Last week I catalogued the different types of fireplace equipment which might have been found alongside Regency fireplaces in all the rooms of a house, except the kitchen. This week, I shall focus on kitchen fireplaces and the many unique devices and gadgets which had been invented to customize those fireplaces for the preparation of food in times past. Though you may not think so, most of these devices were considered the latest thing in labor-saving cooking when they were first introduced, regardless of the fact that a number of them look like instruments of torture, better suited to a dungeon than a kitchen.
And now, the sometimes confounding cooking contraptions with which Regency cooks could contend …
Small- to medium-sized wood-burning fireplaces in Regency kitchens were often equipped with firebacks, just as were most wood-burning fireplaces in the other rooms of a house. As I noted in my recent article on coal, even when the fireplaces in the rest of the house had been upgraded to coal, many homeowners preferred to have their meals cooked over wood rather than coal and did not upgrade their kitchen fireplaces. Even those who could no longer afford to burn wood and had to burn the cheaper coal might not have upgraded their kitchen fireplaces right away, in the hope such a set-back was only temporary. It is important to remember that the purpose of the kitchen fireplace was primarily cooking, rather than heating of the room, so firebacks were not always installed in kitchen fireplaces. In particular, some kitchen fireplaces, typically those in older country houses, as well as inns and coaching houses, were quite wide and firebacks for such large fireboxes would have been prohibitively expensive. Few Regency town house kitchen fireplaces would have had a fireback, as few kitchen fireplaces in the better homes were burning wood in an open firebox. But many country house kitchens might well have had a fireback, if the fireplace had been built after the end of the seventeenth century.
Most kitchen fireplaces found in town houses in the larger cities were typically three to four feet wide and the more modern ones were equipped with what was known as a hob grate. These would have been similar in design to the grates with hobs described in last week’s article, but typically larger, sturdier and with more hobs, that is, flat surfaces upon which to place cooking vessels for heating or warming food. Most kitchen hob grates were made of iron, though a few were made of steel and some of the more elegant were decorated with brass accents. Because wood fuel was so expensive in town, especially in London, most London kitchens, as well as those in many other large urban areas, burned coal in the hob grate. A number of these kitchens might have a stove or range built into the fireplace, which may also have been powered by coal. However, those enclosed cooking features will not be discussed here, as they merit a separate article, which will be published here in the coming weeks. With the exception of wealthy aristocrats who owned extensive country estates, most urban homeowners would not be able to justify the outrageous expense of burning wood in the kitchen of their London town houses. But many among the aristocracy and the gentry refused to give up having their meals prepared over a wood fire at their county homes. Regardless of the risk to their cooks.
It would be well to understand the size of some of these ancient country house fireplaces. Kitchen fireplaces in great houses, as well as in the kitchens of large inns and coaching houses, might be anywhere from two to three times the width of a fireplace intended to heat a room. Fireplaces in old country houses which survived from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries would have been even larger. In fact, some of these kitchen fireplaces were essentially a small room with a chimney. But that chimney did not serve a single huge fire. Such a fire would have been wasteful in the extreme and quite useless to any good cook. Rather, most cooks would have two or three small fires burning inside these large fireplaces, each fire used for a different purpose in preparing the hot dishes for the meal, often of different kinds of wood, depending on the type of cooking to be done. An oak wood fire might be laid and allowed to burn down to produce the hot coals needed to place around a Dutch oven, a birch or apple-wood fire would be laid under the spit on which the meat was roasting, while a fire of well-seasoned deal or other pine provided the heat for a stewed dish or to boil a joint of meat or vegetables. Typically, these fires would be laid close to the front of the firebox for easy access to the cook, but far enough back that their smoke would be drawn up the chimney. One of the fires would always be laid near the hob, that platform of fired clay at the back of the firebox where pots could be placed to keep warm or to re-warm if they had gotten cold. Many cooks would duck in and out of the fireplace between those smaller fires while preparing a meal, to put things on the hob or remove them, to put a pot on a crane, or to adjust a spit or trammel. A old-fashioned kitchen fireplace was a large, complex and dangerous space requiring great strength and quick reflexes. Experienced cooks made it a point to be alert and watchful as they worked, for their own safety, as well as to ensure the production of a properly cooked meal. Until the latter half of the eighteenth century, typically only men were allowed to cook, because these open fireplaces were the only option available. Up to that time, in fact, the cooking staff in most great houses and commercial establishments were all male, and most worked stripped down to little more than their breeches and shoes. There was a grimly sad reason for this. Well into the eighteenth century, the second most common cause of death among women, after childbirth, was hearth death. Flowing skirts and trailing sleeves exposed them to great risk while preparing meals over open fires. This changed with the introduction of ranges and stoves late in the century, as will be explained in an upcoming article.
