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There is nothing quite as cozy as sitting in front of the fireplace during a cold winter night. However, little do we think that throughout history, people did not lit a fire merely to enjoy its pleasantness. The fireplace was instead the primary source of heat in 18th- and early 19th-century in America.

Even if we take a step back to around 44 000 BCE, our ancestors, the Neanderthals, were using fire to keep warm as well as for cooking. Discoverings shows that they used hearths inside of structures


Hearths were still commonly used in homes until around the 14th century, even though the invention of the chimney took place in the 12th century. The fireplace eventually replaced the hearth by a hole in the center of the roof. Later on the hole in the roof, in other words, the “chimney” got located at the side of the room, which enabled the construction of multiple fireplaces. 


Most homes in America were heated with a fireplace in the early 1700s. This was a very simple method but also very inefficient as most of the heat from the wood escaped through the chimney. Only about 10% of the heat was radiated outwards into the room, which only kept that area warm. During the winter, families would mainly gather together in the room with the fireplace as the rest of the home would remain cold.  


Sir Benjamin Thompson, who was also called Count Rumford, designed a better fireplace, a “firebox” which was narrower and shallower in the back with a wide opening in front that contained an angled sidewall so that more heat can be reflected into the room. This type of fireplace design, known as the Rumford Fireplace, was a success and is still popular today.


As heating technology shifted in the 18th to 19th centuries, the architecture of the homes in the United States also changed. Big chimneys were needed for Colonial houses in the 18th century to support multiple fireplaces. 


The iron stove was another heating method that became popular in the United States in the 1700s. Initially, the iron stove was a German design that was mass-produced in the USA during these times. This stove used wood as well, but it was more efficient than the fireplace because heat gave off from all sides while the toxic gasses and smoke were sent to the outside through a pipe. People mainly adopt the stove because it was more efficient and safe. 


The primary source of fuel for the fireplace and stove was wood, but coal made its way into homes in the19th century. In 1885, carts and later on trucks were used to deliver loads of fossil fuel to basements all over the world for many years to come. Coal is still being mined today for the use of electricity, but oil and natural gas has been slowly replacing this resource. 


Because stove pipes only required ventilation space, skinner chimneys started to appear later in the 19th century. At this point, firewood mantlepieces were merely a focal point in the room, and therefore they sometimes remained as a backdrop for the stoves.


The evolution of home heating went from fireplaces and iron stove in the 17th and 18th centuries, steam and electric heating in the 19th century, to warm air systems in the 20th century. Yet today people still use wood in fireplaces and modern, efficient wood-burning stoves.


Over the years, the construction of houses also changed to make homes more energy-efficient. Therefore we do not only depend on modern heating technologies, but specific structures in our homes also became advanced. Elements such as energy-efficient roofs, A-rated windows, and doors, insulation, etc., all play a role in keeping our homes comfortably warm during the wintertime. 


The Conclusion


Therefore, next time, before complaining about spending five minutes changing the return air filters every month, think about how privileged we are to have the heating systems we have today. Instead of having to cut trees, split wood, and then tending to the fireplace that does not even heat the entire home, we can enjoy a cozy home at the switch of a button.