Inside the Collection

Steamfest 2012 Mystery Object Revealed

McLaren rectangular steel railway foot warmer
Collection of the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. 86/741. Gift of the State Rail Authority Archives, 1986.

Would you have guessed the mystery rail object on display in the Museum’s marquee at Steamfest this year? Visitors to this event held in Maitland, NSW, over the weekend of 28/29th April were encouraged to have a go.


Congratulations to Lucy Halpin of Branxton, NSW, who correctly guessed it was a railway foot warmer. McLaren patent foot warmers like this one were placed on the floor of railway carriages all around Australia to provide a little passenger comfort before carriage heating. The rectangular steel container worked a bit like a hot water bottle but instead of water contains 6½ kg of loosely-packed salt crystals, crystalline hydrated sodium acetate. It was a bi-product of the wine-making industry. After the foot warmer was heated in a furnace of boiling water for about 1¼ hours the crystals in the container became liquid.

There was a whole infrastructure set up at stations for the daily heating of foot warmers in special furnaces. In Victoria alone in 1935 there were 33 heating works. There are still the remains of one at Mudgee in NSW. As the contents slowly cooled it recrystallised and actually generated heat for between 8 to 10 hours.

Inside, the foot warmer contains a couple of small cast-iron balls. After 10 hours the container was picked up by the handle and given a good vertical shake which broke up some of the crystalline clumps and encouraged the foot warmer to burst back into life. Staff shook them en route when the foot warmers began to get cold.

The salt-filled foot warmer was invented by the French civil engineer, M.A. Ancelin, in about 1880 and used in Europe and Great Britain until the 1920s when replaced by steam heating from the train’s locomotive. They were first used on NSW trains in 1891 and were still seen in some of our train compartments until 1982! First class compartments were issued with two warmers and second class only one. Makes you wonder how many romances began sharing a railway foot warmer! Under rigid bureaucratic railway regulations the foot warmers were only deposited in NSW carriages between 1 May and 30 September. Too bad if there was a sudden cold snap or a late start to spring for passengers travelling to icy Orange or Arctic Armidale.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator, Transport

2 responses to “Steamfest 2012 Mystery Object Revealed

  • Interesting that you could shake it back ito a second burst of warmth. I’m also interested that second class passengers got a foot warmer at all, even if first class got double! No foot warmers for the bottom class on most English railways.

  • Interesting that you could shake it back ito a second burst of warmth. I’m also interested that second class passengers got a foot warmer at all, even if first class got double! No foot warmers for the bottom class on most English railways.

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