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History of Fireplace Tools
Many different fireplace tools are used when it comes to building and maintaining fires in home fireplaces, and each of these tools has a different story of how they came to be on the hearth of your fireplace. This story will deal with the iron, the bellows, the poker and the fireplace. Shovels, tongs, brushes are also included along with fireplace tools, but it is rather difficult to determine how and when these particular tools came into use.
To begin our discussion, let’s start with the definition of the tool. This is a device that provides a mechanical advantage in completing a physical task. Archeology has determined that man has been using various tools since the beginning of our existence. A tool can be as simple as a stick used to poke something in order to reach and move it.
With that in mind, let’s begin exploring the history of poker fireplace tools. A poker, also known as a stoker, is a short, stiff rod, used to move burning material around a fire. Today’s fireplace pokers are usually made of metal with a spike on one end to push the burning material and a handle on the other end. Archeology shows that we have been using the poker as a fireplace tool since the Paleolithic period. This period is the prehistoric age marked by the development of the first stone tools. It covers the period from 2.5 or 2.6 million years ago to about 10,000 BC. with the introduction of agriculture. It represents the majority of human time on Earth (about 99% of human history). Archaeologists believe that fireplace pokers were invented soon after the discovery of fire (790,000 years ago) and the first pokers were probably made of the same material as the fuel for the fire – namely wood. Originally the fireplace poker, or “firestick” was probably a large branch of some type used to hold the fire.
Over the centuries, this fireplace tool has evolved and as other tools have been used, the fireplace poker has gone out of favor. Until the 17th century in England you could only find a fire fork and men for the fireplace, but by the 19th century a fireplace poker was always used and the fire fork had almost disappeared.
The first successful mass-produced poker as part of an entire fireplace set was designed and manufactured in Cape Girardeau, Missouri by the RL Hendrickson Manufacturing Corporation in 1898. Since then the poker has almost always been considered part of the fireplace tools assembly.
“By fire irons…the housekeeper and ironmonger understand a spade, poker, and tongs. These implements were not all found in the ancient hearths of this country, nor were they all necessary when wood was burned. upon a hearth…The use of coal pit, and closed fireplaces, left the adoption of poker now a universal imperative.” Robert Hunt, A Treatise on the Progressive Improvement and Present State of the Manufactures in Metal, 1853.
The andiron is a horizontal bar on which logs are placed for burning in an open fireplace. Andirons usually come in pairs. They hold the firewood so that a current of air can pass around it and allow for proper combustion and less smoke. Andirons stand on short legs and are usually attached to an upright guard.
As man began to seriously study fire and its properties, it was discovered that circulating air around the fire led to better fires. Because of this discovery, andirons became more and more popular. In the 16th to 18th centuries AD they were also used as rests for roasting spits or to hold porridge.
Before the 14th century, androids were almost always made of wrought iron and were very simple. During the Italian Renaissance (14th to 17th century AD) many ordinary household objects came to the attention of artists and design and craftsmanship were used to produce ironwork. The andiron reached its most artistic development under Louis XIV of France (late 1600s). The guard (the upright part of the statue) was elaborately decorated. The motifs consisted of heraldic symbols, sphinxes, grotesque animals, mythological creatures and more.
Sometimes men were referred to by the creature they depicted. An example of this that continues to this day is firedog. Andirons depicting dogs were called firedogs. This plays on the double meaning of the word dog (canine and inanimate owner). In some areas firedog came to be used to refer to any iron man. In the United States the iron man was once only used in the North and the iron dog, firedog, or simply dog was used to identify men in the South. The southern term is still used in this area, but andrite is now used everywhere.
“The lighting of a fire, simple as it is, is an operation requiring some skill; a fire is easily made by placing some ashes at the bottom in an open row; above this a few pieces of paper, and again eight or ten pieces of dry wood, above of the wood, a number of medium-sized pieces of coal, taking care to leave spaces between them for air in the center, and taking care to place the whole well back on the grate, so that the smoke may go up the chimney, and not into the room. So shoot the paper with a match from below, and, if properly placed, it will soon burn; the stream of flame from the wood and paper will soon communicate with the coals and ashes, provided there is plenty of air in the centre.’ Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management, 1861.
A bellows is a mechanical device for creating a jet of air. It usually consists of a hinged box with flexible sides, which expands to draw air through an inward opening and contracts to expel air through a nozzle.
The bellows was used extensively in medieval Europe (5th to 16th centuries). It was used to accelerate combustion for a blacksmith and later to operate pipe instruments. One of the simplest and most familiar types of bellows is the manual one used with fireplaces. The expandable chamber consists of a leather bag with pleated sides. The bag is attached between the handles to expand and contract. The inlet and outlet holes are fitted with values so that air enters through the first and leaves through the second. So the fireplace blower becomes a simple air pump.
When we think of fireplaces we usually think of these simple bellows. But the bellows played an important role in the story. Metal smelting was not possible until after the invention of the blowtorch which made the spotlight possible. Blowers provide additional air to the fuel and increase the rate of heat generation required for melting. Around 3000 BC handmade bellows were used to melt metals (bronze). The first evidence of iron smelting is around 930 BC.
Although early man did not need to get heating and cooking fires up to the temperatures required for melting, they discovered that fireplace bellows made it easier to build a fire. Bellows ignition produces a hotter flame and logs start much faster. This is especially important when working with wet logs. Also, fireplace blowers were used early on to create a current of air to blow ash from the fireplace during cleaning.
Today fireplace blowers are still an essential tool on the hearth. It is also a tool that many people like to design and build themselves. Many bellows are made of beautiful wood and can have very intricate designs creating an elegant object to display by the fire.
Although there is no exact date as to when fireplace screens came into use, we do know that they were first a form of furniture to protect people from any excess heat coming from a log burning fireplace. Early mantel screens were usually configured as flat panels standing on attached legs or as adjustable shield-shaped panels mounted on tripod table legs.
Today’s fireplace screens come in many decorative designs and are made of metal, glass or wire mesh and are placed in front of the fireplace to protect the room from floating embers that may come from the fire. Sometimes they are used to cover the fireplace when not in use to make the area more decorative.
Whatever fireplace tool you use to help you build and maintain your fire, know that there is a long history behind each of these fireplace tools and centuries of use have perfected the tool in your hand. And remember that in modern society fire has evolved from providing necessary heat and cooking to a symbol of warmth and love shared by all who gather around the hearth of the fireplace.
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