Keeping warm - colonial style

January-fireback
This iron fireback dating from 1746 is on permanent display at the Stroud Mansion.
It was made at the Oxford Furnace in Oxford, New Jersey.
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association

Now that the holiday season is over and New Year celebrations have ended, it’s time to settle into the coldest months of the year in northeast Pennsylvania.

Nowadays, when one walks into a chilly room, it’s easy to take for granted that with a simple push of a button or a turn of a dial on the thermostat, the room will warm in a matter of moments. But before 20th and 21st Century conveniences, all homes were kept warm by burning wood (or maybe coal) in fireplaces. Chopped and seasoned logs placed on a burning fire were the only source of heat for our ancestors.

If you’ve ever cut firewood with a chainsaw and split it with a gas-powered splitter, you know how much work preparing for winter can be. Needless to say, it took quite a bit more time and energy to prepare firewood to heat a room 200+ years ago, when hand saws and axes were an individual’s only tools.

Some homes during the American colonial era had a special device which helped spread and maintain the heat of a fire in a drafty room. That device was a fireback, a large piece of iron that was installed on the back wall of the fireplace.

Actually, firebacks served three purposes. First, the piece of thick iron protected the interior stone or brick walls of the fireplace from burning out. Fires would cause the fireplace to deteriorate, and the constant heat would lead the bricks or stones to crumble. A fireback provided a necessary barrier. Second, the iron fireback absorbed the heat from the fire and helped radiate warmth back into the room rather than up the chimney. Thirdly, the fireback provided a decorative element to a room.

The Monroe County Historical Association’s Stroud Mansion owns an interesting fireback that was made at the Oxford Furnace in Oxford, New Jersey. While made across the Delaware River, this fireback was mounted on the back of a local fireplace at Fort DePue in Shawnee-on-Delaware and dates to 1746. It was owned by the Sittig family who donated it to the museum in 1999. In addition to firebacks, Oxford Furnace produced a variety of iron products, including nails, stoves, and iron pots.

Oxford, in Warren County, was settled in 1726 when John Axford purchased 1,600 acres of land that was rich in iron ore. The specific parcel of land on which the Oxford Furnace was eventually established was owned by Col. Daniel Cox, who was involved in the iron industry. The land passed to Daniel’s son, William, who then sold the land, with its rich resources, to the Shippen family prior to 1735.

Joseph Shippen partnered with Philadelphian Jonathan Robeson who built the first furnace in 1741. On March 9, 1743, Shippen and Robeson produced the first successful pig iron. Nearly 90 years later, in 1832, William Henry leased the Oxford Furnace from the Robeson family to provide iron for his own forge on the Analomink Creek, north of Stroudsburg. Henry had hoped to bring either a canal or railroad to Stroudsburg and knew that iron would be in demand, but his plans never came to fruition.

Pig iron is a semi-finished metal produced from iron ore in a blast furnace. It is called pig iron because of the appearance of the molds used to shape the iron. The molds featured a channel-shaped main trough with smaller troughs located at right angles. The configuration apparently resembled a litter of piglets suckling a sow.

To create a fireback, a mold was carved from a very hard wood such as hickory by skilled tradesmen woodworkers or cabinet makers. The carvers had to be sure that the design was deeply carved into the wood so the pattern had a high relief.

In this example, the fireback features the coat of arms of King George II of England. Once the shape and design was complete, the mold was pressed into a bed of sand on the casting floor. Molten iron was then allowed to flow from the furnace into the mold, filling all of the channels and covering the impression.

Because they were handmade, firebacks have varying measurements. Some firebacks are as thin as one inch and weigh about 150 pounds. Other firebacks have a thickness of three inches and can weigh more than 500 pounds. The Stroud Mansion’s fireback measures 34 inches x 31 inches and is approximately one inch thick – and – it’s heavy.

Because the fireback on display at the Stroud Mansion was made in 1746, it is not surprising that the coat of arms of the king of England was so prominently featured. At this time in American history, the colonists, including the residents at Fort DePue, were loyal servants to the king, and displaying his coat of arms was something of which they would have been proud.

Firebacks made at Oxford Furnace have been located in structures along the Hudson and Delaware rivers. Research indicates that one of their firebacks was discovered in Michigan while another one turned up in Bath, England. Firebacks date to the 15th Century in Europe and continued in popularity in America until the mid-1800s when more efficient heating systems, such as wood or coal stoves, began to replace wood fireplaces.

Oxford Furnace still stands and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.