The andirons or fire-dogs of a Regency country kitchen were much more complex than any which might have been found in any other rooms of the house. And some kitchens, especially those with very large fireplaces, might have more than one pair. The horizontal log rest of kitchen andirons, called the billet bar, were often made so that they were adjustable, allowing the cook to make them longer or shorter to suit the fire they would support. Many billet bars also had a third foot in the middle of the bar, as they could become soft under the intense heat of a kitchen fire and this central foot provided additional support. Some kitchen andirons had back posts as well as front posts. The front post served the usual purpose, to keep the logs in place as they burned. But they could also hold spits for roasting meat. Some andirons were made with a series of hooks fixed at set intervals down the back of the front posts. Others had slots which would allow the spit hooks to be adjusted to several levels on the front post, and some even allowed for the spit hooks to be placed on either the back or the front of the front posts of the andirons. A few sets of andirons are known which had either fixed or adjustable spit hooks on the back posts as well. These andirons were most often used in front of a hob grate for roasting meat, since the spit on the back could be placed closer to the fire. Andirons which had built-in support for spits were usually called spit-dogs. These spit-dogs could hold spit rods which were used to roast meat or large birds, as well as spit baskets which were used for small birds or for delicate fish which would disintegrate if roasted on a rod. Some kitchen spit-dogs also had small metal wire baskets attached to the tops of the front posts. It is believed these baskets were intended to hold bowls of basting liquids or dredging mixtures for use on roasting meats. Another interesting and useful feature of certain kitchen andirons was that the billet bar was not actually a bar. In some cases, the log rest was actually a long hollow iron box, usually square or pyramidal in shape, with a hinged door or a drawer accessible from the front. These iron boxes, with a roaring fire above them, could be used for roasting root vegetables, such as turnips, yams or potatoes. In a pinch, they could even be used for baking a few rolls or biscuits, or oven-roasting small cuts of meat, poultry or fish.
Clock or spit-jacks were also a common feature of kitchen fireplaces, during the Regency, as they had been in the previous century. Small boys and/or dogs had been used to power the machines which turned the meat on the spit since Tudor times, but that type of power was seldom used by the Regency. Spit-jacks, clockwork devices which would "automatically" turn a spit were driven by weights suspended from a chain. These weights, when raised, just as in clocks of the time, would drive a series of gears as the weight slowly descended. Most of the more sophisticated spit-jacks were fitted with an adjustable fly-wheel or governor, which could regulate the speed at which the spit turned. Later spit-jacks had a key which would wind the weight up to its highest point, eliminating the need to raise the weight manually. Spit-jacks meant that roasting meat no longer needed constant attention, it could be left alone for up to twenty-minute intervals before it would need basting or the spit-jack regulator might need to be adjusted.
Through most of the eighteenth century, the horizontal spit was the most common and it remained so, right through the Regency, for use on wood-burning fireplaces. But coal burned so hot that it eventually burned through a horizontal spit rod. For that reason, the vertical or dangle-spit became popular. Though dangle-spits had been in use in England since at least the fifteenth century, they were never as popular as the horizontal spit. But they were the perfect solution to roasting meat over a coal fire. A large iron, or sturdy wooden bar was attached high up in the chimney, from which was suspended a length of heavy chain. The dangle-spit, which looked a bit like a ship’s anchor, with an upper, weighted cross-bar and two large hooks for meat below, was hung from this chain. Initially, the dangle-spit was twisted manually so that it would turn over the fire, but soon the bottle-jack was invented to turn it "automatically." A bottle-jack, so named because it looked like a large bottle, was another type of clockwork powered spit-jack. The bottle-jack would be suspended from the bar high up inside the chimney, and below it would be a shorter length of chain, into which would be hooked the dangle-spit. The bottle-jack would then slowly turn the dangle-spit over the fire until the meat was roasted, "to a turn."
