Before the fireplace became the focal point of many American homes, it was something necessary to survive. Many homes you walk into today still have a traditional fireplace and chimney inside, but how did fireplaces originate, and why do we use them the way we do? Keep reading to learn the complete history of fireplaces in America to see why fireplaces are still the centerpiece of homes today.
How the Fireplace Originated
Since humans have been living on the Earth, we have used fire to keep warm, cook food, heat water, and provide a place for the family to gather. Man-made firepits existed on all five continents. However, in the early ages, the fireplace was not a thing yet. People would build a firepit inside tents and huts, but there were no holes or vents to sweep irritating and toxic smoke out and away from shelters.
Eventually, people raised firepits off the ground and into hearths, but they still relied on open windows or a hole in the roof to vent out smoke. It wasn’t until the 11th or 12th century in Europe that we invented the chimney. Even so, many individuals and families did not use chimneys because they weren’t affordable to build or maintain.
How Fireplaces Looked in the 1600s & 1700s
In the 1600s and 1700s, fireplaces had large and deep openings, likely with no mantel. Some colonial homes even had central chimneys with multiple flues to heat more than one room. The chimney to fireplaces also rested outside the home’s exterior—meaning the entire structure was built and attached to the side of the house.
Then in 1796, Benjamin Thompson—also known as Count Rumford—invented the Rumford fireplaces. These fireplaces garnered interest, as they made the firebox taller and shallower and moved the chimney inside the home while still resting on an exterior wall. The Rumford fireplace gained popularity because it made building chimneys over smaller fireplaces easier. This is because having the structure outside the home forced homeowners to use more materials to slope their flue to connect with the chimney. Today, instead of seeing the chimney brick on the exterior of the home, you see only a portion of the chimney sticking out of roofs—all thanks to Benjamin Thompson.
The Aesthetic Movement of the 1800s
Up until the 1800s, people viewed fireplaces as purely functional and practical rather than something you could design to be aesthetically pleasing or an art piece within your home. Mantels rarely existed, and even the hearth was flushed to the wall. In essence, the fireplace had no design elements or features.
The movement to decorate your fireplace and make it the centerpiece of your home didn’t occur until the late 1800s. Then, however, families began to use decorative wood paneling, tile, and other accents to design fireplaces. Homeowners even started using other materials, such as granite and marble. This was the turning point for fireplaces in American history, as everyone started to see them as a heating source and one of a home’s main aesthetic elements.
A Shift in the 20th Century
Believe it or not, fireplaces became simpler in the 20th century. The cause for this was the back-to-nature movement. This movement advocated for using natural stone and other resources found in nature to modernize a fireplace. You can still find this today in many homes where the owner uses river rock or a stone found in their area for the surround on the hearth.
Also, around 1919, fireplaces stopped being the home’s primary heating source due to the invention of central heating systems. Therefore, rather than being a necessary component in a home, fireplaces drifted over to the category of home decor.
Fireplaces were still functional, and many people still used them for heating their homes, but central heating systems were increasing in popularity. This still shows today, as chimneys and fireplaces are more for adding dimension and design to a home than they are for heat.
The Rise of Faux and Prefabricated Fireplaces
To complete the American history of fireplaces, let’s take a look at faux and prefabricated fireplaces. If you were to walk into a friend’s home today, they might not have a traditional fireplace, but they might have another appliance that works similarly. This appliance might be a pellet stove or an electric or gas fireplace.
Today, some individuals steer clear of traditional fireplaces because they may be harmful to your health due to toxins the smoke can release. In some cases, homeowners also want an appliance that is more straightforward to clean and maintain. Pellet stoves and gas or electric fireplaces make owning this type of appliance easy on the homeowner. This is because they’re simple to clean yet give the same warmth and ambiance as their traditional counterpart.
Traditional Fireplaces Today
Regardless of the modern inventions of faux and prefabricated fireplaces, traditional fireplaces are still sought after because of their design and the aesthetic they give a home. Now, many of the design elements of traditional fireplaces include clean and simplistic designs. For example, a homeowner might make the mantel the central aspect of the fireplace by sourcing a natural piece of driftwood or using shiplap around the hearth. Instead of bulky stones and elaborate details, fireplaces are more modern, with only a few ornamentations to not overpower the simplistic design element.
Fireplaces have been around for a very long time, and we still use them today! Whether gas, electric, or traditional, fireplaces remain the centerpieces and often the gathering areas for families. Who doesn’t love cozying up to a crackling fire while friends and family share stories and crack jokes? So while fireplaces are no longer necessary for survival, they can still be essential elements that increase the value of a home.
Now that you know more about the American history of fireplaces, would you include a fireplace inside your home? If you want to get a fireplace or already have one, then you should also know the importance of regular maintenance. This is vital for a traditional fireplace because the fireplace can quickly become a fire hazard due to the build-up of by-products from multiple fires. Therefore, you should be cleaning your flue and chimney between fires to ensure no creosote or soot accumulates in large amounts. You should also consider hiring a chimney sweep company for annual cleanings. At Chimcare, our experienced team can ensure your home stays clean and safe with chimney sweep services. Contact us today for more information!