Fireplace: A Brief History
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Fireplace: A Brief History

Never neglect your fireplaces; I have paid great attention to mine, and could burn you all out in a moment. Much of the cheerfulness of life depends upon it. Who could be miserable with that fire? What makes a fire so pleasant is, I think, that it is a live thing in a dead room.




Sydney Smith

With the invention of fire came, inescapably, the fireplace, which, in its earliest, crudest manifestations, was simply that: the place on which to make a fire. Outdoor fireplaces were (and remain), in their design, correspondingly simple — a pit perhaps, or a space encircled by rocks — something, in any case, that answers the first problem posed by fire: how to keep it from spreading. To make a fire indoors, however, confronts the user with a second problem, i.e., the emission of poisonous smoke. If man wished to utilize fire for a purpose other than cooking — namely, to warm himself in his place of habitation — it was necessary to find a means of ventilating the smoke that, if left to accumulate, would make his habitat, however well warmed, completely uninhabitable. For much of human domestic history, this meant building fires beside open air sources (cave openings, windows) — a solution that, aside from being an imperfect means of venting smoke, sharply reduced the heating efficiency of the fire itself (competing as it did with the constant intrusion of cold air). At last, in the twelfth century, man invented the chimney, adding, as it were, a second dimension to the fireplace schematic. No longer merely horizontal — that is, a hearth alone (which, at its crudest, might be a circle of stones) — the fireplace was now also vertical — a confine for the fire and a flue through which to vent the resulting smoke. Heating efficiency increased; smoke congestion decreased. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the fireplace ceased to be a passing, haphazardly constructed convenience; thereafter it became, domestically, a permanent architectural structure, a central domestic point — not merely a thing for warming and cooking but an ornament, a social center, and a domestic symbol.

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