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.
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.
You can find more pictures of early American homes in my public albums.