Nothing is more beautiful and comforting than a burning fire during the cooler months. With a tradition that goes back for centuries, the fireplace is a key element of style and function—but the hearth wasn’t always the way it is today—so let's explore the history behind the beloved fireplace.
DEC 15, 2021, 11:11PM
Swanky interior with limestone fireplace surround.
Nothing Quite Like The Old-World Charm
From the soft crackle of a roaring fire and the warmth it provides during winter chilly months to the sheer presence of its focal point appeal, the fireplace, whether decorative or simple and rustic, this beloved feature has the charm to transform any room in a home. Now that the holidays are in full swing, we assume that safety precautions have been taken and celebratory moments can be thoroughly enjoyed. Now let's go back in time.
476 AD: Keeping Warm in Medieval Winter
Modern life tends to carry on as usual despite shifting temperatures but in medieval times (476-1400), surviving the winter was not an easy feat, especially if one were a peasant. The early medieval hall with its central hearth was a cold and smoky place. Surviving was the result of fore thought and hard labor—from fetching acorns and cutting wood to fatten their hogs in readiness for winter. Crop failures due to bad weather were frequent and famine was often the result. Indeed, life was a lot different back then. The central heat source was a stone hearth in the center of the room, ventilation shafts were placed in the roof as a passage for smoke to escape, but alas, the lack of streamline airflow can be crippling to one’s health. Keeping heat in a large room with open hearth is a tall order.
1185: First Appearance of Domestic Chimney
1185: The earliest existing chimney has been located at Coinsbrough Castle in Yorkshire. However, fireplaces did not become common in homes until the 16th and 17th centuries. Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most influential figures of the Middle Ages, is said to be responsible for the introduction of the built in fireplaces.
Mantelpiece 1515--20 Elaborately carved stone fireplaces, often decorated with
profile heads inside wreaths were a key feature of noble dwellings. Courtesy MET
The typical fireplace was very wide and deep, generally with only the briefest semblance of a mantel, or no mantel at all.
1600s: The Walk-in
The fireplace was a necessity in early Colonial America—valued more for function than aesthetics—hence its utilitarian appearance with only the briefest semblance of a mantel, or no mantel at all. The fireplace providing not only heating but also for cooking and baking, and served as he center of family connection and belonging. The smoke problem (inside and out) from burning cool was of particular concern, frequently caused house fires and fatalities----a problem that motivated Benjamin Franklin to make life better for everyone. Franklin's goal was to limit the smoke that poured into the home and maximize the heat.
1742: Benjamin Franklin
Inventor The Pennsylvania Fireplace
An avid inventor and a man of great ideas, Ben Franklin, according to his autobiography, invented the Pennsylvania fireplace in1742. An iron box of cast iron with a hallow baffle and an inverted syphon in the rear that pulled the smoke and heat down below the floor before exiting up through the chimney. The stove was efficient for several reasons:
It reduced to a minimum the dissipation of heat up the chimney flue
Transmitted heat by radiation and by direct conduction
Effective as a conventional fireplace or metal stove of principle of convection: the creation of a current of air which was then heated and circulated into the room
It is important to point out that later manufacturers of the "Franklin stove" have usually eliminated the air box, thereby abandoning a centrally important feature of the original model as the inventor has conceived it. Consequently, most "Franklin stoves made within the last hundred years or so, however convenient and pleasant, are perhaps not as efficient.
1783: The Centerpiece
The perception of the fireplace was no longer seen as a heating element, hence decorative features such as mantels and surrounds started to be seen as centerpiece. The design of the fireplace remained the same until after the American Revolution.
1796: Benjamin Thompson
Inventor The Rumford Fireplace
Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814), also known as Count Rumford, an American born British physicist and inventor, applied his knowledge of heat towards the improvement of fireplaces. He made them taller and shallower with wide angled covings to reflect more heat. He also streamlined the throat to eliminate turbulence and carry away the smoke with minimal loss of heated room air. This was done by by adding a choke to the chimney to increase the speed of air circulating up the flue—resulted in a streamlined airflow prompting the smoke up the chimney rather than lingering in the room.