The Friendly Fireplace
( Originally Published 1919 )
Shut in from all the world without, We sat the clean-winged hearth about.
Do you know, I had n't the faintest idea what a "clean-winged hearth" really was until I had one myself? I have always loved "Snowbound," but I think it actually came alive to me first when I had the happiness of restoring an old fireplace, and ministering to its many needs: seeing that the old tongs and shovel and warming-pan were burnished and ranged in an honorable row; that the skimmers and ladles shone; that the foot-warmer was in place, and the great bronzed turkey-wing ready to sweep up the hearth; in fact, that all the paraphernalia, the gleaming symbols that reflected eighteenth-century farmhouse life, looked, as nearly as I-possibly' could contrive, as they must have looked in the days of their youth, more than a hundred years ago. And another fireside poem warms my imagination and makes me content; Thackeray's lovely rendering of Ronsard's lovelier sonnet:
Some winter night shut snugly in Beside the faggots in the hall, I think I see you sit and spin surroundcd by your maidens all.
Of course, by that time, the hearth no longer blazed in the centre of the hall, for that belonged to the Middle Ages, and Ronsard sang his lays in the sixteenth century. The next step was to replace this smoky central domestic altar by the wall-chimney with a projecting brick hood. We always think of old fireplaces as being so extremely large, but at first they were only moderate in size, and later be-came the enormous things that they were in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because their builders had the false notion that the larger the fire the greater the warmth in the room. It remained for the sensible later eighteenth century to discover that such fireplaces not only burned a great deal of wood, but that the cold air was thrust by the draught in great masses through the chimney, that fuel was becoming scarce, and that a smaller fireplace would not only be economical, but would throw the heat farther out into the room.
Look at the old fireplace in the "Paul Revere House," an excellent example of the ordinary hearth of most "middling" families in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with its accompanying pots and hooks and trammels, its wide spaces, its oven, and even, hanging there with attendant powder-horn and canteen, a musket that I am sure must resemble "the old Queen's arm that Gran'ther Young brought, back from Concord busted." Lucy Larcom, in her quaint, delightful, lavender-scented autobiography, "A New England Girlhood," paints one of these fireplaces so much more charmingly than I can hope to that I am quoting her words, "The fireplace was deep, and there was a `settle' in the chimney-corner, where three of its younger girls could sit together and toast our toes on the andirons (two Continental soldiers in full uniform, marching one after the other), while we looked up the chimney into a square of blue sky, and sometimes caught a snow-flake on our foreheads; or sometimes smirched our clean aprons (high-necked and long-sleeved ones, known as `tiers') against the swinging crane with its sooty pot-hooks and trammels." She goes on to praise the cooking done at such firesides: "Never was there anything better than my mother's firecake, and really when you think it over and begin to examine the many conveniences that our Colonial ancestors had, you will see that they were not at all badly off. Certainly no modern contrivance has bettered the slow, full, muicy method of roasting meat upon a spit.
My own century-later fireplace — the house was built in the late seventeen hundreds — is small in comparison with these huge affairs, but many of the devices have been retained: the crane, for instance, and the old brick oven. Isn't it interesting to think that this was a pre-visioning of our modern fireless cooker? The fire was made in the tipper oven, and then, when the bricks were thoroughly heated, the embers were raked down below, the pies and beans and Indian pudding slid into the oven by that long shovel-like "peel," and the iron door shut upon them. How sad that a stern husband and a defective furnace flue prevent me from cooking this way in the blessed year of nineteen hundred and eighteen, and so gratifying my antiquarian instincts! I am going back just a minute to this old "peel" or "slice," for it was so very important, you know, no bride's plenishing being complete without one. Ours we discovered buried in the cellar of a fraternity house nearby, and at first we were puzzled, till we remembered that this house had started life as a private dwelling, a local mansion even, for here Matthew Arnold was entertained on his well-known, disdainful trip through New England. At various places through Northern New Hampshire I have picked up my old utensils: from attics and garrets they have come, and that tall, three-legged pot was the first thing I ever bought at an auction, my "opening wedge." I shall never forget the auctioneer; he had such a good "line" as 'our boys at college say. Why I bid on it at all, I don't know, because certainly my theories of antique harmony were then in their infancy. It was a quick impulse, but it did seem so entrancing to buy anything for ten cents. He handed it over with a bow and the remark that it was "the latest thing in fireless cookers "; whereupon an old woman who was sorry for my youth and inexperience said, "Don't you believe him, child. It's to set in the coals and cook your vittles in." I have not made quite that use of it, but I do know that with the cover inverted it is the nicest thing in the world to hold a plate of toasted muffins, and keep them warm while we are having tea beside the fire.
The four andirons, one pair tall and slender, the middles short and squat, I bought at other auctions, and I am explaining the rather unusual fashion of two pairs at once. It saves me from using a fire-screen, and forms a fire-protection that I really prefer. All told, the two pairs of andirons and the shovel and tongs shown with them in the detailed group cost something under five dollars. I really am so very fond of this fireplace; so many people must have sat before its embers and enjoyed its warmth as I do; and, in the dusk of a winter twilight, it throws such an enchanting glow out on the snow that I can see the witches making their tea very comfort-ably indeed.