Another type of spit-turning device, introduced in the early eighteenth century, had become fairly popular by the Regency. This was the "smoke-jack" or "chimney-wheel." These devices consisted of a large fan or bladed wheel which was installed high up in the throat of the chimney. The rising smoke and heat from the fire would turn the wheel, the power of which was transferred by a series of gears to turn the spit. Smoke-jacks could be used to turn either horizontal or vertical spits, depending on how their gear systems were designed, so they could be used over either wood or coal fires. However, the wheel which drove the device had to be quite large to provide enough power, so smoke-jacks were typically found only in the large kitchen fireplaces of grand country houses and in commercial cooking establishments, such as high-traffic coaching inns, busy hotel kitchens, and a few of the larger London men’s clubs. They would seldom be found in the kitchen fireplaces in Regency town houses, in London, or any of the other large cities of Britain. Most of those fireplaces simply did not have a chimney of the capacity to accommodate a fan large enough to turn a spit of any useful size.
Count Rumford was appalled when he saw how meat was cooked in the majority of kitchens in England when he visited there in the late eighteenth century. He found the idea of roasting meat on a spit over an open fire a barbarous practice which should be immediately discontinued. Rumford advocated that all cooking be done in an enclosed range or stove and set about inventing one of superior design. But he and his new stove were almost universally ignored, as he had not reckoned with the heartfelt dedication of every Englishman to his fire-roasted meat, scorched and blackened on the outside, barely cooked on the inside. Even the Prince Regent, cultured and sophisticated, who was enthusiastic about all things Continental, and particularly enamored of all things French, employing a number of French chefs, insisted on having his beef spit-roasted over an open fire, done to a turn. There were kitchen fireplaces in a number of great houses across England where meat was roasted on a spit, over an open fire, well into the twentieth century.
Another important piece of equipment for a kitchen fireplace through the Regency was the chimney or fireplace crane. A large device which looked like an inverted L, the crane arm could swing about a ninety degree arc within the firebox, allowing for the precise positioning of cooking pots. The horizontal post of the crane was mounted toward the rear the firebox, to one side of the fireplace, in some cases with the base of the upright resting in a small hole in the fireplace floor. Cranes were typically made of iron and came in many sizes, from those which might stand six or seven feet high and weigh up to a hundred pounds or more, for use in the very large fireplaces of grand country houses and large commercial cooking establishments, to cranes for small fireplaces which might be only twelve to eighteen inches high and weigh only a few pounds. In most cases, each crane was custom-made to fit the firebox of the fireplace for which it was intended. And some blacksmith’s chose to add ornamentation and decoration to the cranes they produced, perhaps at the behest of their wealthier customers, or just to please themselves. There were many cranes in better homes with gracefully curved iron flourishes to add support where the vertical bar meets the horizontal post of the crane. And there are a few cranes still extant in which the vertical bar terminates in a small figure of a crane in flight. However, cranes made for less affluent homes were typically quite plain, with little or no ornament. By the end of the eighteenth century, some larger fireplace cranes included a chain and pulley system by which pots could be raised or lowered over the fire as they cooked without having to swing the crane out of the firebox to make the adjustment. Cranes were used in both wood-burning and coal-burning fireplaces during the Regency.
The vertical arm of the crane might be smooth, but many were notched along the top edge for more secure placement of each cooking vessel which was suspended from it. A pot with a bail handle might just be hung on the crane by its handle, but it was more likely to be hung from the crane by a pot hook. Pot hooks were made of iron, in various lengths, having a hook at both ends. One hook went over the crane arm, then the pot was suspended by its handle from the other hook. With this system, the cook had more control over how close the pot was placed to the fire below, depending upon the length of pot hook chosen. But there was also an adjustable pot hook available during the Regency, as it had been for centuries. The trammel was an adjustable pot hook, by which the lower hook could be set into a series of notches along the upper section of the trammel, or a series of holes which were pierced in the upper section. The mechanisms which allowed for adjustments had to be reliable, working easily and surely, as most adjustments were made over an open fire where there was little time to fiddle with a trammel that could not be adjusted quickly. Like cranes, trammels came in a variety of sizes. For those very large cranes found in the great kitchens of country houses and coaching inns, trammels could be as much as five feet in length and weigh over twenty pounds, while there were trammels which might be less than a foot long and under a pound in weight, for use with the much smaller cranes which would be found in the more compact kitchen fireplace of a modest home. The very large trammels were made of wrought iron, but many smaller trammels might be made of steel or brass. Most busy kitchen fireplaces would be equipped with at least a half dozen trammels. Though trammels were more complex and thus more expensive than simple pot hooks, they were much more convenient to use, since each trammel could be adjusted to place the pot the correct height from the fire, rather than searching through a pile of pot hooks to find one just the right length.
