The Fireplace and Its Mantel

The Federal mantel is simple, not a large profile.

Fall is here with its cold nights, damp days and, soon, whitewashed landscapes. These changes in the season send me dreaming of a warm fire in our fireplace. This daydream is vivid, with a glowing flame framed out by mosaic tile and topped by a nice mantel decorated for the season.

So, where and when did this come to be - not the daydream or the fire but the mantel and all its potential for decorative glory? The present day fireplace mantel is actually a modern invention.

Today‘s fireplace - less of a necessity and more of a decorative opportunity - is far from its medieval roots. The 5th century brought fire into the home. The primitive medieval one-room home was centered on an open fire pit with no fancy tile work. The smoke would funnel out of the room through a hole in the roof. There were few concerns about beauty and more about utilitarian needs.

The 13th century gave way to a fireplace that was positioned on the outer wall. Unlike a central open fire with no flue, this era’s fireplaces had a flue that allowed a chimney to usher the smoke out of the home. The smoke was guided to the flue by an overmantel or hood-like structure. Fireplaces were still utilitarian with large, wide and inefficient openings and an overmantel that served no decorative purpose, as there was little to no surface to display objects.

Even in the late 17th and early 18th century, a fireplace was utilitarian, used for heating personal space and cooking. The openings of fireplaces were not only larger than contemporary fireplace openings but also typically flush with the surrounding. At the end of the 18th century, the Englishman Benjamin Thompson transformed the design of fireplaces.

Thompson shortened the interior of the firebox, narrowed the opening and brought the height of the opening up. This allowed the draft to be more efficient while the heat moved out into the room. We can thank Thompson for all our favorite memories in front of our fireplaces, staying warmer on cool damp fall nights, and the mantel. Yes, another surface to decorate for each season!

The 19th century brought changes in urban households that influenced fireplace placement and design. Kitchens became separate rooms with stoves to cook on. Fireplaces were in other rooms to heat the home. Whether the fireplace was coal burning or wood burning, the surround became elaborate and the mantel was deeper.  All the better to decorate! Workshops crafted clock sets, porcelain factories created fabulous vases and silversmiths worked beautiful objects into mantel decorations.

Today’s fireplace is still a focal point but no longer utilitarian. Many of us do not have fireplaces. For those of us that do, we are living with the past with mantel styles ranging from gingerbread Victorian to simpler traditional mantels. Some of us may have fireboxes inserted in walls or hanging from the ceiling.

No matter the style of your fireplace, that fire pit has history. Look at your fireplace with a new-found respect and view it as another way to celebrate the seasons.

Mitchell Sotka

Mitchell Sotka

The Eponymous Antique Shop Owner

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Volume 3, Issue 5, Posted 3:45 PM, 11.05.2015