A Brief History of Fireplaces in Historic Homes

historic home fireplace

How the Humble Hearth Became an Integral Aspect of Historic Home Design

In the past, fireplaces were a necessity, serving as the main source of heat and being heavily relied on for cooking and baking. Today, fireplaces are primarily decorative, but still offer welcome warmth that brings people together.

Although a rather simple concept, fireplaces have a rich history. The first fireplaces weren’t exactly the mantle-clad features we know now, but instead, dug out holes. When humans began to construct more permanent forms of shelter, they built these fire pits inside their huts or tents and allowed the smoke to escape through a hole cut for ventilation.

It wasn’t until two-story buildings became more prevalent in the 11th century that fireplaces replaced fire pits. This shifted fire’s traditionally central location to the outside wall, making it possible to include a fireplace on each level and leading to the development of the chimney, to vertically expel smoke.

With this invention, fireplaces took on a more familiar look, but they still had a long way to go before they were perfected. Keep reading to learn more about the evolution of fireplaces in historic homes.

Historic Home Fireplaces in the 1600s and 1700s

Historic home fireplaces during this time period were otherwise known as walk-ins, typically wider than they were tall and particularly deep in nature. This made it easy for residents to cook multiple pots of food simultaneously.

Benjamin Franklin played a major role in improving fireplaces in historic home design in the late 1700s and was responsible for inventing the Franklin Stove. This moved the fireplace back to the center of the room, where the cast iron structure offered better ventilation and retained heat even after the fire had gone out. David Ritterhouse refined the design even further by adding an L-shaped stovepipe that vented air to the chimney.

Other historic home fireplace advancements can be credited to Benjamin Thompson, also called Count Rumford. He created a firebox that was taller and shallower than older styles and featured sharply angled covings on either side. This forced more heat into a room and provided a more efficient route for exhausting smoke and air. Ultimately, it’s his model that has become the blueprint for the open fireplaces we have today.

1800s Historic Home Fireplaces

With the Industrial Revolution came more large-scale housing developments that standardized fireplaces in historic homes. Fireplaces generally consisted of both a cast-iron insert and surround, which usually had a mantlepiece and side supports.

As Victorian historic home design grew in popularity, fireplaces exhibited more ornate features, including elaborate overmantels and decorative tilework on the legs of the surround. Lozenge-shaped tiles adorned the surroundings in later years. It was during this time that homeowners began to appreciate their fireplaces for aesthetic appeal – not just their practicality.

Historic Home Fireplaces in the 1900s

Fireplaces were simplified in the early 20th century as the Arts and Crafts movement encouraged more nature-inspired elements in historic home design. Because there was an emphasis on basic forms and organic materials, surrounds were commonly finished with clinker brick, which was laid horizontally, vertically, or even in a herringbone pattern. More refined surrounds were trimmed with stone or scenic art tiles.

When central heat was introduced, historic home fireplaces were less relied on for heat, but became a striking design focal point. President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted fireplaces as spots to gather with loved ones through his radio addresses known as “The Fireside Chats.” These evening broadcasts contributed to the notion that these features served more than a functional purpose.

Today’s Historic Home Fireplaces

The progression of technology has now given us more fireplace choices than ever, including wood-burning, gas, and even electric fireplaces. Still, a historic home fireplace is something truly special.

If you’re lucky enough to own one, it’s possible the years have done some damage. To continue enjoying its comforting ambience, you need fireplace restoration from an experienced professional. Unlike general home remodeling contractors, historic home specialists understand the nuances and care necessary to return your fireplace to its former glory.

A general contractor likely won’t have expansive knowledge of period-appropriate historic home design to achieve a look that fits in seamlessly with the rest of your property. With the help of an expert, your fireplace can become a dazzling centerpiece that showcases the classic beauty of your home.

For more information about fireplace restoration, reach out to a local company specializing in historic home design.