By the Regency, some kitchen fireplaces were fitted with an increasingly popular piece of equipment similar to the crane, mounted inside the firebox. But this suspended metal framework was designed for a single purpose, the provision of hot water. These kettle tilters, also known as "idle backs," "lazy backs," "Lazy Susans" or "Lazy Bettys," were essentially sturdy pot cranes which supported a large spouted kettle of water over the fire. The kettle was too heavy to lift, so these kettle tilters incorporated a lever which could be used to tip the kettle to dispense hot water from the spout as needed, without removing the kettle from the fire. An alternative to a kettle tilter was a copper vessel made in the shape of a half-kettle. The half-kettle was filled with water and supported on a trivet suspended from a bar of the hob grate. The flat side of the half-kettle was held close against the grate, keeping the water inside hot and ready when needed.
Gridirons were more commonly found in front of wood-burning kitchen fireplaces, though there were some cooks who broiled meat and fish with a gridiron over a coal fire. Despite its name, many gridirons were not actually grids, though they were made of iron. As with cranes, there were blacksmiths who made gridirons in very ornate shapes, with many interlocking curvilinear embellishments in place of a simple grid of iron bars, yet still achieving an open grillwork which would support meat, poultry or fish for broiling over a bed of hot coals. Gridirons might or might not have a handle, or feet, depending upon how and where they were intended to be used. Some households had more than one gridiron, to make it possible to broil more than one dish at a time for a large meal. Of all the items found before a kitchen fireplace, the gridiron has the closest association to an instrument of torture. In fact, it may well have been based on a specific instrument of torture by the same name, and of a similar design. As early as 1290, the Oxford English Dictionary online edition records the use of the word "gridiron" to refer to a large framework of metal bars in a grid arrangement over which a man was bound, and a fire lit beneath him. The first instance of the word "gridiron" to refer to a cooking implement is almost one hundred years later, in 1382.
By the Regency, some kitchen fireplaces had a kind of iron "hot" cupboard built into one side of the fireplace. This cupboard would be used to keep food warm before serving, as well as to warm plates and other dishes which would be used for food service. These cupboards were also used for making mulled wine and hot punches and keeping them hot until they were served. If these cupboards were near enough the fire, they could also be used for slow cooking of some dishes. The size of the cupboard was determined in part by the size of the firebox in which it was situated. Some of these iron installations were part hot cupboard below, and part hot water cistern above. The cistern would be equipped with a brass tap by which the water could be drawn off as needed. The water would not be boiling, but it would be hot enough to supply many of the hot water needs of the house, such as filling ewers to be provided to those upstairs for their personal ablutions or for cleaning up in the kitchen during and after meal preparation.
Some town house kitchens during the Regency would have had fenders, and some of these might have been designed with flat surfaces to warm plates or keep food warm before it was served, particularly if that fireplace did not have a built-in hot cupboard. Kitchen fenders were typically more utilitarian than decorative in both appearance and materials than those found in the public reception rooms of a house. Country kitchen wood-burning fireplaces seldom had fenders, as they would be more of a hindrance than a help to a cook moving in and out of a large fireplace as a meal was prepared. Instead, as I explained in my article on cooking with a Dutch oven, kitchen hearths were regularly sprinkled with clean sand, typically changed about once a week. The sand would absorb any spilled cooking fats or juices and protect the hearth stone and the surrounding floor area from live coals and sparks. Open hearth cooking, which required a pile of hot coals placed directly under a cooking pot, was done over a sanded hearth, to protect the hearth stone from the intense heat of the fire and to control any flare-ups, should fat or grease drip onto the hot coals. In most homes, the soiled sand would be swept out once a week, usually on Saturday, and fresh clean sand would be spread over the hearth, ready to start the new week. In some rural commercial cooking establishments, such as busy coaching houses, the hearth was also often sanded, but the soiled sand was typically swept up every night. This practice of using sand to protect the hearthstone would have been very rare in the kitchens of town houses during the Regency. By then, it had become almost solely a country practice.
