Early American fireplaces and cooking

The heart of the earliest homes was always the hearth, so let’s start there.

The earliest fireplaces were simply places where you set the fire. There might be an opening in the wall or roof to let out the smoke. Later a smoke hood would be added to channel the smoke up and away from the room, and eventually the fire place evolved into what we think of now as a fireplace.
This is a typical fireplace from the colonial settlement at Jamestown. What you're seeing in this picture is half of the entire house.
The earliest American fireplaces were fairly small, but as things became more settled, and there was more time for chopping and collecting wood, they began to get larger, up to 8 or 10 feet wide in some cases. They could be big enough to place a bench in, so becoming the warmest place in the house. There was a custom in England to have a small window in the back wall, and some early Americans also did this. Later, as ready wood became scarcer, fireplace started getting smaller again.

Sometimes a wooden or metal crane would be hung at one end of the fireplace to hold a blanket that would screen people from the cold. The houses of the American colonists would get so cold that water would freeze in basins, and ink would freeze up in the inkstands.

Originally all cooking was done in and over the fire. When ovens were introduced, they were originally in the back wall of the fireplace or to one side inside the fireplace opening. Later they began to build ovens as separate units next to the fireplace.

The ovens were made in a beehive shape, with a domed roof. The oven door was a wooden panel. It was set close to the bricks and it rested on a wooden handle. It may have originally had a tin liner to protect the wood from the heat, though badly charred doors have been found, suggesting that either not everyone used a tin liner, or if, after they fell off or wore out, they weren’t replaced. Later, as tin doors became available, they replaced the wooden panels, and by the early 1800’s cast iron doors on hinges were being installed.
This picture of the fireplace at the Fenno house at the Sturbridge Village Museum shows an older fashion oven in a back wall, and an oven door sitting on the floor of the hearth.
The Fitch house, also in Sturbridge had a metal oven door, seen on the floor on the right hand side, next to the shiny, reflective pan. On the hearth floor you can also find a Dutch oven and a toasting rack.

Some fireplaces had a small opening beneath the bake oven, which served as a warming oven.
This photo taken at the Parsonage, in Sturbridge, shows an ash pit, below a bake oven, and an oven door.
This is the inside of a typical bake oven.
The oven had its own flue, and a fire would be set inside it. When the bricks were thoroughly hot, the ashes would be raked out and the oven was ready for baking.
Another version was one in which an ash oven was used below the bake oven. The 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.

After the hot embers were swept out of the oven, prior to the loaves being slid in on a peel, oak or cabbage leaves would sometimes be laid on the floor of the oven in lieu of baking pans.

In the South, bread was baked in a flattened cake formed on the head of an iron hoe, the handle of which stuck out from the hearth into the room. They were 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 it’s own handle if it had one and the bread would bake in front of the fire.
Many fireplaces in Colonial America would have had a cast iron fire back. The fire back protected the back of the hearth from damaging heat. In large fireplaces, sometimes the heat from big fires was so intense that bricks would begin to crack and have to be replaced. Generally, however, the Colonial era fireplace would not have had a large fire set in it, but rather perhaps several small fires, the same as we would have a high heat on a modern range to bring a pot of water to a boil, and another burner set to simmer.
Fire backs, when used, weren’t very big, generally only about 15” wide. A very large fireplace might have one up to 36” wide.

Firedogs or andirons were another accessory. In England they more often used grates into which they would pile smaller pieces of wood or coals. In America, where wood was plentiful, they would use andirons upon which to rest the logs.

This sketch of the kitchen hearth at Mt. Vernon shows spit dogs, with a wooden spit rack on the wall above. Meat would be skewered on the spit, then placed on a pair of hooks to be turned and roasted close to the fire.
Another 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.

Another version of a spit can be found at the Strawberry Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH. This is a picture of a tavern fireplace in the 1770's. The hand crank used to turn the spit is in the upper left. You can see a rope is attached to the end of the spit laying on the spit dogs.

Cookware hung above the fire suspended from cranes.
Cranes could be simple iron bars running the length of the fireplace, or they could be made to swing back and forth above the fire, or they could have up to 3 different movements. Sometimes a wooden “lug pole” would be used instead of a crane. The lug pole would be cut from green wood, to withstand the drying heat longer. Pots hung from the crane or lug pole with pot hooks, trammels, or chains with large links. On occasion the pole would dry out, catch on fire, and collapse, bringing pots, kettles, trammels, chains and all down into the fire.

