the open of a large room; often incorporated into furniture.

“One of these will take the chill off any room of usual dimensions. Two or three of them distributed wisely in the apartment will give entire comfort . . . “

Chamberlain, Frederick. The Balerics and Their Peoples. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co. 1927.

Frederick Chamberlain in his 1927 book The Balearics and Their Peoples noted a dangerous draw-back to brasero: “. . . the window must be open always if you want to be sure to live, for, do the best you can, there will be charcoal fumes escaping from any brasero. The danger is that one does not sense them until he falls from his chair.”

The “charcoal fumes” mentioned by Chamberlain refers to carbon monoxide (CO). This colorless, odorless, tasteless, and flammable gas could build up in an unventilated room. Too much of this gas causes carbon monoxide poisoning and even death.

A black and white illustration of a man pointing at the coals of a bresaro while holding a pipe; another man sits   in a chair at a table nearby.
A rendering of a bresaro inspired by John Bartram’s description of St. Augustine. (UFDC)

During the First Spanish Period (1565-1763), one did not find many sealed windows in St. Augustine homes as glass remained an expensive import. Instead, reja allowed for more air flow – avoiding potential carbon monoxide poisoning. Did this not cause drafts?

While using a brasero in Spain, Chamberlian mentioned the he found himself “. . . seldom really warm unless shrouded in all the clothing he possessed.” Then why use a brasero at all? We can only assume that St. Augustinians did not mind these inefficiencies due to the infrequency and short duration of winter weather here. However, the British did mind when they moved into the city in 1763. The new residents added chimneys and fireplaces to local buildings, which remained after their departure in 1784.

A black and white photograph of a woman in Spanish colonial inspired costume stoking the coals of a bresaro in a room.
Stoking the coals in a brasero at De Mesa Sanchez House in 1967. (UFDC)

Though the brasero went out of fashion in St. Augustine, it continued as a source of heat in Spain into the early 1900s. Today, you can still spot brasero across South America used as a small grill attached to a box with coals. No longer heating rooms, these brasero serve up sizzling hot meats at an asado (barbecue).

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