Like the fireplaces in the rest of the house, kitchen fireplaces would be equipped with a fire-fork or poker, tongs, a hearth brush or broom and a shovel. Kitchen fireplace shovels were not used solely for shifting coals and removing ash. In households which could not afford a salamander, the fireplace shovel was filled with hot coals and held over the dish to be browned or toasted. It should be remembered that those fireplace tools intended for the kitchen were usually made of utilitarian materials, often iron, and would have little, if any, decorative features, though they were typically made in sets, even for kitchen use. But for the kitchen fireplace, these tools would usually be made somewhat larger than those to be found in the drawing room, since they were used more often, to deal with a higher volume of ash and other fire debris. Some kitchens might have more than one set, depending on the size of the fireplace and the number of fires which might be regularly set within it. The more dainty implements to be found in an elegant drawing room of a London town house would certainly not serve the purpose when dealing with the multiple fires usually kept burning in the old-fashioned kitchen fireplace of a large country house.
Many kitchen fireplace tool sets also included an extra pair of tongs. In addition to the large tongs used for manipulating burning chunks of wood or coal, there was often a smaller pair, known as brand tongs, or sometimes smoker’s tongs. These tongs tended to be about a foot in length and were used to pull a small burning brand from a fire to be used in starting a new fire elsewhere. These smaller tongs had acquired the name smoker’s tongs in the seventeenth century when they were essential equipment near coffee house fireplaces. Patrons of the coffee house would use these small tongs to pull a brand from the fire to light the tobacco in their clay pipes. Brand tongs would seldom have been used for that purpose by the Regency, as cigars and cigarettes were not yet in common use. Most people who used tobacco during the Regency did so in the form of snuff, which was easily portable and required no fire to use.
Most kitchen fireplaces also included at least one peel among the fireplace tools. Generally, peels were made of iron and had long handles with a flat shovel-like blade. Peels were used to place hot coals into a brick oven to heat it, and later to remove them, as well as to insert bread and other items to be baked into the oven and remove them. Since most ovens were built into the back wall of a fireplace, the long reach of the peel was necessary to reduce the risk of injury to the cook. Peels were also used to move coals around on the hearth, to place them as needed for cooking. Peels might also be used in place of a salamander in less affluent households to hold hot coals above a dish for toasting or browning. A rook was another fireplace tool usually found alongside kitchen fireplaces. A rook is a species of crow, and its name began to be used as a slang term for a crowbar and for a similar tool which was used for closing a grate. It may also have been used to maneuver large gridirons, those which had no handles, into place over the coal bed or open fire.
Nearly all kitchen fireplaces would be supplied with at least one pair of bellows, a critical implement for breathing life into the banked kitchen fire each morning. A small pair of hand-operated bellows would certainly be found near every kitchen fireplace, but some kitchens also had the luxury of a larger set of foot-operated bellows. Forcing air into a fire would raise the temperature at which it burned, and being able to do this with one foot, while having both hands free to tend to meal preparation was a considerable labor-saving improvement. Foot-operated bellows also had the effect of giving the cook more control over the temperature of the fire just when it was needed, ensuring better-prepared meals. In kitchens without foot-operated bellows, the boot-boy or some other lowly servant, usually male, was often pressed into service by the cook to direct air onto the fire as needed while the meal was being prepared. As their function was significantly more important than their appearance, very few hand- or foot-operated kitchen bellows had any ornament or decoration. Most were usually very plain, with simple wooden handles, a leather "air-box" and a smooth brass nozzle to direct the expelled air. Most homeowners would not spend money decorating that which their guests would never see.
In very old-fashioned kitchens, a pair of bellows might have been too newfangled a device for a conservative homeowner to countenance. In such a kitchen one would instead find a fire blowpipe. These specialized tools were often made of brass, though there are some known which are made of iron. The blowpipe was typically about three feet in length, with a slightly tapering shaft from the mouthpiece to the end directed at the fire, in order to help concentrate the blast of air. Most fire blowpipes had a set of small feet at the fire end, to keep the blowpipe opening above the bed of ash and ensure the air blown through it would be directed at the base of the fire, where it was needed. Fire blowpipes had been in use at least from the late seventeenth century, but were becoming scarce by the end of the eighteenth. They would have been considered old-fashioned curiosities by most people during the Regency.