I am quite as proud of my Franklin fire-frame, although I am not so intimate with it. It is stately; I honor and revere it more; but nobody has ever dubbed it "the friendly fireplace," the name that the one in the dining-room goes by. Benjamin Franklin invented these stoves and fireplaces in 1742, but it is said that "Baron" Stiegel really perfected and harmonized their use to the ordinary dwelling. This frame was probably built in when the house was erected, and is not a later addition, as so frequently happens. How delighted we were, when, removing the huge soapstone stove that obscured its beauties, we saw revealed its columns and the delicate tracery of acanthus leaves must inside.
I am very proud of my andirons, too. My favorite munk-man brought them, and oh, my Collecting Friends, listen to my guiding words, and if you have n't a favorite junkman, get him at once. For he travels over the country, not by avocation as you do, but by the law of livelihood's stern necessity; he covers ten miles to your one; and he will go to places you would never dream of discovering. Of course, at first, until he is trained, he will bring in fearful rubbish — things that no self-respecting collector would have in the house; but, if you persevere, such treasures as these may be your reward. I can never cease to remember Mr. Plotkin's first appearance, smiling at the delight he was going to confer upon me, with a battered bird-cage in one hand, a quite modern, Hardware-store kettle in the other. I dashed his confident first illusions;" but he improved as time went on, and these gracious, graceful andirons are the result. "Steeple-tops" they are called, and the shovel and tongs match them. At an easy estimate they are worth seventy-five dollars, and, if you went to a very select shop, you might have to pay a hundred for them. The price I gave was twenty-five, so you can see my method pays. I need the little pointing jamb-hooks that go with them; I know where there is a pair, but the obdurate owner insists that he likes them quite as well as I do, even if he has n't any andirons to match, and warms himself must by a commonplace stove. Still, the true collector never despairs.
Some connoisseurs insist that andirons should be of wrought iron, bronze, or ormolu, giving as their reason that steel and brass require over-much polishing. All of which may be true; and certainly, when you consider all the brass and all the white paint that the Colonial housewife had to clean, you feel as if she had conscientiously laid out work for herself; but, somehow, when I have rubbed my andirons and polished my warming-pan until it shines like the harvest-moon, I know that I have burnished my own soul!
Can you see how my fire-frame is built quite out and forward? That throws the heat into the room as I have never known any other device to do, making warmth possible, even without the aid of a furnace, in the coldest weather. We proved this one dreadful never-to-be-forgotten night last winter, when the thermometer went lower than the Oldest Inhabitant ever remembered, went down and down and lingered in those, fearful forty-belows for a fortnight. And on the very coldest evening of all, when it was too late to send for a plumber or to go anywhere else, our ancient, loved furnace up and died on our hands, and we had to drag our beds down and sleep colonially in front of the fire, which answered beautifully, as long as we could remember not to go to sleep, and to pile and pile on the logs. Then we could keep warm, but to wake in the gray, frozen dawn to a blackened hearth ! I know now what Cotton Mather meant by "the long and strong bands of a New England winter" being laid upon him; I realize feelingly why feather-beds were in vogue. But this I know, too; that there is nothing more delightful to fall asleep by than this wavering, flickering, rosy light, which glows and wanes and glows again and transfigures everything that it touches.
Naturally, all this collecting luck has n't been mine. Observe, please, the wonderful set of "acorn-tops," — andirons, fender, jamb-hooks, shovel and tongs, — belonging to L . She found them in a little Vermont town must across the river from us, and even at the price she paid for them, they are an immense bargain, for such a complete set is almost. impossible to find nowadays. And a still better "antique-ing" tale concerns itself with that other elaborate set. My friend, the doctor, who discovered them, always speaks of them as his most fortunate gamble. Driving through the countryside at dusk, he stopped at a lonely farmhouse to ask the way; and the talk taking a collecting turn, the farmer said he had some old andirons up in the attic that had been there for years, and that he never wanted to use. Would the doctor give him two dollars for them? The doctor replied that he was too tired to move, but that he was willing to take a sporting chance, and pay what was asked, if the farmer would bring them out and he not be obliged to leave the carriage and climb the attic stairs. And the reward of his faith was this splendid set for which he has frequently been offered a hundred dollars.
But here is my climax of collector's luck. Some acquaintances of mine, digging in the cellar of an eighteenth-century country house, found a pair of old " Hessian " andirons, — you know how rare they are! — and discovered, by dint of questioning and search in family tradition, that a most patriotic great-great-grandmother had buried them in utter disdain at the time of the Revolution. There they had lain safely through more than a century, in perfect condition, except for a little rust.
If you haven't a "friendly fireplace," do get one! It will mean so much to you; so much more to your children. Beside my "clean-winged hearth" I have sat and worked and dreamed dreams, and found the inspiration to fulfill them. Best of all, it has taught me something of the valuable lesson of Colonial life.