Fireplace Was the Center of Family Life and Activity;
Chimney Sweeps Common

by Egbert T. Bush, Stockton, NJ, March 20, 1930

Mr. Bush has good advice for those of us who enjoy a warm fire in winter. Note that the illustrations were not included with the original article.

“The great fire up the chimney roared.”  Indeed it did, and how could it be otherwise? There was so much of greatness around that fire that it could not help either being great or roaring with its own greatness and that of its surroundings. That fire was not built on the economic Indian plan: “Injun make little fire—go close by;” but rather according to the Indian’s description of the uneconomic way of the paleface: “White man make big fire—go ‘way off.”

But it does not follow that all white people did “go ‘way off” from the big fire on the hearth. The grandfather or other aged person whose life-work seemed to be done, often spent much time “in the chimney comer,” contentedly smoking a corncob pipe while dreaming of the past. The children preferred to sit in front, fondling cat or doll as taste or sex might determine. Those who were able to work generally had plenty to do elsewhere during the day, and often until late in the evening.

The old-time fireplace was big almost beyond belief. It had to be, for in the early days it must furnish all of the heat for that room, and something for the entire house. Of course, in the more pretentious “mansion houses,” there were other and smaller fireplaces for use on special occasions; but there must be one major hearth for the necessary work of the family, and that necessary family work about the fire was always a big requirement. Since size of the fireplace was the only known measure of capacity for meeting that requirement, the builders were very liberal in furnishing size. The fireplace often occupied most of one side of the room, perhaps leaving space for a convenient clout an each side.1 To estimate dimensions might look like exaggeration; but you are not likely to guess beyond the truth about those of the earlier days. As buildings were erected by and for succeeding generations, the fire place grew gradually less.

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Fireplace at the 1744 Holcombe House, Delaware Twp., NJ

Lugpole Held Great Weight

Several feet above the hearth was the “lugpole”—a great iron bar securely masoned into the “jam” on each side, perhaps fifteen inches from the back of the chimney. This pole must be strong and well fastened, for it had to “lug” the weight of all the pots and kettles that, might be hung over the fire; and that probable weight was no trifling matter, as is well known to all who have ever seen the big washpot and the great kettles that were sometimes suspended there, filled with water for washing, lard to be tried out or whatever it might be. On the lugpole hung the trammels—broad irons with hooks at the top to fit over the pole and adjustable rods for raising and lowering the pots.

It is rather amusing now to see people trying to build a fire on the little patch of stone or brick that answers for a hearth in a house that feebly tries to “keep up the traditions of the past.” What a mess they make of it! They get a little fire and a big smoke, but nothing at all satisfactory to those whose memories go back to the reality.

In olden days we made a fire that was a fire, building it on scientific principles without even thinking of science; now they make what can be called a fire only by courtesy, perhaps chattering glibly meanwhile about the science of it, and missing the essentials. In the olden way the first thing to think of was a big backlog—how big depending upon the capacity of the fireplace. Then between the andirons, set at a proper distance apart, were arranged the kindlings and light wood for starting a real blaze. On the andirons were laid larger and larger sticks, carefully graded and arranged with spaces for the easy passage of air and flame from below.

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Fireplace at the John Prall Jr. House, Stockton, NJ

Making It Draw

It took considerable heat to start that great column of cold air up the chimney or, in local parlance, to “make the chimney draw.” But the old-time builders of such fires were prepared for emergencies, and rarely had trouble about smoke or “pouty” fires. And the necessity for building fire anew was generally avoided by keeping enough through the night to give quick results in the morning, the trick of keeping fire having come down through former generations. But sometimes a mistake was made and the fire was “dead” in the morning.

We were told that in still earlier days a “dead fire” was something of a calamity. The common remedy was to send a member of the family to the nearest neighbors to “borrow fire,” that is, to get live coals and carry them home as a starter. That was unhandy, but not very difficult. The coals were placed in a proper receptacle and covered with ashes or otherwise partially shielded from the air. Perhaps a deep-sided shovel, once used for that purpose, may still be found in some ancient household or some museum. When the neighbors were too remote, people had to depend upon flint and steel and punk for relief—dependence said to have been fraught with trouble and disappointment.

Friction matches, invented in 1829, were in quite common use in my boyhood. But how carefully they were used! There was no needless scratching of matches then; nobody used a half dozen when one could be made to do the work. Like everything else that cost money, matches must be used economically; and the man who would have endangered lives and property by throwing a “burnt” match or a cigar stump into a waste basket, would have been kicked out of the house, as he deserved to be.