Another very important device for use with the kitchen fire was the curfew. The name of this device derives from the French phrase couvre-feu which literally means "to cover the fire." And that is exactly the purpose of this device. At night, all the fires in the house would be allowed to burn out, except the fire in the kitchen. That fire would be carefully banked and covered with a half-cylinder or bell-shaped fire cover which would protect the hearth from any flames or sparks which might result from a downdraft of wind in the chimney. Most curfews, also known as night-caps, were made of brass, pierced with many small holes to allow oxygen to the banked embers while containing any stray sparks or flames. Some cooks shoveled hot ash into the up-ended curfew in the morning, as a quick way to warm a leftover cup of coffee or a bowl of porridge while they prepared the morning meal. In some households, a fireplace screen was also placed at the mouth of the fireplace after the banked fire was covered by the curfew, as added protection. In addition, all brushes and brooms were stored well away from the open mouth of the fireplace to deny escaping sparks any convenient fuel. Many households also took the precaution of leaving two or more metal pails of water near the hearth overnight. In very cold weather, standing water in other parts of the house might freeze over, but placed near the banked and covered kitchen fire, the water in those pails would not freeze. Just as important, metal pails would not burn and they would be in the place they would most likely be needed, in case of fire in the night.
Kitchen fireplaces would have fuel storage receptacles, just as would every other fireplace in the house. Even though the kitchen fire would be kept burning all day, all year round, the wood bins or coal scuttles for the kitchen were not usually extremely large, as they would take up too much space in a room which was a constant a hive of activity. In most households, the scullery maid or other lower servant would have the responsibility of re-filling the fuel receptacle throughout the day, as needed. In most houses, the main supply of fuel, either wood or coal, would be stored fairly near the kitchen, since that is where a large portion of it would be consumed.
The English were notoriously conservative regarding the equipment and methods which were employed in the preparation of their meals. Change came very slowly to the English kitchen, and it would not have been surprising for Regency meals in large country houses or long-established coaching inns to have been prepared in kitchens with fireplaces and equipment which had been installed in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Well into the twentieth century, English kitchens were only updated randomly, without regard to the fashion or science of new cooking technology. Up to the first World War, it was quite common to find cooks across Britain preparing meals using equipment which had been installed in Georgian times, or earlier. Kitchen fireplaces in city town houses in the Regency were likely to be somewhat more modern, usually driven by the need to save money on fuel by upgrading the fireplace to burn coal. Such changes also required the introduction of some new fireplace equipment, but these changes seldom had much impact on the types of meals which were prepared in those more modern kitchens. The family’s favorite recipes continued to be used, though new recipes might occasionally be added to the cook’s repertoire. The most radical changes would have come to those kitchens where a new cook, more particularly, a chef, was employed. Such people might make kitchen improvements a condition of their employment.
Unlike the fireplaces in the other rooms of a Regency home, which were closed up for the summer, the kitchen fireplace was never closed, unless the family was not in residence and the house itself was closed. Even then, the kitchen fireplace furnishings would not be put away, nor would the opening be blocked off. Cranes, trammels, spit-dogs, gridirons, and all the other fireplace tools would be left in place, ready for use as soon as the house was opened again. If a house was occupied, even if only by servants preparing for the family’s return, there would be a fire in the kitchen fireplace, for cooking the servant’s meals, heating water for cleaning and washing, and, in cold weather, it might be the only source of warmth in the house.
The various tools and equipment with which a Regency country house kitchen fireplace was furnished might have been installed the day before the novel you are reading opened or they may have been in place for a century or more. The fireplace of a Regency kitchen was filled with a plethora of different tools which might add interest to a story set at that time. And now you know the difference between a gridiron and a trammel, a bottle-jack and a pair of fire-dogs, a peel and a rook, so you will know how each was used as a meal was prepared, should you encounter them in the next novel you read. And perhaps you will now also have much greater appreciation for the convenience you enjoy when you switch on a burner on your stove, or press a button on your microwave.