The visual focal point of the room, what better meeting-place than the fireplace, providing light, warmth, protection and even hot meals. This indispensable feature, became the heart of the house throughout history and would never be complete without its main artifacts: its andirons, the poker, tongs and shovel for use on the hearth.
Not only do andirons control your firewood (keeping it put in the fireplace), but they also help to create a positive upwards draft, helping your fire getting started and keeping it burning. Most of all, without them it would be a lot tougher to light your fire or to keep it going.
Ever since the Iron Age, the main focus of the interior of a house was the central open-hearth fire, which was maintained 24 hours a day. The open-hearth was often simply a place where fire was set, an opening in the wall or roof to let out the smoke. It took some time before the fireplace evolved into what we think of now, as a fireplace. The smoke hood was added later, to channel the smoke up and away from the room.
Chopping and collecting wood was essential in those days, as the fire could never be let, to go out. It would be raked into a pile and covered with a curfew, which was usually made of brass or copper. It would be placed over the embers and pushed to the back wall of the hearth. In the morning it would be removed, the embers raked apart and fresh wood laid on.
Our ancient ancestors made their fires hotter using stones to elevate their cooking fires, providing thus a better draft as the air could enter the hearth under the firewood.
The early metal andirons were bent, hammered, forged in very simple shapes. The decorative function of the andirons saw its birth in the 14th century with lovely shapes, animal sculptures and gargoyles. The Industrial Revolution with its mass production factories, provided the cast andirons. And of course the Victorian age provided the massive and ornate ones.
Just so you know, if you own and old pair of the American-made ones from the Colonial period, don’t throw them away, as they’re seen as valuable antiques!
Ever since people learned to work with metals, andirons have been made in copper, brass, iron, and steel. The basic design has changed surprisingly little. A bit of advice though, when shopping for fireplace andirons: make sure if you want a functional one, that the length of the shank (called “dog”) is 12 to 20 inches long, so your andirons can hold several logs. When you buy them only for purely decorative means, 4-5 inch long shanks will do, as they are made to go in front of a fireplace grate.
Now I always wandered what the word “dog” had to do with it, well if you ever heard the expression dog-tired, this word may give you a hint already. We’ll have to wander back to the 16th century and Britain’s way of cooking in those days: open- fire roasting. And what has the spit got to do: turn constantly.
Think hamster running in a cage, well they used a turnspit dog, who had to walk, so the wheel, attached to a chain running down to the spit, made the spit turn. Throwing a glowing coal into the wheel, assured that the dog kept moving. Forget animal protection, these dogs were kitchen utensils, although they made sure that the dogs couldn’t get overheat or faint, by putting up the wheels quite far from the fire. The dogs were curtailed, only the dogs of the nobility could keep their tails. Sunday the poor sods got a day off, not to rest, but to warm the noblemen’s feet in church. The dogs were seen as ugly and became the symbol of poverty, so nobody in the end wanted them anymore and they became extinct. The dogs that resemble them the most are the Corgis and yes they’re the favourite ones of the Queen of England.
Before the dogs, a small boy would have to turn the spit for hours on end, having blistered hands, his only protection from the heat was a bale of wet hay.
Do you own and use fire irons? Do you love the wood chopping and the heat of the wood fire? Do you cook on it too?
Still have a lot of irons in the fire, so must go