Fireplaces were essential in Early American homes, providing heat, light, and a hearth for cooking, as well as a family gathering place. In Colonial America, they were usually wide, deep “walk-ins” without much of a mantel. Those in the homes of Dutch settlers were often wider than tall, while the English settlers built them to be smaller and less spacious.
By the 1700’s, homes commonly featured chimneys, though not everyone was convinced of their virtues. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “The upright heat flies directly up the Chimny. Thus Five Sixth at least of the Heat (and consequently of the Fewel) is wasted, and contributes nothing towards warming the Room.”
Benjamin Franklin thought that chimney back drafts were causing illnesses. He said, “Woman particularly from this Cause (as they sit much in the House) get Colds in the Head.” Ben went on to develop alternative fireplace designs, including the Franklin stove. Despite hi best efforts, however, the fireplace and its chimney were firmly entrenched in American architecture.
In the mid-Atlantic and northern states, central chimneys served fires in two or more rooms on several floors, to maximize the amount of heat a house retained, while homes in the south used fireplaces at the far ends of the houses to reduce heat buildup.
Until the 1800’s, fireplaces were purely practical affairs. Heading into the mid-1800’s, however, they became the focal points if the main living areas, with carved mantels and other decorative elements.
In English homes, plain or bead-edged paneling usually surrounded fireplaces from the floor to the ceiling. Dutch homes hung curtains above the fireplace. Some homes using blue and white Delftware tiles or the book-matched paneling on either side of the fireplace. The Federal and Greek Revival-style mantels featured swag, star, or shell accents. The mantles and hearths of many historic Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia were made from King of Prussia marble, quarried in nearby King of Prussia.
In the early 1800’s, size and shape changed the emergence of the “Rumford Fireplace.” Sir Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford, designed a smaller, shallower affair that was taller than is was wide, with sharply angled sides sloping into a narrow chimney. It threw more heat back into the room, exhausted smoke more efficiently and eliminated back drafts. This is the construction design used in most modern masonry fireplaces today.
After the Industrial Revolution, more and more fireplaces featured cast iron arched surrounds with decorative embellishments.
The decorative elements of fireplaces became increasingly ornate with the addition of overmantels, as well as columns and glazed tiles. In the early 1900’s, design aesthetics reverted to a more rustic and natural style when the “back-to-nature” effort fueled the Arts and Crafts movement. Today, although practically anything goes, fireplaces remain the sentimental hubs of American homes.