In cold climates, like in Northern Europe and North America, fire was often the primary source of warmth. Control of fire and the ability to bring it inside one's dwelling was paramount to survival.
However, having fire indoors was also incredibly dangerous. Though the City of London banned wooden chimneys in 1419, buildings continued to be constructed of wood until after the Great Fire in 1666.
Winterthur Museum contains 59 fireplaces, some of which are merely facades. Of those, 11 have Delft tile surrounds of British or Dutch origin. To maintain consistency with the pieces in the collection, this post will focus primarily on the history of British and Dutch fireplaces in Europe and colonial North America.
Though they were born out of utilitarian necessity, fireplaces came to symbolize comfort, often showing off the wealth and taste of homeowners.
Roman Britain: Central Heating
Writing around 7 B.C., Greek-born Roman philosopher Strabo writes in his Geography of Britain: it is "the home of men who are complete savages and lead a miserable existence because of the cold" (II.5.8). Indeed the gray climate of Britain must have been a shock to Roman soldiers from the southern reaches of the empire. After conquering parts of the island by 47 A.D. after nearly a century of attempt, Roman architects and engineers built hypocausts. A type of underfloor heating, a hypocaust from old Londinium's Billingsgate Bath House can be found under a modern office building (below). The basic principle consists of an elevated floor under which hot air is blown from a furnace. As this was labor-intensive to maintain, large villas and bath houses most commonly employed hypocausts.
The "dark ages"
When the Romans left Britain around 410 A.D., seemingly modern conveniences like central heating went with them, not to be seen again until the 1850s. In the new cultural movement, germanic tribes like the Anglo-Saxons built structures with large, great halls heated by a central hearth, à la Beowulf or scenes from the TV show Vikings (a guilty pleasure). The smoke was moderately successfully drawn through an open hole in ceiling. Presumably these spaces were dark and smoky and one can only imagine the problems that rain or snow would cause. These central hearths were used for cooking as well as warmth.
Origins of Proper Ventilation
In the middle ages, around 1200, Norman fireplaces, with proto- and actual chimneys represented a significant improvement on open air central hearths. The "Norman fireplace" from the Tower of London is a rare surviving example of this type.
This Norman fireplace probably had a hood, made of wood and cloth over it to direct smoke up the flue and outside. The fireplace at the Tower of London is carved directly into the thick stone wall. This design is similar to a "jambless" (without jambs, or sides) fireplace which was commonly used by the Dutch both in Europe and in the early American colonies. These more often employed chimneys, as the walls of colonial houses generally were not 10 feet deep.
A Variety of Uses: inglenook
The "inglenook" fireplace was the next innovation. An archetypal specimen can be seen in daily use at Hampton Court Palace. Built in the early 1500s, this stone and brick fireplace is the epitome of a utilitarian Tudor fireplace. The fireplace is recessed into the wall, creating a chamber in which to cook. A chimney vastly improved working conditions and smoke was no longer as much of an issue. In an added bonus, spices, salt, and other foods that were susceptible to mold and moisture could be kept in the inglenook fireplace to keep them dry. This was especially useful in the humid climate of England.
in the rest of the Home
Though their main purpose still was to provide heat, fireplaces in public areas of the home were generally more decorative. Tiled fireplaces did not come into prominence until the 1650s, but they remained popular in North America through the early 1800s. Early fireplaces incorporated Dutch tiles with hand-painted scenes, flowers, and sea monsters. When English transfer-print tiles blazed onto the scene in the 1750s, the cheaper tiles were all the rage in the new world. Tiled fireplaces, rather than those with ostentatious marble, gave the middle class a cost-effective way to display their wealth and taste.
Changing fashions in the late Georgian era compelled homeowners to replace their tiled fireplaces with marble surrounds and long wooden mantles to display collectibles. Though tiles remain in fireplaces in some historic homes, the vast majority of them were either covered with a different material like marble, or removed.
Tiles made a brief comeback in the Victorian and Art Nouveau periods, but many of these surrounds were removed in the following decades. A notable exception is this neo-Gothic fireplace in Cardiff Castle (below), which is impressive, if anything.
The invention of radiators by Franz San Galli in 1855 made fireplaces mainly decorative in middle and upper class homes by the turn of the century. Even though they are no longer needed to provide heat, many modern houses still have fireplaces (even if they are electric).
Thanks for checking back! Be sure to check Twitter for updates under #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday. Tune in next week as I discuss how tiles were once mounted in fireplaces (preview below).
For more information see:
Henry J. Kauffman, 1972. The American Fireplace: Chimneys, Mantelpieces, Fireplaces & Accessories. New York: Thomas Nelson Inc.
Trudy West, 1976. The Fireplace in the Home. North Pomfret, Vermont: David & Charles.
Photos by author unless otherwise stated.
Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation