Once again we look away from the colonial table to see items in the kitchen. Most times the largest thing in the room is the fireplace. The first fireplaces developed when medieval houses and castles were equipped with chimneys to carry away smoke. Having a fireplace going every day, day in and day out, produces a lot of heat in a room; this heat can break down the bricks and even stones in the back of the fireplace. Many fireplaces had fire backs to help protect the brick or stone from the heat and were capable of absorbing and re-radiating heat into the room.
Chambers’ Cyclopedia (1753) defines a fire back: “a large plate of cast iron, frequently adorned with figures in low relievo, serving not only to preserve the stone work of the chimney back, but also to reflect the heat of the fire forwards.”
In the book, Iron and Brass Implements of the English House, author Seymour Lindsay writes: “The chief drawback to the early wall down-hearth was the destruction of the back wall of the hearth opening caused by the fire. So great was the damage in larger fireplaces, that the back wall had to be refaced from time to time. This difficulty was overcome with the introduction of cast iron, which lead to the production of large thick plates of sufficient strength to resist the heat. These “fire plates” or “fire backs” are still to be found in great variety throughout the country.”
Fire backs came into existence around the 15th Century. This was the beginning of the days of cast iron foundries. They were decorated with simple designs which came from molds used to make making butter, bisket, or wafer, even rope was used as a design. As the new age of iron progressed, so did the designs. Wood was carved in coats of arms and pictorial designs with religious themes. The mold would then be placed in the damp sand to make a design for the casting. Later fire back designs were allegorical subjects, scenes of nature and mythology. This is a simplified explanation for casting and as far as I will delve into that subject.
The fire back below, and the pair of andirons, were made in the 16th Century and came from a manor house in England. It now lives in a wonderful early home in Massachusetts. This English sand-cast fire back has a tombstone shape with molded edges, and facing unicorns with shield between the large crowns in the arch. The size is a whopping 31″ w X 31”h.
In front of the fire back is a pair of figural sand-cast andirons that are 33″ tall. They date to the mid-to- late 16thCentury, European, Gothic arched base, with a raised full-length figures on an upright shaft and additional Gothic raised decoration with flat cap.
The reason fire backs and iron fireplace equipment is interesting to me is that my husband’s many, many great grandfather, John Tarbox of Lynn, Massachusetts, owned and operated an iron works there.[i] He came to Lynn in 1638.
It was between 1644 and 1647; a group of British investors and the Massachusetts government supported the efforts to build two iron works, one in Lynn and one in Braintree. The iron works in Lynn was called “Hammersmith” and it was largely self-sufficient in producing finished goods. It was on the Saugus River below a dam. The waterwheel operated a blast furnace, forge, and a rolling and slitting mill. It was here that the blacksmiths purchased iron and forged it into a range of tools, as well as household items, like fire backs.
In the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, there is a fire back that was made at Hammersmith in 1660. The initials on it are for John and Alice Pickering.
During the seven-year war, General James Wolfe, a British Army officer, was known for his training reforms, however, he is remembered chiefly for his victory over the French in Canada. He fought in the battle on the Plains of Abraham, in Quebec. In his honor, fire backs were made in his memory with his likeness on it.
Here we have a fire back, with the words Crecorio Degan Boa, five hearts and a head of armor. I’m not sure what this one means or who it is depicting. I just love the hearts on it.
I will be doing more on fire place irons as they are a big part of the cooking process around the colonial table.
Source Ancesstral Head of New England Families, 1620 – 1700