amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: fireplace history

by Amy Azzarito

Image above: Fireplace from Sneak Peek: Anne Lise Kjaer

It has been cold in New York! And more snow is predicted for tomorrow! Not that I’m complaining (well, not totally complaining!) — it’s certainly pretty, but I’ve been chugging vats of tea and soup to try and stay warm. And I sure wouldn’t mind warming my feet in front of a fire right about now! So the fireplace was a little bit on my mind when thinking of a history topic for this week. For those of you lucky ducks with a fireplace, Grace is rounding up her favorite fireplace accessories later today! And if, like me, you have to be content with eye candy, be sure to check out our Best Of: Fireplaces from the sneak peek archives!

Image above: Manorbier Castle in Wales by Jeffrey L. Thomas

Whereas ancient Romans had pretty elaborate heating systems (warming pipes in the walls and underneath floors), medieval homes were built around a simple, open hearth — sort of like building a campfire in the middle of the living room. It took quite a while for heating technology to catch back up to those in ancient civilizations; the big technological innovation of the 12th century was when a fireplace built into a wall replaced the open hearth. Even then, small country homes would still have their open fires in the middle of the room — talk about smoke inhalation issues!

Image above: 17th-century fireplace tools from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the Middle Ages, the fireplace has been equipped with a basic set of tools: tongs, a poker, shovels, brushes and bellows.

It took nearly 500 years for the next big fireplace innovation. Until then, the only change in fireplace design was purely decorative — fireplaces became increasingly ornamental. Those grand fireplaces were tourist attractions; 17th-century guidebooks to Paris advised tourists on which fireplaces were must-sees. That big innovation in fireplace design happened in the 17th century when, along with the increased use of coal came the realization that bigger was not always better when it came to chimneypiece openings. In fact, the larger the opening, the more heat escaped up the flue.

Image above: 18th-century fireplace from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But still, most of the fireplace changes were decorative. The mirror-and-mantle combo that we’re still so fond of today? That was a 1690 construction, when the French mirror industry developed the technology necessary for the production of full-length mirrors, and the marble mantel with a huge mirror became de rigueur for important rooms. The mirror-and-mantle was essential to the room’s function; convention dictated that those seated around the fire should be able to look into the mirror and check out everything going on in the rest of the room.

CLICK HERE for more fireplace history + books to read!

Image above: 1. French Wooden Fireplace, $18,000; 2. 18th-Century Statuary, Sienna and Jasper Marble Chimneypiece, $149,000; 3. Louis XV Stone Fireplace Surround; 4. 18th-Century French Limestone Fireplace Mantel, from Vendee Region, $29, 500

The lack of technological innovation in heating systems meant that people were cold! The fireplace produced uneven shallow heat and drew cold air into the room. They also gave off huge quantities of smoke. But change didn’t really begin until 18th-century expensive, light-colored fabrics began to be ruined. After all, it was only in the 18th century that designers began to use light-colored fabrics, and boy, did they show soot!

Image above: Early 19th-century neoclassical oven in Schloss Wolfshagen, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, during the 18th century, enclosed wood-burning stoves began to replace the fireplace in continental Europe, Scandinavia and America (less so in Britain). The stove would often be the feature of a combined living and kitchen area and incorporated hot plates for cooking food. It wasn’t until after World War II that most homeowners in America and Europe were able to afford a central-heating system via radiators.

Books to Read

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  • I love a great wood fire – this is my number one requirement when I buy a house! Some realtors have looked at me as if I am some crazy caveman when I say this, though.

  • funny timing… my current project is a DIY faux hearth for our non-working fireplace. even though it doesn’t work, it can still be pretty :)

  • Glad you mention the stoves of central Europe and Scandinavia at the end there… Alpine countries, in particular, soon invented a more efficient way of containing and distributing the heat, from the 16th century onwards. Not all of them were anywhere near as elaborate as the beautiful German one and many are still used here in Switzerland to heat older homes over the winter or at least in spring and autumn when it’s not quite cold enough for central heating…!! Lots of traditions around these stoves – maybe for their own post? Great design feature ;)

  • Such an interesting read on the history of fireplaces. I’ve spent the last month looking for a new apartment and squealing with delight every time I came across one with a fireplace. I finally did score a new apartment, but alas, it has no fireplace. I suppose it’s not a necessity in southern California, but I sure do like the idea of one!

  • Great post! I’ve always wanted wanted one of those 18th Century wood burning stoves, so pretty!

  • great post. thanks for the links to the books. when looking to buy my current home, i, as well, had fireplace as a priority. use it all the time and get much enjoyment from it.