FIRE BACKS IN THE HEARTH

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.

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Source Ancesstral Head of New England Families, 1620 – 1700  

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About Sandie

Since I was a small child I have loved early fireplaces and the smell of smoke in an old house. However it was not until about Fifteen years ago that my journey into hearth cooking began. It all started at the Hurd House Museum in Woodbury Ct. I was the director of the Junior Docent program and among the programs each week we cooked. At about the same time a group of us started the Culinary Historians of Connecticut meeting once a month to discuss equipment used, receipt (18th century term for recipe), and anything between the late 1600 to late 1700 that had to do with hearth cooking. We were fortunate to try our hand at cooking at several Museums throughout Ct and many more private homes. We made cheese; we held a late 1600 dinner and shared our knowledge with others. Our group designrd our own tours such as the Kitchens of Old Wethersfield. In 2000 we were delighted to host the Historic Foodways group of ALFAM at the Hurd House during their conference at Mystic Seaport. We put together a great workshop of Puddings, Sausages, Brown Bread, Beverages you name it we offered it. I am now a member of the ALFAM foodways group. Then it was off to Colonial Williamsburg for the seminar The Art of 18th-Century Cooking: Farm to Hearth to Table. During the years I joined many workshops in Sturbridge Village plus their Dinner in a Country Village and breakfast at the Freeman Farm. So I was pretty much hooked on heart cooking and the 18th century way of life. I joined a wonderful group of ladies and we started the “Hive” a place to improve and grow your 18th century impression and offer research about material culture in 17070’s New England. We also travel with friends and have displays of clothing and teas at Museums in Massachusetts. Many events are held at the Hartwell Tavern at Minute Man National Park. They have been gracious enough to let us play there and entertain and share our knowledge with their visitors. Please visit our “Hive” site if the 1700 interest you. Then the move to New Hampshire and a job at Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth as the co-coordinator of the Junior Role Playing workshop and eventually cooking in front of the hearth at the Wheelwright house. Not only did I enjoy making my evening meals at the hearth to take home but also talking with the visitors. I am an entertainer after all, check out my program page. Most recently I am working at the Museum of Old York in Maine as an educator, hearth cook and organizer of the Junior Docent cooking program in the summer. See some photos in the archive file Because I do make food with the docents and serve food to the public at our Tavern Dinners I took the National Restaurant Association tests called ServSafe and now have my Certification as a Restaurant Manager. I look forward to the Museum of Old York opening again this March 2012 and getting back to the hearth and teaching, however for now I’m cooking at home and enjoying doing so.

2 thoughts on “FIRE BACKS IN THE HEARTH

  1. That really inspires me to try to find a design for a fireback that might have been used in our area in the mid 19th century. My Burritt cabin really needs one since some of the rocks have ‘cleaved’ from the back. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This was so interesting. And having a family relative to have had one. Wow what history. I just love the designs and now I know more about them. Thanks for this history lesson.

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