A fireplace is a structure made of brick, stone or metal designed to contain a fire. Fireplaces are used for the relaxing ambiance they create and for heating a room. Modern fireplaces vary in heat efficiency, depending on the design.
The fireplace was a necessity in early America. As the hub of the house, a burning hearth provided heat, housed multiple fires for cooking and baking, and served as the nucleus of family gatherings. In the 1600s and early 1700s, the typical fireplace was a walk-in: a wide, deep, open recess, generally with only the briefest semblance of a mantel, or no mantel at all. The firebox was usually wider than it was tall, especially in the homes of Dutch settlers.
True mantels were rare before the 1800s. The very earliest American hearths were flush with the wall. In English colonial homes, fireplaces typically were surrounded by simple, floor-to-ceiling paneling, usually plain vertical or bead-edged planks. By the second quarter of the 18th century, the fireplace had become the centerpiece of the main gathering room. Decorative paneling and other accents in the Georgian style were book-matched on either side of the opening, sometimes for the entire width of the wall.
As the Victorian age progressed, fireplaces became more ornate, with overmantels and columns. Options included complete cast-iron combination fireplaces and fireplaces with decorative tiles running along the legs of the surround. Later, surrounds were trimmed with glazed lozenge-shaped tile in a host of colors.
In the early 20th century, fireplaces and mantels became much simpler, with those in Colonial Revival houses harking back to the motifs popularized in the late 1700s and early 1800s, sometimes liberally mixing and matching elements like 1750s Georgian moldings with 1840s Greek Revival fluting. Surrounds were simply finished with brick or stone.
Whether highly ornate or simple and rustic, a fireplace continues to be a source of warmth and comfort in the home—still one of the most desired elements in any period house today. These vintage photos below show what fireplaces looked like from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.