Chimney bases were of varying types and sizes, sometimes as big as 15 feet square. They would often have indentations in them for storing wine or preserves. They’d contain supports for the hearthstone above. Many bases were built in an arch which could be shallow or could be up to 7 or 8 ft. high. In one old house there were two chimneys with different bases. Another fireplace with a brick oven was in one of them. Here they did heavy work like dyeing or soap making, or sometimes roasting whole animals, freeing up the kitchen fireplace above. The other chimney base held a room which was used as a preserves closet with shelves.
A house with a large central square chimney would have a large kitchen fireplace and often 2 shallower, smaller ones on the 1st floor. A staircase would be built up along the 4th wall.
Occasionally kitchens would have a secondary fireplace next to the primary one, which would be used for heavy duty work like dyeing, soap making, etc.
The chimney would often have a slope above the main fireplace opening. This slope was called a shoulder. Often cupboards or shallow storage closets would be built into this space.
In the 1700’s sometimes the interior of the parlor fireplace would often be plastered and whitewashed or decorated, sometimes including a painted faux baseboard to match the rest of the room.
Later, when stoves were installed, the fireplaces were often sealed up, allowing just the stove pipe in to access the chimney flue. Often a nice wooden mantel similar to the rest of the woodwork in the room would be added. As time went on people added paneling to their homes even in the kitchen. The brickwork would be paneled over and matching doors would be installed over the oven openings.
The 2nd floor of a central chimney stack house could have up to 3 shallow smaller fireplaces for heating.
Some chimneys had a flue for each fireplace, others had one flue, with openings for each fireplace. The former had a much greater draft and did a better job of carrying the smoke away. Over the years many fireplaces were made smaller, sometimes over and over again. This can possibly be attributed to the fact that there were fewer large logs available for burning as more and more trees were felled.
There were often smoke ovens or ham rooms somewhere within the chimney, and could be found anywhere from the cellar to the attic. Openings to smoke ovens could even be found in bedrooms or along staircases.
The smoke oven would have its own flue and some larger ones would have hooks or a pole from which to hang the meat to be smoked. A fire would be laid within the oven, often in an iron kettle. The fuel used was generally corncobs or hickory bark, which smoked but gave off no flame. A fresh fire was laid each day for 3 days to smoke the meat. If the oven was big enough to hold an entire animal it would be called a smoke room or ham room.
An addition to the chimney at the back of the house began appearing by the beginning of the 19th century called a set kettle. These were used for boiling water for washing clothes or any other purpose which required the boiling of a large amount of liquid.
Picture of a set kettle
Picture of a pair of set kettles
THE MAIN FIREPLACE IN THE KITCHEN
The fireplace in the main room, the “hall”, was often up to 8 or 10 feet wide, 6 feet high and 6 feet deep. The fireplaces were often so high and broad that a settle could be placed at one side within them. This was a spot often allotted to small children or the elderly. If you think back to the story of Cinderella you can see how she managed to be sitting and sleeping in the ashes of the kitchen fireplace. It was a common custom in England to have a small window at the back of the fireplace. When window glass became more readily available in America, some fireplaces were built this way. Sometimes a wooden crane was hung at one end of the fireplace to hold a blanket which could screen people from the cold. Ink used to freeze in inkstands in rooms, it’s been written also that sap oozing from a burning log froze before it caught on fire, so people tried every way they could to keep warm.
Chimney top openings were rather large, storms beat down them, and birds would fly in there to hide from the wind and make their nests. It was the law that chimneys had to be swept out every month or the owner would be fined. Generally small boys were sent up the chimney to do the job.
Cast iron fire backs were used to protect the back of hearth from heat from the fire. In large hearths the damage to these bricks was so great they sometimes had to replace them completely. Generally fire backs were not very big, from 15” wide and up to 36” or so for a very large fireplace.
BAKING IN THE OVENS
At first all cooking was done in and over the fire. The oldest houses had no ovens, though they were often added later.
