The Home Hearth in Art and Storytelling

In his book Home, Witold Rybczynski describes a typical European house:

Heating was primitive. Houses in the sixteenth century had a fireplace or cookstove only in the main room, and no heating in the rest of the house. In winter, this room with its heavy masonry walls and stone floor was extremely cold. Voluminous clothing, such as Jerome wore [in the famous etching [St Jerome In His Study] was not a requisite of fashion but a thermal necessity, and the old scholar’s hunched posture was an indication not only of piety but also of chilliness.

Home, Witold Rybczynski

This is the 1514 etching he’s talking about:

Albrecht Durer, St. Jerome in His Study (1514)

The mantled fireplace and chimney was first seen around the 11th century, but only saw wider use after the end of the Medieval period when houses were made more sturdily. They were terribly designed. The flues were massive, the hearths too deep. They filled rooms with smoke but heated them poorly. This situation continued into the 18th century. Those magnificent fireplaces you see in old castles were more ornamental than effective.

Germans invented much better stoves made out of glazed earthenware, and these caught on across Europe. Not quickly, though. It took 200 years (until the 1750s). Even though they did a much better job of heating, they were considered ugly to look at. This shows us how much prestige was attached to owning a majestic fireplace, no matter how useless it was at the job of heating.

It was around 1720 that builders worked out how to build a proper chimney that cut down on smoke and improved combustion. People also started sitting with screens behind them as they relaxed by the warmth of the fire. This cut down on drafts. Rooms were also made smaller. Winters were now more pleasant.

A major improvement to the fireplace and stove first occurred not in a home but in an almshouse kitchen, and typically it was the work of neither an architect nor a builder.

Home, Witold Rybczynski

Rybczynski goes on to explain the varied career and interesting life of Count Rumford, whose biography has since been detailed on the Internet. Count Rumford proposed some changes which now seem super obvious:

These [1795 changes] involved narrowing the throat of the chimney, making the fireplace opening much smaller, and angling the side walls to radiate more heat into the room. The result was not only less smoke, but an improvement in heating.

Unlike toilets and electric lighting, these modifications to the fireplace caught on very quickly, partly because people could modify existing fireplaces themselves. As evidence, check out Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which makes reference to a “Rumford”, meaning the new type of fire. Northanger Abbey was written only three years after Rumford invented the new kind of fireplace.

Northanger Abbey illustration by C.E. Brock (Vol. II, chap. VIII). Fireplace is part of the background.
Alfred Rankley - The Village School
Alfred Rankley – The Village School. The fireplace is so large that two children are sitting inside it, as if it’s a separate room.
Through The Fire by Hilda Boswell
Through The Fire by Hilda Boswell
Owl at Home by Arnold Lobel 1975
The Princess and the Goblin George MacDonald, art by Jessie Willcox Smith fire
The Princess and the Goblin George MacDonald, art by Jessie Willcox Smith
ill Barklem (1951 - 2017) British writer and illustrator Brambly Hedge
ill Barklem (1951 – 2017) British writer and illustrator of Brambly Hedge
by the South London illustrator Margaret Tarrant, 1888-1959. These were for the Girl Guides and Brownies 4
Edward Gorey decorating fireplace
Edward Gorey decorating fireplace
Lilian Westcott Hale (1880 - 1963) Alice 1925
Lilian Westcott Hale (1880 – 1963) Alice 1925
Walter Langley - Thoughts Far Away
Walter Langley – Thoughts Far Away
Baking-Bread-Date-unknown-Helen-Allingham-oil-painting
Baking Bread by Helen Allingham
Frank Weston Benson (1862 – 1951) Rainy Day, 1906
Frank Weston Benson (1862 – 1951) Rainy Day, 1906
by Eastman, The Boyhood of Abraham Lincoln
Frederick McCubbin (Australian, 1855 - 1917) Kitchen at the Old King Street Bakery 1884
Frederick McCubbin (Australian, 1855 – 1917) Kitchen at the Old King Street Bakery 1884
'The Library' by Marie-Louise Roosevelt Pierrepont, 1941
‘The Library’ by Marie-Louise Roosevelt Pierrepont, 1941
By Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862 - 1927)--Illust. f. The blue bird, a fairy play in six acts, Maurice Maeterlinck, 1920
By Frederick Cayley Robinson (1862 – 1927)–Illust. f. The blue bird, a fairy play in six acts, Maurice Maeterlinck, 1920
An Old-fashioned Girl by L.M. Alcott, illustrated by Eleanore Abbott ca.1926
An Old-fashioned Girl by L.M. Alcott, illustrated by Eleanore Abbott ca.1926
Norman Rockwell Shuffleton’s Barber Shop, 1950
N.C. Wyeth, The Duel, 1922
N.C. Wyeth, The Duel, 1922
The Fireside Cookbook by James Beard. Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen. Simon and Schuster, 1949
The Fireside Cookbook by James Beard. Illustrations by Alice and Martin Provensen. Simon and Schuster, 1949

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