"The History Of The Fire Hearth"

The origin of humankind’s relationship with fire is shrouded and lost in the mists of time but we do know man has harnessed the energy of fire for millennium. The earliest archaeological evidence, although scant and controversial consists of little more than traces of fire reddened soil and rock sediments found alongside charcoal deposits dates the use of fire in one form or another at over a million years ago. Moving forward in time with the evolutionary emergence of Homo erectus, whom predates our true ancestors Homo sapiens, million year old stone tools have been found along side ash deposits in the Swartkrans Cave in South Africa. Whilst in China further archaeological finds show evidence of the building of rudimentary fire hearths of clay, silt and limestone which dates the  harnessing  of fire at over half a million years ago. Archaeological finds in Tel-Aviv show the regular use of fire by our ancestors several hundred thousand years ago.

The history of the fire hearthThe fire hearths of our ancestors’ bares little resemblance to the fire places of today consisting of little more than a scraped out fire bowl in the middle of the living space  allowing  the maximum number of people to benefit from the generated heat and light. In the absence of a chimney there was no escape for the smoke other than through gaps in the roof or walls. As a consequence these early dwellings either as extensions to caves or free standing buildings constructed from bent over twigs, hurdles, animal skins, stones, or grasses were smoked filled spaces with the earliest of fire hearths the focal point . It is not a giant leap of the anthropological imagination to understand how these primitive fire pits take on a far greater evolutionary, social and cultural significance than merely being a source of warmth. They  provided  the hub and heart of the social arena where our ancestors would have sheltered, ate, drank, slept, laughed, loved, fought, made future plans and faced disappointments big and small bonded together as a social groups and larger communities unified by the warmth, glow and seemingly magical properties of the fire and  the fire hearth.

The fire hearth not only provided an important form of heat and defence from wild animals allowing primitive humankind to extend their territory geographically into the hinterlands and chronologically into the night. The harnessing of fire and the development of the fire hearth has played a significant part in the expansion of diet through the cooking and softening of food allowing the more efficient digestion of proteins and complex carbohydrates, helped alleviate the vagrancies of food poisoning and allowed the preservation of food stuffs aiding populations to grow and humankind to physiologically develop and thrive. From the earliest of times the fire hearth has had a major impact on the social and cultural advancement of humankind.  It has proved instrumental in bringing social groups together forming early communities and acted as a catalyst to our forefathers ability to communicate, supported the development of language and helped foster human co-operation. With little separation of the boundaries between daily life and religion for primitive man the fire in its hearth would have literally been the heart of the home and family and symbolically represented the spirit of life itself. The development of the fire hearth is a landmark in the evolutionary development of humankind and must rank if not the most, then one of the most, important innovations in the history of human development.

The history of the fire hearthTo understand the true significance of the fire hearth to our ancient ancestors we need look little further than the lives of our parents, grandparents and our own lives today. The fireplace is more than a source of heat it forms the focal point of a room and home providing the axis point of the social and domestic life within the home.

The introduction of the modern fireplace could not take place until the emergence of the chimney. Although the exact origins of the chimney are unknown the historical evidence shows that within Europe chimneys were becoming popular amongst the wealthy from the fourteenth century onwards. The chimney has proved itself overtime having changed little in concept or design.  The introduction of the chimney provided the technological advancement to enable the further development of the fireplace and hearth. The function of the chimney not only removes the smoke from the room but provides a means to control the downdraft, the draw, the burn rate and increases the amount of radiant heat cast back into the living space. The chimney moved the fire from the centre or corner of the room to the wall and revolutionised the design of houses and how they were used. Ceilings could be lowered, the upper spaces were no longer smoke filled and a place where to preserve meats in the dank smoke and additional floors could be added.

