Fireplace Series 1: History of Fireplaces and Mantels

February 28, 2011

Now that the Holidays are over and the Valentine’s decor is packed away, it is time for my fireplace to get a revamp for Spring.  Because fireplaces can be such a challenge for homeowners to design and style, I am dedicating this ENTIRE week to the topic of Fireplaces.  Now is your chance to chime in and/or ask questions about your fireplace dilemmas.

Before we can begin discussing modern day fireplaces, let’s take a step back to find out how they originated. I think it’s helpful to understand the origin of certain aspects of design to give you the “know-how” on ways to create a cohesive and beautiful look.

Have you ever wondered how the fireplace became the center of today’s homes? For centuries, open fireplaces and fire pits were the sole purpose of providing heat and for cooking food.  Here’s a shocker…the man that discovered electricity, Benjamin Franklin, also played a major role in the improvement of fireplaces by creating a more efficient fireplace chamber and improved the air flow through the development of proper ventilation.  Then in the later 18th century, Count Rumford, further revolutionized the fireplace by developing a tall, shallow firebox that drew the smoke out, leaving more heat in the home. This major development was the groundwork for today’s modern fireplace.

The idea of sitting around and enjoying the fireplace ambience, was made popular by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his “fireside chats”.  These weekly radio addresses about his political views and the state of the country, took place during family time while relaxing by the fire.  This revolutionized the idea of getting enjoyment from the fireplace versus it being only for a functional purpose.

How did the fireplace mantel originate? In the 12th century, the placement of the fireplace moved from being located in the center of the room/home to the wall.  This change of design, allowed the opportunity to create lavish and ornate chimney surrounds and mantels.  Mostly only seen in castles and homes of the wealthy during this period of time, these intricately carved surrounds were created using wood and stone.  Then ‘styling’ of fireplaces began in the 18th century when it was customary to hang a framed family portrait above the fireplace mantel.

Though many fireplaces of today are still used as a heat source for the home, they also serve as the focal point of a space to increase the ‘grandeur’.   Fireplaces showcase a wide range of designs, styles, finishes, and materials, and can be as plain or detailed as desired.  Adding elements that complement the period of the home often enhance the architectural style that a homeowner is trying to achieve.  The mantel design and display offers the opportunity to showcase family pictures, momentos, and accessories that create a personalized, unique look.

I hope you’ve enjoyed a bit of history about the development of fireplaces.   Check back every day this week for more ideas and inspiration on designing and styling fireplaces.

This is the 1st post of the Fireplace Series, click to read the other post(s):
Fireplace Series 2: The Fireplace and Television don’t have to be Frememies
Fireplace Series 3: Wordless Wednesday ~ AMAZING Fireplaces
Fireplace Series 4: Give your Fireplace a Makeover
Fireplace Series 5: Mantels, Mantels, and More MANTELS

Images Courtesy of Winnowings, A.G. Thomson House, Colonial Furniture, Mercer Museum, Wikipedia, Lew French


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