When ovens were introduced, they were originally in the back wall of the fireplace or at one side of the opening within the fireplace itself, but this was not popular, as it made the oven harder to use.
Soon they began building the ovens as a separate unit beside the fireplace. The interior of the oven was a beehive shape, with a domed roof. The early ovens were @ 30” in diameter. In some cases the oven had its own flue. They had an arched door which was covered with a wooden panel. The panel was set close up to the bricks and rested in its handle. There was a small flue in the arch of the oven door that led to the chimney, which caused air circulation which helped the wood placed in the oven burn. Generally bundles of twigs, called faggots, were used to build the fire in the oven. When the bricks were thoroughly hot, the hot embers and ashes could be raked out and the oven could be used for baking. Loaves would be slid into the oven on a peel, and the bread was left to bake in the slowly cooling oven.
Sometimes oak or cabbage leaves would be laid on the floor of the oven in lieu of baking pans, depending on what was being baked.
The early wooden oven door panels would have been soaked in water so they wouldn’t catch fire from the heat of the oven. Sometimes the gaps around the door would be filled in with strips of dough. When these strips were cooked the loaves inside were generally also done.
After the baking of the bread, the oven still contained just enough heat to bake a second round of cakes or biscuits. The very word biscuit means ‘second-cooked’.
Part of the skill baking lay in being able to judge just how hot the oven was.
A cookbook from 1882 reveals that even then cooks had to use a mixture of observation and guesswork to deduce the temperature of their ovens:
If a sheet of paper burns when thrown in, the oven is too hot.
When the paper becomes dark brown, it is suitable for pastry.
When light brown, it does pies.
When dark yellow, for cakes.
When light yellow, for puddings, biscuits and small pastry.
Another oven set up was one in which an ash oven was used below the bake oven. A fire was built in the ash oven and the heat rose through a vent up into the bake oven. This oven cooled off more quickly, because the bricks didn’t get as hot.
When tin doors became available they replaced the wooden panels. By the beginning of the 19th c. cast iron doors on hinges were becoming more common because they held the heat in better and didn’t need to be constantly replaced.
Sometimes ovens were built in a separate secondary kitchen in back of the house, called a back kitchen, or in another building altogether called a bake house. These ovens were generally heated once a week, and all baking, and much stewing and drying, etc., was gathered together for the "baking day. Baking day meant a full forty-eight hours of heat that covered much more than plain bread baking.
Early in the day the oven would be used for baking breads, pies, cakes and pastries. As the oven slowly cooled it would be used for other jobs like drying feathers that were used for pillows and bedding, for bottling fruit, drying and preserving meats and fish for winter storage, drying herbs, making charcoal, and even drying firewood for the following week.
From an old description:
“I have known a very large brick oven, heated in the middle of the day with one good-sized faggot and a log or two of cord wood, still warm enough at eight or nine o’clock at night to make delicate small cakes and macaroons and custards, and dry apples, etc. It is a great convenience and economy in many families to have a means of preparing food for several days’ consumption, and heating the brick oven weekly renders them entirely independent of bakers and confectioners."
To Heat a Brick Oven (with wood) - from an old book
"Lay a quantity of shavings or light dry fuel in the centre of the oven and some small branches of faggot wood upon them; over these place as many of the larger branches as will make a tolerably large fire, and set light to it. As the wood consumes, keep adding to it, throwing in stout pieces of faggot and, lastly, two or three moderately sized logs. From one to two hours will be required to heat the brick oven thoroughly. Towards the end of the time the fire (which has been in the centre) should be spread all over the floor of the oven so that the whole floor may be heated evenly.
When the fire is burnt out and the red pulsing ceases, scrape out the charcoal, letting it drop down through the slot at the oven door, and brush out the small ash with a broom of twigs.
Then take a large clean mop, dip it in hot water, and mop over every part of the inside of the oven, clearing out the last of the ash, and leaving a little steam within the oven. Leave the oven closed for some little time, to even the heat, before you open it and fill it.
