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   The Skinny on Fireplaces
 
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It would be safe to say that fireplaces rank near the top of prehistoric man's first household furnishings, beating out seating arrangements, doors and, most certainly, windows. Since its humble beginnings as a circle of stones the fireplace has provided heat and security, and even light, since before the birth of recorded history.


The fireplace as we know it, however, took a few eons to evolve from this open entity to the contained unit that it is presently. As well, the elimination of smoke has come a long way since the dirty fumes crept along the ceiling of the cave and out the entrance or sought an opening in the top of the teepee. Such fire units were susceptible to drafts and caused tremendous indoor air pollution, not to mention the dirty soot and ashes that stained the inside walls and ceiling. In essence, fireplaces were a basic necessity after shelter, food and water. The basic sizes and styles of a fire unit were as varied as its comforts and drawbacks.

It wasn't until the 18th century that fireplaces joined with furniture and windows as focal points of design. Updated construction methods and new materials allowed for greater efficiency and cleaner operation. As well, the introduction of cast-iron fireboxes allowed a greater area to be heated for the amount of fuel burned and, in many practical instances, the new fire units migrated from a stone or brick hole in the kitchen wall to a central location in the house.

American patriot Benjamin Franklin also had a hand in the development of the fireplace. Since most fireplaces lost a large amount of heat up the chimney and through walls he designed a firebox built from cast iron and placed into the center of the room. This rounded enclosure was aptly called "the Franklin stove" and unlike fireplaces this new invention continued to provide heat to the room even as the fire died down. The main drawback to his stove was that the smoke had to be exhausted from the bottom thereby limiting the incoming airflow for burning.

It was a Philadelphia native named David Rittenhouse who solved this problem. He simply bent a pipe at the back of the stove to 90 degrees, thereby leading the smoke up and out the chimney, a design that became the standard for over a hundred years. However, this Pennsylvania man became just a footnote because Ben was famous.

During the Victorian era, the appeal of the fireplace took off with the emergence of a new generation of blacksmiths, stone masons and other artisans who worked around the practical applications of the with style and designs. And as the basic dwelling, itself, transformed with the advent of greater architectural designs these skilled trades people produced a variety of new forms of fireboxes coupled with the more efficient elimination of smoke.

With the advent of the 20th Century both the traditional fireplace and Franklin-style stoves in urban centers were pushed out by more efficient coal stoves and boiler-driven central heating. However, in rural areas wood was still the mainstay and many houses had two or three small pot-bellied stoves for heating. With these satellite heating units the country homes were designed to close off colder areas of the house with doors. The kitchen cooking stove became the focal point and, when indoor plumbing came of age, a vent in the ceiling kept the upstairs bathroom pipes from freezing. But the traditional fireplace, with its chimney open to the sky, faded away from mainstream housing.

In the decade following World War II, after oil and gas furnaces usurped coal as the mainstay of heating, the fireplace re-emerged as the aesthetic addition it had once been in the late 1800's. Many new designs and materials had emerged which aided heating efficiency and the age-old problem of drafts up the chimney. These included glass fireplace enclosures, fan-driven heat dispersal systems and fireplace inserts: small wood stoves that fit into the fireplace opening.

So why did the traditional fireplace return? The answers are both simple and very practical at the same time. One reason is that post-war designers knew that d�cor could be greatly enhanced by choices in hearth materials and mantels. In addition, a modern gas-fired or wood fireplace offers an ambiance and peace of mind - and many of them do not require electricity to heat up a room. Fuel is also a factor. Wood and propane (and natural gas) are readily handy in event of a winter power-outage or natural disaster. And if you have a wood-burning fireplace or traditional stand-alone stove you will even be able to cook your food. More than a few people have turned a potentially-horrid experience into an adventure where family and friends gathered around the fire like they did a hundred years before.

As for comfort, with the advent of well-insulated houses - that also provide effective moisture and air barriers - it has become increasingly easier to regulate the indoor temperature without the burden of excess fuel costs. Some units even have a system where hot water pipes run through the firebox to either pre-heat water going into an electric (or gas water heater) or provide the main hot water source with an electric or gas back-up.