The Fireplace

The fireplace was the center of life in the kitchen. It was the only source of warmth during cold weather, and was also the source of all heat for cooking food. In addition to providing heat for comfort and cooking, this was also where water was heated to wash dishes, do laundry, and to provide warm water for washing faces and hands and for taking the occasional bath.

The fire was lit first thing in the morning, using coals from the previous night that had been kept warm by piling them up against the fireplace wall and covering them with ashes. This is called “banking the fire”. The morning fire would be important for making breakfast, heating water for tea and coffee, and washing dishes afterwards. This pattern would continue throughout the day for every meal. With all the activity in a busy, crowded kitchen, the fireplace could be a dangerous area. Metal pots and pans were arranged in front of the fire, or hung over the flames on metal hooks; all these things get very hot, and often have hot liquids in them that can be spilled. Sparks can fly out of the fireplace. Children can fall in. The cook had to be very alert to all these dangers. She also had to make sure not to run out of firewood. Often one of the children would have the job of bringing

So how much firewood did the fireplace use?

It has been estimated that a medium sized household, heating and cooking with wood, would use 30 to 40 cords of wood each year. A cord is a measurement of a pile of wood that is 4 feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long. This amount of firewood used by a family would be equal to a stack 4 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 300 feet long – about as long as a soccer field. A tavern would use even more wood, because of having a fire burning in the front tavern room, heating all the bed chambers, and having extra laundry and dishes to wash.

Men and boys had the job of cutting down trees, then chopping and stacking firewood. Wood had to be stored in a shed to keep it dry, and brought in to all the fireplaces as it was needed. Boys used an axe to chop larger logs into small pieces of kindling, which were needed when starting a fire. Children also gathered sticks from the woods to use for kindling. Providing firewood for this tavern would have been a constant chore.

A Closer Look at the Fireplace

What clues can you see in the painting that relate to the fireplace? Do you see any evidence of the work that is done to produce firewood? Where was the wood stored? What tools do you think were used to cut up firewood?