Fireplaces And Mantelpieces
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IT is a far cry from the fireplaces of early times to those of the present, when elaborate fittings make them architecturally notable. We read that in the Middle Ages, the fire in the banquet hall was laid on the floor in the center of the large apartment, the smoke from the blazing logs, as it curled slowly upward, escaping through a hole cut in the ceiling. Later, during the Renaissance period, the fire was laid close to the wall, the space set apart for it framed with masonry jambs that supported a mantel shelf. A projecting hood of stone or brick carried the smoke away, and the jambs were useful, inasmuch as they protected the fire from draughts. From this time, the evolution of the fireplace might be said to date, improvement in its arrangement being worked out gradually, until to-day it is numbered among the home's most attractive features. It is interesting to note, in reference to these latter-day specimens, that many of them are similar in design to those of the Renaissance, Louis Sixteenth, and colonial periods.
Not a few of the early fireplaces were of the inglenook type, a fad that has been revived and is much in evidence in modern dwellings ; and many of them followed certain periods, such as the Queen Anne style and the Elizabethan design. Several, too, were topped with mantels, features practical as well as ornamental, which are almost always associated with the fireplaces of to-day. Many of the old mantels were very narrow, prohibiting ornamentation with pottery or small bits of bric-a-brac ; they were so built, because the designers of early times considered them sufficiently decorative in themselves without any additional embellishment, and their sturdiness and architectural regularity seem to justify this opinion. Mantels and fireplaces of early Renaissance type show in detail an elegance that is characteristic of all the work of that period, the Italian designers being masters in their line.
In the baronial halls of Merrie England, we find huge fireplaces, wide enough to hold the Yule log, around which, after the chase, the followers gathered to drink deep of the wassail bowl. Such pictures must have lingered long in the minds of the colonists in their new surroundings, and to us they are suggestive of the Squire in "Old Christmas," who, seated in his great armchair, close by the fire, contentedly smoked his pipe and gazed into the heart of the flickering flames, filled with the joy of his ancestral possessions.
Life with the early colonists was a stern reality. The climate here was far more rigorous than that of the motherland, and a home and a warm fire were the two necessities first demanded. Logs from the near-by forest afforded the former, while rocks taken from the clearings supplied the latter. The fireplaces of those days were perhaps the largest ever built in any land, some ten feet or more in depth, and broad enough to hold the logs which were stacked just outside the cabin door. The rude stones which formed the fireplace were piled wall fashion, the largest at the bottom and the smallest on top, the chinks between made strong by daubings of clay. Later, the builders gave a more finished effect to this feature, and the hearths were then extended many feet into the single large apartment, while on either side were placed rude, home-made benches with high backs, to shield the inmates from the cold felt outside the circle of the fire's warmth.
At the rear of the fireplace was arranged a huge backlog, to afford protection to the stones, and also to throw the heat into the room. This was often of unseasoned timber, that it might last the longer, two feet in diameter, and eight feet or more in length. Firedogs were used to hold the smaller logs, while creepers were employed for the smallest of all, and to start the fire, small pine boughs and small timbers were heaped high, flint and tinder serving to ignite them. Once started, the fire was kept in-definitely, being carefully covered at night or piled with peat ; above the blaze swung the soot-blackened crane, with its various pots and kettles. Such was the early colonial kitchen, the fireplace its dominant feature, the light from its glowing logs throwing into relief the sanded floor, bare, unplastered walls, and the rafters overhead. With the coming of prosperity, these rude log huts gave way to timber houses, two stories in height, and with their advent the better type of colonial fireplaces came into vogue.
Dating as far back as the earliest fireplaces are found fire sets, as they were sometimes called, comprising the hearth accessories necessary for an open fire. The oldest of these sets, which were in use long before coal was burned as fuel, consisted usually of a pair of andirons, a long-handled fire shovel, and a pair of tongs. In some cases more than one set of andirons was included, for in the great, cavernous fireplaces of the colonists' log cabins, the high supports used for the heavy forestick and logs were not suitable for the smaller wood, and creepers had to be set between the large andirons to hold the short sticks in place. Bellows were often found beside the fireplace in those times, but the poker was rarely if ever included in fire sets, previous to the introduction of coal as a fuel.
