In cooler parts of the world, such as our own Eugene, Oregon during winter and fall, fireplaces are frequently used as heating sources in many homes. However, fireplaces in recent times have become more design and architectural focused than they have in the past. Before electricity and central heating in homes, fireplaces were essential to survival and the core appliance used for cooking and heating. As part of our chimney sweep history series, the Oregon Chimney Guys are here to share with you a little history about the evolution of the fireplace.
Prehistoric Fire Pits
The oldest known hearth is over 300,000 years old and is considered “the first-ever fireplace.” There is evidence that man-made fire existed in all five inhabited continents during prehistoric times. Primitive fire pits were built in caves or other dwellings and were used for cooking, warmth and protection from wild animals. The problem with prehistoric fireplaces was that, within confined spaces, they produced irritating and even toxic smoke. Ventilation systems were non-existent at the time unless the fire was outside.
Romans Era Heating System
Ancient Romans had a very innovative system for underfloor heating, called a hypocaust system. Homes and public buildings like bathhouses used this system. The floor was raised, allowing heat from a frequently attended furnace to flow under the building, warming the tiles above. Walls were hollowed and contained flues that pumped the heat throughout rooms as well. Romans also had knowledge of chimneys which they used for baking. Braziers — containers that held fire and hot coals — could be moved from room to room and were similar to today’s space heaters. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the hypocaust system was forgotten and replaced by open fires again. Central heating didn’t make a comeback until the 1900s.
Most medieval great halls and homes had a central hearth with an open fire. The smoke exited through a vent in the roof. Louvers, or vents with slanted shutters, were invented during the Middle Ages which allowed smoke to escape and rain and snow not to get in. Smoke canopies were also used to gather the smoke and vent it out through a wall or roof, similar to a chimney. Sometimes for smaller spaces, these were placed against a wall instead of in the middle of the room.
Fireplaces With Chimneys
Around the 12th century, with multi-story homes and buildings on the rise, a new heating system was desperately needed. Central open hearths were replaced with fireplaces that were built into the wall and chimneys were added to expel smoke and to make it possible to add fireplaces onto each floor. The fireplace didn’t evolve much more until 1678 when Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I of England, invented the fireplace grate which allowed better airflow to the wood and therefore a better-fueled fire.
A shortage of timber forced people, especially those in bigger cities, to start using coal instead of wood for their fireplaces. Coal burning fireplaces consequently created an increase in jobs for chimney sweeps and climbing boys, as we discussed in October’s blog. Regular chimney sweeps became a necessity due to the large amount of soot buildup from the burning coal. Later, they were made mandatory in London because the harmful fumes were a safety hazard.
The Franklin Stove
Around the 1720s, free-standing cast iron stoves quickly gained popularity in the US. In the 1740s, Benjamin Franklin designed his own version. This wood burning stove had an inverted siphon which allowed fumes to be drawn out of the chimney. It also surpassed all other wood burning stoves or fireplaces in terms of efficiency, producing twice as much heat while using a fraction of the fuel.
Besides many variations in design and architecture, fireplaces pretty much kept the same concepts over the years. In the 1900s, central heating was introduced to the masses and fireplaces became less relied on for heat and more for aesthetic purposes. The electric fireplace became popular in the 1950s. They mimic wood, coal burning or gas fireplaces and simply need to be plugged into the wall like a space heater. The first “realistic” wood-burning flame effect for electric fireplaces was created in 1995. Although electric fireplaces are portable and require no chimney (and therefore no sweeping or chimney repair), electric fireplaces are far less efficient than traditional fireplaces and wood stoves.
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