The crane below could swing from side to side, and the pot could be hung from several spots along the line.
In those days, one never let the fire go out. 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 pushed to the back wall of the hearth. In the morning it would be removed, the embers raked apart and fresh wood laid on. This illustration shows 2 English curfews, together with a fire fork and a blowing tube. The blowing tube served the same function as a bellows. It was a long iron pipe, the bottom of which would rest down on the floor of the hearth. One would blow into the pipe to fan up the fire. Other fireplace tools included shovels and tongs.
Bellows were used to fan a weak fire to blaze. If not available, then fans and turkey wings would be used.
Various brooms were kept to keep the hearth clean. The most common was made by tying brush twigs to a wooden handle.

COOKWARE

Generally most fireplace tools and cookware were similar to those in England going back to Tudor times.
Small piles of coals, embers or ashes were used for cooking, rather than a single roaring fire. Also, they weren't placed so much within the recess of the fireplace, but towards the front, upon the hearth.
A pot had bulging sides and a cover, while a kettle had sloping sides and no cover of it’s own. 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.

Pots, pans, and skillets began to be manufactured in the colonies @ 1725.

The earliest skillets brought over from Europe were shallow pans with rounded bottoms, on 3 legs with a long handle. They varied from 6” to 12” wide. They were used for cooking in the embers, and were originally called posnets or pipkins.

Another form of skillet had a flat bottom and straight shallow sides. It had a short handle, 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 later when stoves became more common.

Dutch ovens were the first ovens used for baking. It would be embedded in the hot coals and ashes, and more coals would be placed on its flat lid. Any large iron pot could be used as a Dutch oven, however.
Double boilers were also used at this time. The separate pieces could be used individually or paired.

Trivets were another necessity. They were high or low and came in assorted sizes. They held kettles, footless pots, were used as plate warmers, etc.

There were gridirons which were used for grilling fish or meat. They looked like iron grills standing on 3 legs, with a handle. A drip pan was placed beneath them to catch the drippings.
Griddles were of iron and used to bake oat and later buckwheat cakes. The Indians in Virginia used griddles made of stone or pottery, and some colonists may have adapted them to their own use. There were also used as toasters and were often made in delicate patterns.
Wafer and waffle irons were originally used in church services, dating from the 14th c. and eventually they began to be used in the home.
Another item was the flip dog. This was a long iron used to heat the drink called a flip or toddy. The end was heated in the embers till red hot then plunged into the drink, which sizzled. It probably reacted with the sugar in the rum giving a sort of caramelized taste. They were 2-3 feet long with either a tear shaped or pointed end. It was hung right by the hearth and was used quite a bit.

Going from the top, there’s a round gridiron which turned on a pivot, and under it a square, stationary one. Below that are a couple of toasters. Next a copper plate warmer with a sliding shelf, and a hanging griddle.

Then of course there were also many kinds of skimmers, spatulas, meat forks, etc., tools made of wood, tin or iron.

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 was fastened to a spit that ran through the oven, with a hand crank at one end.. The meat juices were collected in the curved bottom and there was a spout at one end to pour them out when the meat was done. They could be anywhere from 1 foot to 4 feet long. This photo shows a front and rear view of a tin oven or roasting kitchen. They were also referred to as kitcheners or hasteners.
There were also specialized roasters for birds, apples and rabbits. The one on the left was for birds, on the right for apples.
Tin reflector ovens were used for baking biscuits. They stood on legs and had one side open to the fire. There were several variations in style and size.

See my Picasa album with more pictures of Early American houses.
You're also welcome to browse any of the other albums.

27 comments:

  1. Thank you for your pictures and posts.Your pictures are wonderful and a wealth of ideas.Always a pleasure to spend a few quiet moments looking.

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  2. Thank you for putting up this information! We live in a house built in 1720 and we've been trying to figure out what our beehive oven door should look like. This blog helped immensely!

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  3. This Blog is amazing. I wish I had the time to do the footwork you have done. Please dont stop!!!thank you

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  4. Beautiful representation of the colonial cooking experience. We just purchased a home originally built in 1729 and the fireplaces come to life with these descriptions and pictures of the activities they have seen. Thank you.

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  5. A tremendous amount of information and work here. Thank you for sharing!

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  6. I am fascinated with Colonial times and want to leatn more about fireplaces, cooking utensils and pots, etc. Can you recomend any research sites and or books?

