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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Where Ancient Back-Logs Glowed
(Part 1 Of 2)



IT is almost impossible to picture the domestic life of the American colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries without calling up a vision of the huge kitchen fireplace, with its pewter-laden mantel, the old flintlock hung above, strings of peppers and onions overhead, and the family of our forefathers gathered about in the ruddy glow of the hickory and birch. It was a veritable family altar, about which cluster ussociations dearer to the heart of the American antiquarian than almost any others.

To be sure, one cannot conveniently make a collection of old fireplaces, but one can reproduce them in modern Colonial houses, and can furnish them with old andirons, tongs, and shovels, and hence, perhaps, the subject is worth considering on its practical side. Not a few misnamed Colonial houses in these days are fitted with pretty little brick holes in the wall that our ancestors never would have recognized as fireplaces, while genuine old brass andirons are becoming such a rarity as to be worthy of the quest of the most ardent collector.

In the earliest Colonial days of old New England the majority of dwellings-particularly the farmhouses-were heated by one large fireplace in the kitchen, which was also the family living -room. Sometimes these were so immense that ofte could sit in the ingle-nook and see the stars through the yawning chimney. Needless to say, as heating contrivances such fireplaces were anything but economical, but wood was plenty and handy, and our forefathers seem to have accustomed themselves to hot faces and cold backs. The direct heat was intense, while the cold came in from all other quarters. Hence the fire-screen (in the better-class homes), and the high-back chairs and settles with their big ears or wings for protection against drafts.

At the back of the fireplace, in the ashes, lay the huge back-log-sometimes so big that it had to be drawn into the kitchen by horses and a chain. A smaller log, called a forestick, rested on the andirons near the front, and the other wood was piled in between.

In the homes of the wealthy (which in the seventeenth century were few) there were other fireplaces than the one in the kitchen. In the large houses, where there was a real attempt at heating, a fireplace was to be found in nearly every important room. They often had backs of iron, usually cast in some figure or floral design. They were usually of brick and extremely plain and simple. Later, in the eighteenth century, the iron firebacks were more common, sometimes bearing the owner's coat of arms, as at Mount Vernon.

In the South, that is, in Virginia and South Carolina, though the milder winters required less thorough heating, there were many beautiful fireplaces during this period, with fittings equal in beauty and elegance to those of the best homes in the North. These States were settled largely by wealthy English families, accustomed to comfort and luxury in their homes, and their houses were supplied with all sorts of furnishings of the richest sort, including those for the fireplace.

During the first half of the eighteenth century firewood became more scarce. Near the large towns, particularly, it was difficult to get it in large enough quantities to feed the huge fireplaces of the previous century. In new houses, therefore, smaller and more efficient fireplaces were built, and some of the old ones were made smaller by bricking in. They continued to be built of brick, with or without iron fire backs, and were frequently faced with plaster. The mouth was usually rectangular, slightly wider than high, and the fireplace was often considerably narrower at the back than at the front. In finish they varied almost as much as fireplaces nowadays, and yet close study will reveal a certain harmonious style of treatment.

Andirons and fire-irons were used in fireplaces from the earliest times, and have always held a remarkable fascination for the collector of Colonial antiques. In the big kitchen fireplace huge andirons of wrought iron, more or less simple in design, were commonest. Sometimes smaller irons, or creepers, were used between the big andirons to hold the smaller sticks.

In the other fireplaces in better-class houses more ornamental andirons were used, usually of iron or brass. At first nearly all were shaped more or less like dogs, and were called fire-dogs. The term andiron, derived from either hand-iron or end-iron, came into use later, though andirons of other forms were sometimes called fire-dogs, even in the nineteenth century. After other forms became the fashion the dog-foot or claw-foot persisted for some time, and this is usually considered a mark of age and rarity among collectors. Iron andirons with brass dogs' heads are occasionally found and are highly prized.

Andirons were not made of brass until very late in the seventeenth century. All the fireplace furnishings up to that time were made of iron. Genuine seventeenth-century andirons are almost impossible to find to-day outside of the best collections or in homes where they are prized as heirlooms. They cost from five to fifty shillings when new, but are almost priceless now.

Shovels and tongs were used in the seventeenth century, usually matching the andirons. Pokers were practically never used. Other fireplace furnishings of that day were chimney-pans, fenders, dripping-pans, spits, etc. Bellows were commonly used and were sometimes carved and ornamented. It is hard to determine the age of specimens without knowing their history.

Eighteenth-century andirons are naturally less rare. The best forms were iron and brass dogs, brass steeple-tops, twisted-flame tops, and Colonial ball or baluster forms, with splay-feet or claw-feet. The steeple forms with claw-feet are the most highly valued; the ball tops are the commonest. The latter became very popular toward the latter half of the century, when andirons were made of copper, steel, and even silver, as well as of brass and iron. They were made chiefly in Holland, England, and America. Sometimes two or three sets were used to hold the wood at different heights, and of course different sizes and heights were made for different fireplaces. To-day the larger ones are worth somewhat more than the smaller ones, though they are no more eagerly sought for.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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