Coal Fireplaces in America

Anthracite (or "hard" coal) burns longer, hotter, cleaner and nearly smokeless as compared to wood, so it was highly prized and commonly used in American fireplaces as the Industrial Revolution arrived in the mid-1800's. Anthracite coal fields were discovered in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, making rail transport to the large eastern cities convenient.

Count Rumford is credited with revolutionizing the design of fireplaces and chimneys, most especially the standards developed for burning coal in fireplaces. Born Benjamin Thompson in 1753 in Woburn, Massachusetts, Thompson was a Loyalist who departed America with the British in 1776. Over the next 20 years he was knighted "Count of the Holy Roman Empire - Count Rumford" and one of his major areas of study focused on improvements to fireplaces and chimneys. His design called for smaller, shallower fireplaces with a rounded throat; this design casts more radiant heat into the room and allows smoke to draft more efficiently up the chimney.

Rumford's design became the worldwide standard for coal fireplaces by 1800. Fireplaces designed to burn coal became standardized to dimensions of 16" to 18" wide, a shallow depth of 8" to 12" and a height of 26" to 30". Many older London homes were modified to fit Rumford's specifications, providing smoke-free operation of their fireplaces.

American coal fireplaces were most often constructed with a cast iron frame mounted inside the fireplace. A hanging grate attaches to tabs located on each side of this frame. This hanging grate design provides adequate combustion air to enter below the fuel bed for optimal burning efficiency. Most often there was an ash cover below this grate that provided some protection against ash blowing into the room from chimney downdrafts; the ash cover is simply set into place so it is easy to move when disposing of ashes and coal clinkers. The design was completed with a summer cover or summer door that covered the fireplace when it was not in use. As this design predated the common use of a damper in old coal fireplaces, summer covers served to block off the fireplace opening to prevent loss of heated air up the chimney and stopping downdrafts of cold air from the chimney into the home.

The face of the fireplace (the area between the fireplace opening and the inside edges of the mantel) must be covered with a non-combustible material to serve as spark protection. In America, the face wall was commonly covered in ceramic tile during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. As fireplace styles varied by regional design popularity and availability of local materials, face walls covered in slate, marble, stone or exposed brick are also seen, a movement toward the Arts & Crafts era where materials available locally served as practical design inspiration. In grand homes of the era there was frequently a fireplace in every room and servants were employed to keep perhaps a dozen fires burning all winter.

As the Industrial Revolution arrived and workers moved to cities for jobs, residential developments arose to house the incoming workers. City dwellings were built close together on small plots of real estate that were virtually covered with the building itself. The primary means of heating homes was with fireplaces located in major common rooms - parlors and dining rooms - and in bedrooms in larger or grander homes. Coal was used to power the steam engines that transported coal to cities , supplying fuel for manufacturing and for residential heating. In larger city homes, coal was often dumped in large loads directly into the basement of the home for storage.

The first practical stove for burning coal was invented in 1833 by Jordan Mott. A stove allows a larger load of fuel, longer burn times, more precisely controlled burn rates and the cabability to produce a far greater amount of heat. By the latter 1800's coal stoves had assumed the primary role in heating the home. Fireplaces were used to primarily for ambience, and for zone heating in rooms located farther away from the stove such as bedrooms. Additionally, most cities by the 1920's had public utilities - natural gas and electricity for heating, cooking and lighting - that resulted in the decline of coal use in American homes.

Suburban neighborhoods became established surrounding major cities in the 1920's and 1930's. At this time there was a resurgence of interest in Colonial home styles which featured larger fireplaces (commonly 36" wide, 28" tall, 24" deep) capable of burning wood logs. Wood burning fireplaces by this time were primarily a decorative accent in the home, providing occasional recreational use only.