A Common Expression

Though we were never seen to borrow fire; the stories of such errands, as told by our elders, were always interesting, and something still remained over from the practice. I recall one common expression that must have had its origin away back in the days of such borrowing. If a neighbor came to the house and seemed in a hurry to leave, declining to be seated or to have the usual neighborly chat, the remonstrance took this stereotyped form: “Don’t be in a hurry, you didn’t come for fire, did you?” The question, then so easily understood, would be rather perplexing if heard now. But that is only one of many hang-over expressions that have died out during the lifetime.

Even the thought of fire on the hearth brings up many things. A real joy it was to sit in its warmth and watch the live coals dropping from the burning sticks on the andirons to the glowing embers beneath. The boy or the man that cannot see strange and pleasing things in a fire like that, is sadly lacking in ability to find some of the finer things of life.

But the roaring of the fire was not always so pleasant. Sometimes the accumulated soot broke into flame and went roaring like a demon up the chimney and out at the top, threatening destruction as the sparks fell thick upon dry shingle. That was always an exciting time. Nobody could be at ease until finally assured that no sly spark had slipped into a crack to work destruction at leisure. This dreaded danger was partially forestalled by starting a chimney fire on some wet day. To do this, a bundle of lighted straw was struck up the chimney on a fork. The response was certain; but wet days, like other opportunities, do not always come in time.

Chimney Sweeps In Town

There was another method of cleaning big chimneys, perhaps a better one, certainly one that furnished a livelihood to a few sooty itinerants known as “chimney sweeps.” These gentry usually went two together. So far as known they never organized a “Chimney Sweeps’ Union;” yet their ranks never appeared to be crowded. They announced their arrival by a raucous ballyhoo—“Sweep-o! Sweep-o-o!” This was sometimes followed by:

“The chimney sweeps have come to town
To sweep your chimneys up and down.”

Seventy years ago there was still current an amusing story concerning the arrival of two such sooty workers in Quakertown. As they went along the street loudly advertising the great event of their arrival, they halted by the little shop of the village shoemaker. One peeped through the window and saw the good old man laboriously sewing at an old shoe. Turning to his companion, the disgusted “sweep” said with a long-drawn sigh: “Ah-h! A man never knows what he may come to!”

Perfectly true in itself; but as a compassionate remark from a chimney sweep in reference to a shoemaker, it stirred up the wrath of the cobbler and the risibilities of all Quakertown. After that episode, when the boys felt like hearing their good old neighbor rave, it was necessary only to say: “Ah-h! A man never knows what he may come to!” Offended professional dignity did the rest.

Getting In the Back Log

I remember the broad and low old farmhouse that held the premium for having the biggest fireplace. It was occupied by a widow and her two sons. When the duty of replenishing the fireplace devolved upon the son Aaron, he rebelled against the laborious way of getting into the great backlog, and invented a better way of his own. Instead of lifting and straining at it, as he had been taught to do, he put a chain around it at one end and attached other chains sufficient to reach across the house and out at the back window. There he hitched a yoke of oxen, and soon landed the pesky log in front of the hearth. The rest was easy. The writer never witnessed this performance; but the story was common property and, since Aaron never was known to disown his invention, was accepted as established truth.
Heating by fire on the hearth was wasteful, of course, for more heat went out at the chimney-top than about the room. But wood was plentiful in those days and labor was cheap. And certain it is that no room ever needed other ventilation while a big fire was roaring up the chimney.

Ten Plate Stove

Ten-Plate Stove from Google Images

Along in the middle of the past century, a “ten-plate” stove sometimes stood in the center of the room to help distribute heat, and a great help was it in many ways. This form of stove is so rapidly becoming a thing of the past that, though only a few years ago we saw good ones despitefully junked, now people are beginning to bid up on them as antiques, and to pay due respect to their heating qualities.

The ten-plate stove would hardly do as a main dependence now, but it was a good thing in its day. It helped very much with the baking, especially for baking buckwheat cakes. The iron set on its top was quickly heated, for the fire made a fine circuit behind and above the oven, readily heating all parts of the stove. One of our neighbors dispensed with the extra iron, and poured her batter directly upon the top plate of the stove. For all that we knew that plate was as clean as any intervening iron, could be, but somehow the cakes did not seem so attractive. So much for departing from established ways, you see.2

It is a long, long way from some of those old things up to the new: from the feeble rays of the lone tallow-dip to the glare of a 100-candle power electric light; from a fire on the hearth, with the family gathered around, to modern methods of heating in which some families hardly ever see a fire; from the postboy to the telephone and the radio; from the stage coach to airplane. In short, the step from the ways of 1850 to the ways of 1930, is the longest ever taken in my four score years in human history.

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary does not have a suitable definition for ‘clout’. From the context it appears to mean a small bench or chair.
  2. The Holcombe fireplace, pictured above, sported a ten-plate stove set inside the hearth, no doubt an attempt to get more efficient heat from smaller logs.