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  7. The best information I found over the years about fireplaces & cooking, etc., was culled from books published in the 1930's. I never did save the titles, because at the time, I had no plans of ever putting together a website like this. From what I've seen, there was a lot of interest in Colonial America in the 20's & 30's.
    Some of the best websites I've found are listed here.
    http://grazhinaslinks.blogspot.com/
    Check the sections: Georgian & Early American, Cottage Village City & Town, and Books online, you might find something helpful.

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  8. I had always heard the term "Dutch Oven" used for the smaller beehive oven located next to the main fireplace. You did not use a name for it and after reading your information, I assume that only the pan used in the fireplace is called a Dutch Oven, correct?

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  9. Although there are places where the brick ovens you mention are called Dutch ovens, overall, the term refers to a heavy, lidded pot.

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  10. Great info! Thank you!

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  11. Clare: Shattuck or shadduck refers to either a grapefruit from Barbados, or the pomelo, which was one of the parents of the grapefruit.

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  12. Thanks for the info! I really appreciate your research and photos.

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  13. Just exposed a beehive oven in our house. Its about 42" deep and has an iron door. I almost hit the roof because its been there since before we moved there in 1960 and no one even knew. The house was built in 1744. Thanks for the writeups and pictures they are a big help

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  14. I purchased a 1790's home in the Catskills with 4 fireplaces and a beehive oven. While discovering that the fireplaces are unlined and damper-less, I am trying to find the flue for the beehive oven. Would it connect to the flue for the fireplace or have its own flue? The kitchen fireplace the oven is next to backs the fireplace in Keeping Room which now functions as my living room. Any suggestions/information appreciated.

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  15. There's probably a small flue which connects to the main chimney. The opening is probably just above the oven door. I've read that older ovens that were on the back wall of the fireplace generally didn't have flues. The smoke would just come out into the fireplace and up the chimney.----Check this link for some more info ---http://www.rumford.com/oven/articleoven.html

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  16. OMG! This was such a complete and interesting writing about Colonial American furnishings as I have ever come across. As a reactor for the period I am delighted to see it! Thank you SO very much!

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  17. this is very helpful!

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  18. I have uncovered a similiar fire place in a home/ farm my family has owned since the 1850's. There is a fire place just like (strwberry banke) picture and also a bee hive dome(baking oven) connecting to the main fireplace. I believe my family purchased the property in 1850's (german immigrants). We has assumed they built it until I uncovered the fireplace. Can you tell me if you can date a fire place. The house is in Glenmont NY.

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  19. What kind of wood did they use for firewood on the open hearth fireplace to do their cooking?

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  20. They'd have used whatever kind of wood that was growing nearby. Trees like maple, birch, sycamore, cedar, hickory, chestnut and elm come to mind. Dry fallen branches gathered in the woods would be good kindling to start the fire. They'd have to constantly cut down trees to have an adequate supply of firewood. Farmers started keeping woodlots. They'd rotate the areas where they'd cut trees, leaving alone sections where the trees could grow and mature to be ready for future use. Preferably wood would be cut and stacked so it could dry, the stacks of wood growing bigger and bigger throughout the summer and fall. A family would generally use 30 to 40 cords of wood in a year. That's a stack about 4' wide x 4' high and 240 to 320' long.

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    1. Beech was the most favored because it burns brightly and with little smoke, the embers would then be used to cook.

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  21. thanks a bunch for this info and especially the pictures. have you had the chance to read through any old colonial homes magazines?

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  22. Very helpful and informative. I've seen quite a few fireplaces like these, but not with such complete information.

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  23. Very informative! Thanks a lot. I would like to hear more from your knowledge on the subject. An interesting article on the old ways of cooking in the UK can be found in The Victorian Web, see http://www.victorianweb.org/technology/domestic/cooking.html. Moreover, for those who are interested to add some of the old hearth cooking utensils to their fireplace, an extensive collection can be found and bought with Antique-fireback.com, see http://www.firebacks.net/hearth-cooking-utensils.html.

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  24. Very interesting! Recently while cleaning out my Great Grandparent's 19th Century barn I found what I thought was a long oval heavy cast iron griddle. Upon closer inspection it appears to be made out of stone. It has a metal band around the edge and wire handles and appears to be homemade. Have you every seen anything like that before?

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    1. Sorry, I haven't. I looked around, one possibility is that it could have been a bakestone for baking flat breads on a hearth instead of firing up an oven.

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