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In some antique shops one may find an ancient fireback, one that has the sentimental value of being of the days when fireplaces were necessities and not luxuries. Shops dealing in fireplace fixtures offer reproductions which to casual inspection seem old. These are careful copies from the best of the old firebacks, the originals of which are in museums or are cherished as heirlooms in private homes.
But when buying an original fireback one must be sure it is not a hearth plate or a stove plate. Hearth plates were once used to protect the floors in front of hearths, and with their simple decoration have been found, and mistakenly cherished, as firebacks. Stove plates, from a forerunner of the iron stove made by Pennsylvania Germans, have deceived hunters of old firebacks. These plates, most of them decorated with biblical scenes or floral designs, formed an iron box into which the hot ashes of the fire were placed to give added heat to the room.
The earliest English firebacks those made before 1600 display the efforts of the iron molder to decorate the surface as best he could. Fleur-de-lis, roses and crests, to gether with cruder designs, were placed upon the surface, with little regard to symmetry. The rope patterns often seen in early pieces were made by taking an impression in the mold of pieces of rope.
Later the use of coats-of-arms as a decoration on the firebacks was introduced. Of these the most popular designs today are those that go back to the reign of Charles I. Often the date when it was made was placed on the fireback, and sometimes the initials, "C. R." Charles Rextogether with the royal coat-of-arms are found. Of these latter the lion and the unicorn supporting the English crown are molded in high relief and show great virility of drawing on the part of the unknown artists.
The general shape of the fireback in the early part of the seventeenth century was that of an oblong with the top edge broken into a semi-circular form. Later, under the influence of the Dutch and German firebacks imported into England, the taller and narrower form with a curved top became the style.
Designs commemorating historical events, such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada, were also placed on firebacks. These nautical designs often included a ship's anchor with a rope formed in a pattern around it. Uncouth satyrs oddly combined with vine leaves and bunches of grapes were other decorative motifs found associated with the anchor design.
French designs lean toward classical subjects-cupids, garlands, flowers, curves and scrolls. In the French as well as in the Italian firebacks the more sophisticated designs of the Renaissance are apparent.
In the latter part of the seventeenth century Dutch and German firebacks influenced the British design. The Dutch were particularly fond of flowers, and many fire backs have come down ornamented with a vase of more or less natural-looking blooms surrounded by a garland.
In America the iron furnaces of Pennsylvania supplied many of the firebacks used, and the decorative ideas of the Pennsylvania Germans of that day showed in floral and religious designs. Other furnaces in other parts of the Colonies also supplied their share of this useful fireplace fixture. Iron was cheap and to cast a fireback after a wooden pattern had been cut was a simple process. In the new country, however, the use of firebacks was not general; only the more prosperous among the Colonists had them.