Many different fireplace tools are used when it comes to building and maintaining fires in home fireplaces and each one of these tools has a different story to be told as to how they came to appear on your fireplace hearth. This history will deal with the andiron, bellows, pokers and fireplace screens. Also included with fireplace tools are shovels, tongs, brushes but it is rather hard to determine how and when these particular tools began to be used.
To begin our discussion let’s start with the definition of tool. This is a device that provides a mechanical advantage in accomplishing a physical task. Archeology has determined that man was using various tools from the beginning of our existence. A tool can be as simple as a stick used to poke at something to reach and move it.
With that in mind let us start our exploration of the history of fireplace tools with the poker. A poker, also known as a stoker, is a short, rigid rod, used to move the burning material in a fire. Today’s fireplace pokers are usually made of metal with a point at one end for pushing burning material and a handle at the other end. Archeology shows that we have used pokers as a fireplace tool since the Paleolithic period. This period is the prehistoric era noted for the development of the first stone tools. It covers the period from 2.5 or 2.6 million years ago until around 10,000 BC with the introduction of agriculture. It represents the greatest portion of human time on Earth (about 99% of human history). Archeologist think that fireplace pokers were invented right after the discovery of fire (790,000 years ago) and the earliest pokers were most likely of the same material as the fuel for the fire – that is wood. At the beginning the fireplace poker, or “firestick” was probably a large branch of some type used to help keep the fire going.
Down through the ages this fireplace tool has evolved and, as other tools were used, the fireplace poker has gone in and out of favor. Up to the 17th century in England you might find only a fire fork and andirons 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 production of pokers as a part of an entire fireplace set was designed and manufactured in Cape Girardeau, Missouri by the RL Hendrickson Manufacturing Corporation in 1898. From that time until now the poker is almost always considered a part of the assemble of fireplace tools.
“By fire-irons…the housekeeper and the ironmonger understand a fire-shovel, poker and pair of tongs. These implements were not all of them found upon the ancient hearths of this country; nor were they all necessary when wood was burned upon a fire-place…The use of pit coal, and of close fire-places, let to the adoption of the poker now in universal requisition.” Robert Hunt, A Treatise on the Progressive Improvement and Present State of the Manufactures in Metal, 1853.
An andiron is a horizontal bar upon which logs are laid for burning in an open fireplace. Andirons usually come in pairs. They hold up the firewood so that a draft of air can pass around it and allow proper burning and less smoke. Andirons stand on short legs and are usually connected with an upright guard.
As man began to study fire and its properties in earnest it was discovered that allowing the circulation of air around the fire led to better fires. Because of this discovery andirons became more and more popular. In the 16th to 18th century AD they were also used as a rest for a roasting spit or to hold porridge.
Before the 14th century andirons were almost always forged from wrought iron and were very plain. During the period of the Italian Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries AD) many ordinary objects of the household came to the attention of artists and design and skill were used to product andirons. The andiron reached its most artistic development under Louis XIV of France (late 1600s). The guard (the upright portion of the andiron) was elaborately ornamented. Patterns consisted of heraldic symbols, sphinxes, grotesque animals, mythological creatures and much more.
Sometimes andirons were referred to by the creature they portrayed. One example of this that continues to this day is firedog. Andirons that portrayed dogs were called firedogs. This plays on the dual meaning of the word dog (canine and inanimate holder). In some areas firedog began to be used to refer to any andiron. In the United States andiron was once used only in the North and dog iron, firedog or just dog was used to identify andirons in the South. The Southern term is still used in that region but andiron is now used everywhere.
“Fire-lighting, however simple, is an operation requiring some skill; a fire is readily made by laying a few cinders at the bottom in open order; over this a few pieces of paper, and over that again eight or ten pieces of dry wood; over the wood, a course of moderate-sized pieces of coal, taking care to leave hollow spaces between for air at the centre; and taking care to lay the whole well back in the grate, so that the smoke may go up the chimney, and not into the room. This done, fire the paper with a match from below, and, if properly laid, it will soon burn up; the stream of flame from the wood and paper soon communicating to the coals and cinders, provided there is plenty of air at the centre.” Isabella Beeton, Book of Household Management, 1861.
The bellow 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 in through an inward opening value and contracts to expel the air through a nozzle.
The bellow was used extensively in medieval Europe (5th to 16th century). It was used to speed combustion for a blacksmith and later to operate pipe organs. 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 fixed between handles to expand and contract. The inlet and outlet vents are provided with values so that air must enter through the first and leave through the second. Thus the fireplace bellows becomes a simple air pump.
When we think of fireplaces we usually think of these simple bellows. But bellows have had a major role in history. Metal smelting was not possible until after the invention of the bellows which made the fore possible. Bellows deliver additional air to fuel and raise the rate of heat output which is needed for smelting. Around 3000 BC hand operated bellows were used for metal smelting (bronze). The first evidence of iron smelting is around 930 BC.
Though early man did not need to get their heating and cooking fires up to the temperatures needed for smelting they did discover that fireplace bellows made fire building easier. Stoking kindling with a bellow produces a hotter flame and logs start much quicker. This is especially important when you are working with wet logs. Also, fireplace bellows were used early on to create an airstream to blow ashes out of the fireplace when cleaning.
Today fireplace bellows are still a necessary tool on the fireplace hearth. It is also a tool that many people like to design and make on their own. Many bellows are made out of beautiful wood and can have very intricate designs creating an elegant object on display by the fire.
Though there is no exact date for when fireplace screens came into use we do know that they were first a form of furniture that shielded individuals from any excess heat that was coming from a log burning fireplace. Early fireplace screens usually were shaped as flat panels standing on attached feet, or as adjustable shield-shaped panels mounted on tripod table legs.
Today’s fireplace screens come in many decorative designs and are made out of metal, glass or wire mesh and are placed in front of the fireplace to protect the room from flying 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 one of those fireplace tools and centuries of use has gone into perfecting 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 that gather are the fireplace hearth.