Fire has been central to human existence since the dawn of mankind. Remember Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway? He was a FedEx employee who survived a plane crash and was stranded on an island in the South Pacific – forced to survive in the wilderness alone. After a few days wandering around and scrounging for food, he realized that fire was essential to his survival. Without any matches, he was forced to learn to rub sticks together. It was a painstakingly long process and he almost gave up, but eventually there was a spark, and then a flame. He was elated and celebrated with his only friend on the island – Wilson the soccer ball.
Fire is essential to life. It keeps us warm and cooks our food. The first fireplaces ever built, albeit antiquated, contained fire within areas where people lived for much-needed warmth and heat for cooking. They were necessary for survival, unlike the fireplaces we enjoy gathering around today.
Fireplaces have a long and storied history, starting many years ago…
Because the concept fireplaces hadn’t yet dawned on cave men, they dug fire pits in the middle of their dwellings. Smoke escaped through gaps in straw roofs (no fire hazard there!), or through a hole in the roof. Can you imagine the smoke people inhaled on a day-to-day basis? Even with hoods installed over fire pits, smoke still infiltrated homes. Sadly, it took thousands of years before people got starter.
1100s – 1500s
It wasn’t until two-story buildings were built that fire pits were replaced by fireplaces and moved to the outside wall, making it possible to put a fireplace on each level. At first, they were vented horizontally outside the home, but smoke naturally rises, so it continued to spill into rooms. It didn’t take long before the infamous chimney was invented, creating a draft to expel the smoke vertically.
1600s – 1700s
In approximately 1678, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who was a nephew of Charles I, invented the fireplace grate. It allowed air to reach the wood from underneath, significantly increasing airflow for better fires. He also crafted a baffle to control air and reduce smoke.
In Philadelphia in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin had a major hand in improving fireplace design (along with his side project – inventing electricity). He invented the Franklin Stove, which moved the fireplace back to the center of the room. Made of cast iron, it offered better ventilation and also radiated heat even after the fire was out. His design was further improved by another Philadelphian, David Ritterhouse, who added a stovepipe shaped like an L to vent air to the chimney. More advancements came later in the century when Count Rumford made a fireplace with a tall and shallow (less deep) firebox, sending more heat into the room and also providing a much route for smoke to escape.
There were many flaws with the first fireplaces, but the industrial revolution brought large-scale housing developments – and the standardization of fireplaces. Most fireplaces now consisted of two parts – the surround (mantelpiece and side supports), and an insert, which was usually constructed of cast iron. The Adam Brothers were noteworthy fireplace designers of the time, and they produced a fireplace that required less space and utilized better quality materials. During these years, people started to appreciate not only the functionality of fireplaces, but the ambiance they created.
With the introduction of central heat, fireplaces were relied upon less for heat. During the 1900s, they became more widely recognized as architectural element and design focal point. The idea of enjoying the ambiance of a fireplace was further made popular by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who had weekly radio addresses called “Fireside Chats.” They promoted cherished time spent relaxing around the fireplace with loved ones, versus the age-old attitude that fireplaces served only a functional purpose.
In the mid-1900s, Heatilator introduced the first factory-built fireplace system, eliminating the need for onsite masonry fireplace construction. Within a matter of years, factory-built fireplaces became all the rage, mainly because they were less expensive and easier to install. Then in the 1980s, Heat & Glo invented direct vent gas technology and revolutionized the industry by permitting safe fireplace installation virtually anywhere in the home.
Obviously our lives rarely require us to rub sticks together like Tom Hanks did, but fire continues to play an important role in our lives. We are drawn to fire’s comforting effects. It warms our bodies like nothing else can, while gently moving flames naturally relax and calm us.
There have never been more options for enjoying fires within the comfort of our homes as there are today. Fireplaces remain the top choice for many homeowners. And they are available in a wide range of fuels, designs, and materials that will enhance any architectural style. See for yourself here.