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What's the Deal With Old Fireplaces?

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Ever notice how shallow fireplaces in historic homes often are? Here's why.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that celebrates the history, craftsmanship, and beauty of older homes. Every week, we will be rotating between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about why older homes are the way they are.

Confession: Whenever there's an old house for sale, we immediately zero-in on its fireplaces, clicking through every photo until we've seen the lay of each brick and the shape of each mantle. After all, there's nothing more idyllic than the idea of sitting around a crackling fire in a centuries-old house, so naturally, we've become a bit obsessed. It's clear from our relentless scouting that a lot of these 18th- and 19th-century fireplaces are often incredibly shallow—much less so than those in newer houses.

Fireplaces today generally have a deep firebox, where the modern fire is built for pleasure rather than for heat. This depth allows for increased safety: Burning logs that are set deeper into the firebox means there's less risk of the fire being too close to the actual room—and its furnishings and inhabitants. Before they were a vestigial organ of the home, fireplaces did, of course, serve a crucial purpose in domestic environments, and one person in particular revolutionized their design into an efficient heating mechanism: Count Rumford.

Born in Massachusetts in 1753, Benjamin Thompson, who adopted his royal-sounding moniker while living in Europe, was a polymath of sorts who regularly wrote essays on everything from the benefits of bathing in warm water to the method for brewing the perfect cup of coffee. One essay from 1796, "Chimney Fireplaces, With Proposals for Improving Them to Save Fuel; to Render Dwelling-Houses More Comfortable and Salubrious, and Effectually to Prevent Chimneys From Smoking" proclaimed ownership over a certain fireplace design, one organized along a set of proportions so it could be built on a variety of scales.

"In the fireplaces I recommend," Count Rumford writes in his essay, "the back [of the fireplace] is only about one third of the width of the opening of the fireplace in front, and consequently that the two sides or covings of the fireplaces...are inclined to [the front opening] at an angle of about 135 degrees."

His highly specific treatise—he even gets down to the ideal size of the coal grate one should use—would ultimately dictate the shape of the Rumford fireplace. But why was this design superior for heating a room? For an answer, we turned to Cambridge-based realtor and renovation consultant Bruce Irving, formerly the producer on the popular show This Old House.

"The net effect of the design is that it draws air into the fireplace very efficiently," says Irving. "That allows the flame to have plenty of oxygen to burn strongly and cleanly. And, on top of that, it effectively reflects heat into the room."

Not long after the Rumford fireplace came into existence it quickly gained popularity. Thomas Jefferson installed eight of them at Monticello. Rumford fireplaces even became so mainstream, working their way into the architectural fabric of early 19th-century dwellings, that Henry David Thoreau wrote about them in Walden as a basic quality of the home, alongside copper pipes, plaster walls, and Venetian blinds.

"Once people figured out these things actually worked, they would either follow the formula faithfully or imitate the look," says Irving. And so the Rumford and similarly shaped fireplaces became an architectural mainstay from the early-to-mid 19th century. The shallow fireplaces we've noticed in older homes, then, are likely inspired by the Count's design.

But, as heating technologies like coal, steam, and eventually gas developed, the practical need for Rumford’s design declined. If fireplaces were no longer needed to heat the house, why should they be so shallow? A deeper firebox would let everyone enjoy a crackling fire without the risk of bursting embers.

But just because Rumfords aren't a necessary addition to a home doesn't mean that they're extinct. If you look carefully (or if you just know how to set your Trulia searches correctly; hint: add "Rumford" as a keyword) you can find not only antique homes, but also modern homes for sale—this one was built in 2003—that boast Rumford fireplaces. And even if you’re not looking to uproot your life in pursuit of a fireplace with widely splayed sides and an efficient flue, you can even amend a non-Rumford to be more aligned with the Count’s specifications. And, now that spring's here and our fireplaces are going cold, it might just be time to take on a little renovation project.

6 Stellar Historic Homes for Sale in New England [Curbed]