Prince Rupert, a nephew of Charles I, lifted the grate of the fireplace from the floor improving the air flow and venting of the grate. The truly Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin, the inventor of electricity,  founding father of the United States of America, politician, author, printer, statesman and diplomat played a major role in the improvement of the fireplace. He noted five sixths of the heat and consequently the fuel disappeared directly up the chimney contributing nothing to the heating of the room.  In a self published paper Franklin presented six designs of fires where cold air was drawn in and warmed air circulated back into the room via a series of flues and baffles set within a cast iron firebox and surround. He had in effect constructed a convection chamber and went further to highlight the way chimneys could be modified to increase the heat output of the fire making the fire a more efficient way of heating a home.  It is said Franklin’s fire designs created four times the heat for half the fuel and lay the foundation stone for the development of modern fires whether it be an open fire, wood or multi fuel stove. Count Rumford, Benjamin Thompson, developed the fireplace further by making it shallower and taller. He also further restricted the flow of air through the chimney to accelerate the expulsion of gases and increase the radiant heat cast from the fire back into the room. The combination of the innovations of Franklin and Thompson mark the birth of the modern fireplace as an efficient and effective source of heat.

The history of the fire hearth

The advancements in chimney design when coupled with the later innovations of Franklin and Thompson associated with the dramatic increase of radiant heat output from the fire helped    development of lavish mantels and fire surrounds.  The heat output of the fire was no longer reliant upon its size.  As already mentioned the chimney made it possible to reposition the fireplace from the centre or corner of the room to the wall whilst the increase in radiant heat meant the space beyond the immediate front of the fire would be heated. The fireplace was moving beyond its purely functional role of providing heat to become a grandiose and ornate focal point of a room reflecting the personality, wealth, power and lifestyle of the owner.  This sort of conspicuous spending and open display of power and wealth, initially confined to the rich and powerful with examples freely seen in baronial halls and castles are traditionally constructed and carved from stone, marble or wood.   The work of Franklin and Thompson made it affordable for the masses to install efficient, small fireplaces as a means to heat and decorate their homes.

The population growth and increasing urbanisation associated with the Industrial Revolution gave rise for the necessity of a standardised fireplace. The most renowned manufactures of the time the Adam Brothers, a name which still remains synonymous with a particular style of fire surround design today,  emphasised the quality of the products used in the construction of the fire surround and mantel  moving further away from the more utilitarian designs which preceded them. By the 1800s the design of the fireplace is not dissimilar to the contemporary designs of today, integrating the two key elements of the surround, the mantel and its two supporting side pieces. The third component is the insert where the fire is set. This  type of design enabled fires to fulfil the dual function of being both decorative and provided an efficient means to heat a home The surround is traditionally made from wood, marble or stone and the insert cast in iron with the later Victorian addition of tiles and elaborate and intricate carvings. The Edwardian fireplace although at times  retaining the cast iron insert are often  characterised by their use of wood or marble  for  the surround with a marble insert. Edwardian architecture moved away from the very ornate style of the Victorian era for simpler straight line designs which is reflected in their fire place designs. The Edwardian period also witnessed an increase in the rise of the incorporated over-mantle, where the fire surround and over-mantle are constructed as one piece and designed to accommodate a picture or mirror.   Moving forward to the modernism of  the 1920’s to 1930s fireplaces underwent  a radical change in appearance where glazed coloured tiles were introduced and used to decorate the hearth,  fire surround and mantle where elaborate designs heavily influenced by  the art nouveau movement became increasingly popular. The cast iron inserts were slowly being replaced with firebrick and back boilers were introduced, where hot water hearted via the fire was stored in an upstairs tank facilitating the introduction of the upstairs bathroom.

The history of the fire hearth

Today, the design of the fireplace has travelled both of the roads trodden and signposted by our forefathers.  Down the one road with the advent of gas fired central heating systems one destination is an ornamental fireplace burning, ethanol gel or sidestepping the combustion process entirely where the illusion of flames is authentically created via clever electrical lighting and ignited with the flick of a switch. If we follow the other road we arrive at super efficient fires and stoves be they fuelled by gas, oil, wood or solid fuel and if required capable of running central heating systems and heating our homes effectively and efficiently.  Which ever route we choose we end the journey at a shared destination, one of solace, shared collectiveness and the need to express our individuality in our homes by fulfilling arguably the longest and basic primeval needs of family, friends, home, and hearth.


By Phil Cleaver


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