If the oven seems too hot, it is better to close the door, and leave the bread to cook evenly, than to try to hurry the cooling by leaving the door open, as that cools unevenly. Once the bread is packed in, do not open the oven door till two hours have elapsed, and after drawing out the bread, have the rest of your linking ready to put in, and shut the oven again instantly. And so you may go on, till your oven is quite cold. Last of all put in the kindling you will want to make the fire the following week, so that you can be sure it is ready and dry." (1800)
COOKING ON THE HEARTH
One of the most important accessories of the 17th & 18th century kitchen fireplace was the crane. It was a wrought iron bracket that hung on the back wall and made to swing to and fro over the hearth. The simplest ones only swung back and forth, but some had up to 3 different movements. Pots hung from them with pot hooks or “tramells”. Chains with large links were also used. Sometimes they were hung from a bar that spanned the chimney opening called a lug pole. These were originally made of wood. Generally most fireplace tools and cookware were similar to those in England going back to Tudor times. The earliest skillets brought over from Europe were shallow pans with slightly rounded bottoms and stood on 3 legs with a long handle. They varied from 6” to 12” wide. In the early days they were called “posnets” or “pipkins”, and used for cooking in the embers. These skillets were more akin to what we today would call a saucepot.
Another form of skillet had a flat bottom and straight shallow sides. This flat bottomed skillet had a short handle and 3 short legs and was called a “spider”. “Fry pans” were of iron with 3 foot long handles with holes at the tip of the handle so they could be hung up when not in use. The short handled frying pan came into being when stoves began to be more commonly used.
A pot had bulging sides and a cover. A kettle had sloping sides and no cover of it’s own.
Pots, pans, and skillets were called “hollow ware”. They began to be manufactured in the colonies @ 1725.
Families prided themselves on the amount of brass kettles they had. Very large kettles were called cauldrons and were usually of copper, brass or iron. They could be extremely valuable and would be passed on in wills.
There were always trivets, of assorted sizes, both high and low. Short legged ones for keeping things close to the fire, longer legged ones for thinks that needed to be simmered slowly further from the heat.
The “cat” was akin to the trivet. It was made of 3 wooden or iron poles that crossed in the middle, making a crotch in which to place a dish. It would stand securely with 3 arms facing up and 3 down.
Other fireplace implements are included tongs, shovels and forks, and bellows or borders which could be mechanical or simple tubes that were iron pipes the bottom of which rested in the embers. One would blow into the tube, thereby livening up the embers, but they were never very popular.
In the evening, before retiring, the fire would be raked into a pile and covered with a curfew which was usually made of brass or copper. It would be placed over the embers and bushed to the back wall of the hearth. In the morning it would be removed, the embers raked apart and fresh fuel laid on.
Other implements that were in use were toasting racks, ladles, skimmers toasting forks, warming pans, etc.
An unusual contrivance for turning a spit was an iron fan, set up in the chimney flue. It was kept in motion by the draft passing up the chimney. Chains went down from it to the spit in front of the fire and the revolving of the fan turned the spit.
A tin roasting oven was in use by 1790, and may have been invented as early as 1729. It was a half cylinder reflective oven, with a door that opened in the back so that you could check the meat and baste it. The meat juices were collected in the curved bottom and there was a snout at one end to pour them out when the meat was done. The meat was fastened to a spit that ran through the oven, with a hand crank at one end.. They could be anywhere from 1 foot to 4 feet long. There were also specialized roasters for birds, apples and rabbits.
Dutch ovens were also widely used, especially for bread baking. In some cases it was common to bake in an inverted iron cauldron with the ashes heaped around it or standing on the hearth with the top closed with a lid or iron plate.
In the south, bread was baked in a flattened cake form on the head of an iron hoe, the handle of which stuck out from the hearth into the room. The cake was generally made of corn meal or a corn meal mixture and came to be called hoe cakes. In the north similar cakes were baked on small wooden boards called bannock boards, thus called bannock cakes. The bannock would be propped up against a kettle or on its own handle if it had one and the bread would bake in front of the fire.