A brief history of the fireplace

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Katerina Bulovska
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For thousands of years, mankind has used fire to provide heat, cook, and stay warm in a cold weather. Ancient fire pits were the first form of what we know today as a fireplace. They were usually built in the center of a hut which had a hole in the roof to allow smoke to exit.

In ancient Rome, people used the Hypocaust heating system, which produced and circulated hot air through pipes installed under the floor and in the walls of a building, preventing the pollution of the inside space with smoke. They also used containers for a fire that could be transported from one room to another. Although these technologies are similar in concept to heating methods used in the modern age, with the fall of the Roman Empire, these techniques were forgotten.

Hypocaust under the floor in a Roman villa in Vieux-la-Romaine, near Caen, France. Photo Credit

 

Cooking over a fireplace. Photo Credit

The next innovation happened with the advent of two-story buildings. The fireplace was moved to an outside wall because people were wary of building a fireplace in the center of a wood floor on the second story. In northern Europe during the Middle Ages, the chimney was invented; this was probably the most important innovation in fireplace technology.

Marble fireplace in the green dining room of Catherine Palace. Neoclassical decor by Charles Cameron, 1779. Photo Credit

In the following centuries, most fireplace changes were decorative in nature. Particularly grand fireplaces were becoming a tourist attraction. It took approximately 500 years for the next technological fireplace innovation. In 1741, founding father of the United States Benjamin Franklin invented the Franklin stove. He made the stove of cast iron that continued to radiate heat even after the fire was out. It was free-standing and usually placed in the center of the room. Franklin lengthened the path that the hot air traveled and his stove was able to radiate twice the heat using a quarter of the fuel.

A Franklin stove

In 1796 Count Rumford designed tall, shallow fireboxes that reflected heat more efficiently, and the streamlined neck allowed the smoke to exit more easily. His design is a basis for the modern fireplace. During the 18th and 19th centuries, enclosed wood-burning stoves largely replaced the fireplace in Scandinavia, America, and Europe, but were not very popular in Britain.

In the beginning of the Victorian Era, marble fireplaces were more ornate with overmantels, columns, and floral designs, while in the late Victorian period the style became more simple and geometric. In the Art Noveau movement, the design of the fireplace was with more floral and plant motifs, with flowing curvilinear forms. Between 1900 and 1920 fireplaces were made of cast iron and became taller and slimmer with simpler decorations.

Victorian style sitting room with a fireplace in the Sherlock Holmes Museum, London

In the mid-1800s in the United States, the Industrial age saw more households burn coal instead of wood. Fireplaces were typically made of cast iron and decorated in the Rococo Revival style. In the early 20th century, the design of fireplaces became more simple. Relating to the aesthetic of a simpler way of life promoted by President Theodore Roosevelt, many people started building fireplaces of river rock or stone in rustic style.

Modern open fireplace Photo Credit

With the introduction of central heat in the 1950s, the fireplace became more of an ornament than a necessary heating device. But from the 1980s, homeowners began seeking other ways to get the most heat for the least money and pollution, and began using pellet appliances and wood burning stoves. Although nowadays, the fireplace is partly a focal point of design, whether simple or extremely decorated, it is still one of the most desired elements in a home.