In material and design these fire sets, particularly the andirons, differed widely. Iron, steel, copper, and brass were the metals most commonly used for their construction, although in other countries even silver was occasionally made into fire irons. As for design, they ranged from the very simplest and most unpretentious styles up through the quaint dogs' heads to the grotesque figures and elaborately wrought pieces to be found among good collections of antique hearth accessories.
Andirons for kitchen use were as a rule very plain and substantial. Sometimes they were merely straight pieces supported by short legs and having uprights of either plain or twisted metal, topped by small knots of some sort. They were probably most commonly made of iron, and not a few were rudely hammered and shaped on the pioneer black-smith's anvil. It is consequently little to be wondered at that many of the andirons once used in colonial kitchens give one the impression of having been designed for strength and utility rather than for ornament.
The better class of andirons in use during the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth centuries were for the most part of graceful, but, at the same time, simple and dignified designs. The finest ones were of brass, which was kept brightly polished by the energetic housekeeper. Short knobs or uprights were often placed a few inches back of the main uprights and served the double purpose of holding the forestick in place and of protecting the shining brass. Occasionally andirons were made in rights and lefts with the shanks curving outward from the short knobs where they joined the straight, horizontal supports.
Among other popular andiron designs of this period were the twisted flame, the urn topped, the queer iron and brass dogs with claw feet, the colonial baluster, and the steeple topped. Of these, the steeple-topped andirons were perhaps the rarest, while the colonial baluster pattern with ball tops was, without doubt, the most popular and commonly used.
A good example of the style of andirons which came into favor during the latter half of the eighteenth century is found in the Hessian design. They take their name from the fact that the up-right of each iron is cast in the form of a Hessian soldier, posed as if in the act of marching. Since this particular pattern first made its appearance immediately after the close of the American Revolution, it is not difficult to comprehend its significance, for it is a well-known fact that the patriotic colonists heartily hated the hired allies in the employ of King George of England who had fought against them. This humbling of the Hessian to service among the flames and ashes, although only in effigy, seemed to afford the Americans a great deal of satisfaction, if the great popularity of these andirons stood for anything.
Probably no finer collection of colonial hearths is to be found anywhere than in Salem. The Derby Street mansions even now show wonderful bits of the skill which has made Salem a name synonymous of the best in the architectural world. McIntyre designed many of these, following in some cases the style of the decorator, Adams. Many of the mantels show a wonderful harmony of contour, capped by a simple shelf, for the most part unadorned. One such is seen in the Gove house on Lynde Street, its straight, simple lines affording dignity and grace that are most attractive. The decoration is the head of Washington, fixing the period of its construction about the time of the Revolution.
Other popular decorations were the eagle, which came into favor at the same period as the Washing-ton decoration, baskets of flowers, wonderfully delicate in their carving, garlands, and many such designs, in all of which McIntyre shows a versatility that, considering the limitations of his day, is truly remarkable.
While many of the mantels were of wood, some few were of marble. Two such of special interest are to be found, one in the Thomas Sanders's house on Chestnut Street, and the other in Hon. David M. Little's residence on the same thoroughfare. The former shows an exquisite design, supported on either side by caryatids, gracefully carved ; and the latter, of the same period, is practically of the same design. A third marble mantel is found in the home of the Salem Club, formerly the residence of Captain Joseph Peabody. This mantel is of Florentine marble and was imported by the captain in 1819. It is particularly, beautiful in its finish, and has served as an inspiration for many similar mantels to be found in New England.
