Fireplace History

We've always loved an open flame

Human beings have used fireplaces for heat and security since before the beginning of recorded history. This is not surprising, since it has been said that the discovery of fire is second only in importance to the discovery of language – and fireplaces are a simple, effective and convenient way to control and contain a fire within the comfort of your home, whether it is a cave or a mansion.

The earliest fireplaces were made up of some stones, and potentially a hole in the roof of the structure to allow smoke to vent skyward. You can imagine how effective such a system would be. Although very simple and low tech, such techniques yielded proportionate effectiveness, with a very inefficient burn, tremendous indoor air pollution, and dirt and ash everywhere.

For a long time, fireplaces were simply a necessity. People knew how they were built, it was done a certain way, and it just worked as well as could be expected. In the 18 th century, fireplaces began to become more than a simple necessity – they began to become the centerpiece of a home, an aesthetic as well as a practical fixture. In this time period, new materials and methods of construction and manufacturing were being discovered. Abraham Darby established new methods of smelting, making newer, stronger metals – thus, iron was discovered. Since iron is so large and heavy, it must be heated to very high temperatures and poured into a large mould or cast and allowed to harden - hence the name "cast-iron". Fireplaces made with this material were more resilient than the previous stone or plaster fireplaces, and they radiated heat more easily because of the metal's ability to absorb large amounts of heat energy without cracking or chipping.

Fireplaces really began to come into their own during the Victorian era. In this time period, visual appeal began to take on even more importance than before, which resulted in stonemasons, blacksmiths and other artisans and craftsmen honing their skills as artists just as much as builders, so that rather than simply building a practical, functional fireplace, they could create masterpieces of stone, wrought iron, wood, and more exotic materials. As housing itself changed, fireplaces did as well, with a variety of new styles of fireplace design techniques emerging. Improved chimneys reduced indoor air pollution and improved the level of safety and overall burn efficiency of fireplaces as well.

If you are familiar with antique wood stoves, you likely already know that Benjamin Franklin had a part to play in the development of the fireplace as we know it today as well. He found that most fireplaces lost a significant amount of heat through adjoining walls, which caused him to simply move the fireplace into the center of the room by building a freestanding firebox. This pot-bellied device came to be known as the Franklin stove, which was made of cast-iron. The heavy iron stored heat so that even as the fire died down, heat continued to radiate into the room. But here's an interesting tidbit – Benjamin Franklin didn't really create the most vital feature of the Franklin stove. In his original design, smoke was vented from the bottom, which left no way to draw in fresh combustion air. Noting this, a Philadelphia resident named David Rittenhouse added a pipe bent at 90 degrees to the back of the stove, directing the smoke up and out of a chimney – the stovepipe as we now know it, which gave the opportunity to draw in air through the bottom of the stove. Although this design was adopted in nearly all Franklin stoves immediately, the name "Rittenhouse stove" just didn't roll off of the tongue as fluidly.

So the one thing that shows through when looking back at wood-burning appliances throughout the ages is that although fireplaces and woodstoves have changed, human being have always loved the warmth and charm of a fire on the hearth. Although central heating can be more convenient, nothing beats the atmosphere provided by the crackle of burning wood and the flicker of dancing flames provided by a beautiful fireplace.

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