History and Evolution of chimney design in united states

Introduction

Chimneys and fireplaces are indispensably charming features of modern American life. When we think of chimneys and fireplaces, we typically think of cozy winter evenings snuggled around the hearth. 

Other popular images perhaps come to mind as well – of chimney sweepers from Disney’s Mary Poppins, or soot covered cleaners from Charles Dickens’ 19th century England. 

Perhaps you have fond memories of a fireplace from your youth, or look forward to lounging in front of your own fireplace this evening. Regardless of what comes to mind, fireplaces and chimneys are a core element of our culture and communal life. 

Few people know the fascinating history of the chimney, or that the famous Benjamin Franklin played a key role. Indeed, a history of America told through the story of the chimney and fireplace, is a most engrossing tale.

Early History

Indoor heating, fire, and smoke, of course, go back to the very beginning of mankind. Fire and heat have always been essential ingredients needed for keeping warm, cooking food, and heating water. The sophistication of heating within human habitation has a more recent history. 

Perhaps the most basic version of a chimney and fireplace is a round hut with a fire pit in the center of the room. The roof above may or may not have had a hole in it for smoke to exit. If the roof did have a hole, the exit of the smoke was not direct or expedient, and smoke often lingered throughout the house. 

The Roman Empire developed some technological innovations in this regard, having some houses that were warmed with interior pipes laid under the floors and behind walls. 

Chimneys were a technological breakthrough in the history of in-home heating and are understood to have originated in Europe in the eleventh century. The Norman Invasion of 1066 brought two-story houses to England. A new upstairs meant that people could not have a fire in the middle of the floor anymore. The solution was to shift the fire to a niche in the wall, with flues then constructed to help control the ventilation. 

Chimneys were considered a luxury in their first few centuries of existence, with many commoners continuing to make fires in their homes without proper ventilation. The chimneys that did exist though were still inefficient and sometimes dangerous. By the early 18th century, England required all clay-built chimneys to be rebuilt with brick. 

18th Century: Colonial and Early American Period

Across the Atlantic, many early American chimneys were built out of wood and lined with clay – a haphazard design. Still, these fireplaces allowed for indoor cooking and warmth that otherwise would not be possible. Smoke still commonly and problematically dispersed throughout the home. 

Benjamin Franklin, renaissance man that he was, was a key player in developing chimney technology further. In 1743, Franklin invented the “Pennsylvania Fireplace” helping reduce the amount of smoke that was dispersed throughout the home. In 1787, he published Observations on the Causes and Cure of Smoky Chimneys. His Franklin Stove was a smaller version of his Pennsylvania Fireplace and was often used as a heater for small rooms around the time of the American Revolution. 

At the end of the 18th century, another scientist and inventor, Benjamin Thompson (also known as Count Rumford), invented a fireplace that reduced and nearly eliminated smoke pollution in the home. His breakthrough came in his study of heat and challenging the then accepted notion that heat was a fluid. 

His so called “Rumford Fireplace” had a revolutionary effect in home design. Previously, fireplaces and chimneys were primarily large brick structures that extended beyond the exterior wall of the home. This new fireplace was incorporated into the exterior wall itself, which ensured that the majority of the smoke exited the chimney vertically, rather than being dispersed through the room horizontally. 

19th Century to Present: Modernity and the Rise of Architectural Diversity

For the next 150 years, the Rumford fireplace design was the norm, with the fireplace being incorporated into the exterior wall of the home. In 1854, Henry David Thoreau declared the Rumford fireplace as one of the hallmarks of civilized society. 

Prior to the late 1800’s, fireplaces were purely viewed as a functional element to the home. By the end of the 19th century, fireplaces began to take on artistic and architectural elements. Families began to use decorative wood paneling, tile, granite, marble, and other materials and features to augment the aesthetic appeal. 

The next major evolution in chimney and fireplace design occurred in the early to mid 20th-century with the development of central heating. By the 1950’s, central heating was widespread and fireplaces were no longer required for heating the interior. Fireplaces and chimneys, once an essential element of a comfortable home, suddenly became optional. 

With this optionality came a wide variety of architectural designs. Many modern houses began to be constructed with a wooden or fake-brick surrounding a modern metal chimney. Some chimneys once again began to be constructed on the outside of the home, a method not seen since the late 1700’s. 

Conclusion

Comfortable indoor heating is such a central aspect of our modern lives that many cannot imagine life without it. For centuries though, the functionality and efficiency of fireplaces and chimneys were haphazard and at times, unpredictable. If your home does have a chimney that is in need of service, we are fortunate to have very sophisticated and effective methods for ensuring your fireplace is operating at its peak functionality.