Belonging to the early type is the quaint fire-place found in the hallway of the Robinson house on Chestnut Street. This apartment was formerly the kitchen, and the fireplace in its original condition was discovered in the process of remodeling. Upon investigation, it was found to be a composite of three separate fireplaces, built one within the other, and culminating outwardly in a small grate and when opened, it showed portions of the old pothooks. It was restored to its original aspect, appearing to-day as it was first constructed, its narrow mantel adorned with rare bits of pewter.
In what was formerly the home of Mrs. Nathaniel B. Mansfield in Salem, is a curious mantel, which was first owned by Mr. Fabens. It is one of the rarest bits of McIntyre's work, decorated with his best wrought and finest planned carving. Another fine mantel is in the home of Hon. George von L. Meyer at Hamilton, Massachusetts. This is as historic as it is beautiful, and was part of the original equipment of the Crowninshield house in Boston.
Many of the later style fireplaces, more especially of the better class, showed firebacks. These were of iron, and were designed to keep the back of the fireplace from cracking. Some of these old fire-backs had flowers for ornamentation, while others showed decoration in the form of family coats-ofarms. In the Pickering house on Broad Street, Salem, is a quaint fireback which was made in the first iron foundry at Saugus, now Lynn. This has on the back the initials of the then owners of the dwelling, John and Alice Pickering, inscribed as follows, " J. A. P. 1660." This same Alice Pickering was very fond of dress, and an old record of 1650 tells that she wore to church a silken hood. For this offense she was reprimanded and brought before the church, but was allowed to go when it was learned that she was worth two hundred pounds.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, fireplaces had come to be considered of great decorative importance, and in an account written in 1750 Isaac Ware says of them : "With us no article in a well-furnished room is more essential. The eye immediately falls upon it on entering the room, and the place for sitting down is naturally near it. By this means it becomes the most prominent thing in the furnishing of the room."
The popularity of the fireplace was somewhat checked in 1745 through the invention of the Franklin stove, which immediately came into favor. These stoves were constructed of iron, with trimmings of rosettes and railing and knobs of varying size ; in appearance they were very similar to the small, open fireplace with andirons for burning logs. As heat producers, however, they were a decided improvement over the old-time hearth, which in many cases smoked abominably, and sent much of the heat up the chimney instead of into the room. The new stoves proved economical, and there was but little waste of heat through the pipes connecting them with the chimneys.
In the dining room of Harriet Prescott Spofford's house at Newburyport is one of these stoves, before which Whittier delighted to sit during his frequent visits to this old home. It is a fine specimen of its kind, and as interesting in its way as the quaint room which it graces. For many years this dwelling served as an inn, kept by one Ebenezer Pear-son, being one of the favorite resorts for pleasure parties, and in the old-time dining room much brilliant parrying of wit took place, as distinguished visitors amiably chatted over their teacups.
Later in the eighteenth century, another form of heating came into vogue. This was the fire frame, which appeared about thirty years after the invention of the Franklin stove, and in type was something of a compromise between the open fireplace and the stove, possessing certain characteristics of each. It was so arranged that it could be used in a fireplace that had either been filled in with brick, or finished with a fireboard, and in appearance was very similar to the upper part of a Franklin stove. Unlike the stove, however, it rested directly upon the fireplace hearth, instead of being raised from the floor.
When coal first came into use, a Salem man saw it burn, and so impressed was he with its worth that he told Dr. George Perkins of Lynde Street about it. The doctor immediately ordered a barrel of the fuel to be brought down in a baggage wagon from Boston, and he also ordered a new-fangled stove of the hob grate order. The trial took place in the living-room of his home, and the neighbors gathered to watch it burn. So great was the success of the venture that a load of coal was ordered, and it landed at the North River wharf, where the water was then so deep that vessels could easily come to pier there.. The cargo consisted of from one hundred and sixty to one hundred and seventy tons, considered an enormous load at the time.
The first coal burned in a stove was in Wilkes barre, Pennsylvania, where Judge Jesse Fell, in the main room of the old tavern, in February, 1808, started the first coal fire. Previous to that time coal had been burned in open forges, under a heavy draught, by a few blacksmiths, but it had never been adapted for household purposes, and the discovery that it could be used changed it from a use-less thing to something of great value.
In 1812 Colonel George Shoemaker discovered coal in the Susquehanna Valley, and he took twelve tons of it to Philadelphia to sell. He disposed of two tons, but was compelled to give the rest away, as people considered him a fraud, proving that the use of coal was not general at this period.
The hob grate came into use in 1750, a few years after the advent of the Franklin stove, and it proved especially valuable for the burning of coal, when that Product became popular. At first it was known as "Cat Stone," but later was called hob grate, by which name it is known at the present time.
Fenders of brass or iron were generally used with these grates, a small one placed close to the fire to prevent the ashes from falling over the hearth, and a larger one arranged around the entire fireplace. Although hob grates were popular in Northern houses, they were much more frequently used in the South.
Tiles were little used in America until the hob grate era, when they seem to have come into vogue. They were used to surround both hob grates and Franklin stoves. Some of them showed decorations of religious subjects, while others, like a set in a Salem house, told in pictures the story of Asop's Fables.. There is a tiled fireplace still in existence in the Saltonstall-Howe house at Haverhill, Massachusetts, a dwelling originally owned by Dr. Saltonstall, the first medical practitioner in the city. This fireplace, in the dining-room, shows a double row of tiles, depicting a series of Scriptural events, and it is equipped with a fender of ancient hammered brass, a family heirloom. The date of the fireplace can be definitely determined without knowledge of the time of the erection of the house from the fact of the absence of a mantel above. Another similar fireplace adorned with quaint Dutch tiles is shown in the Pickering house living-room. Like the Saltonstall one, this fireplace has a beautiful, ancient fender of brass and a pair of bellows that were made by Rev. Theophilus Pickering, a preacher in Essex, Massachusetts, who succeeded the Rev. John Wise.
The first hob grate ever placed in a Salem home is to be seen in the Waters house on Washington Square. It is topped with one of McIntyre's famous mantels, showing that the original fireplace was brought down to be used with the grate.
Elias Hasket Derby, one of Salem's most famous merchants, had a beautiful estate where Market Square now stands. The house, which was a marvel of elegance, stood in the center of the square, surrounded with terraced gardens that swept to the water's edge. After his death the house was too large and elegant to be kept up, and it was torn down and the land sold. The timbers of the house, the wood carving, and mantels were purchased by Salem house owners, one hob grate finding its way to the old Henry K. Oliver house on Federal Street. This dwelling, which was built in 1802 by Captain Samuel Cook for his daughter, who married Mr. Oliver, shows old-time fireplaces in many rooms, one of brass being found in the parlor. This was the first of its kind ever placed in a Salem home, and it has a grate, on either side of which are brass pillars about three feet in height, with brass balls on top. A brass band extends from pillar to pillar below the grate, and the fender is also of brass. The mantel above is elegantly carved, and came from the Elias Hasket Derby mansion.
A soapstone fireplace with grate is shown in the General Stephen Abbot house on Federal Street, where General Abbot, who served under Washington, entertained the latter during his visit to Salem. Behind this fireplace is a secret closet, large enough to conceal three men, where, during troublous times, slaves were hidden.
With the advent of the furnace, many beautiful fireplaces were closed up, or taken away to be replaced by modern ones that lacked in every respect the dignity and grace of the colonial specimens. Happily this state of affairs was of short duration, and today the fireplace in all its original charm is a feature of many homes. To be sure, it is now a luxury rather than a necessity, but it is a luxury that is enjoyed not only by the wealthy classes, but by those in moderate circumstances as well, who appreciate the great decorative advantages of this feature. Surely there is nothing more homelike than the warm glow of blazing logs, and it is a delight to sit before the sputtering flames, and enjoy the warmth and glow, as did our ancestors in the long ago.