Fireplaces During Regency Summers

In the damp cold of a Regency winter, a fire burning cheerily in the grate was a most welcome sight. But in the warm months of the summer, when no fire was wanted, the empty, dark cavern of a fireplace was considered quite an eyesore. Even more so because, for centuries, the focal point of most rooms was the hearth, filled with fire, essential to life in cold climates. Our Regency ancestors had several techniques which they employed to maintain an attractive appearance around the focal point of their rooms during the months when a fire was not needed.

How fire was replaced on the hearth in Regency summers . . .

To understand the issues which might beset an open fireplace during the summer in the Regency, there are some important facts about chimneys of the era which must be understood. Wire screening had yet to be invented, and most household chimney tops were covered only with a chimney pot, a device intended to control down drafts or the admission of wind or precipitation during heavy weather. But chimney pots, also sometimes called venting caps, were usually made of ceramic and were intended only to keep the smoke flowing steadily up the chimney. The smoke itself was the only barrier to any creature which might choose to enter the top of a chimney. However, in summer there was no smoke. At this time most chimneys had yet to be fitted with full dampers which made it possible to close the flue against unwanted intruders. Therefore, the chimneys of most Regency houses, as had been the case for centuries, became an unobstructed vertical shaft open to the outdoors. There were any number of insects, birds and other creatures which might take advantage of this portal into a Regency home, all of them unwanted visitors.

Certainly by the beginning of the eighteenth century, an effective barrier to the entrance of insects and other creatures into a home via the chimney had been developed. This handy device was known as the fireboard. Sometimes called the summer board, the chimney board or the chimney stop, these were boards that were custom-made to exactly fit the opening of a specific fireplace. Most fireboards were made of wooden planks with a tongue and groove assembly, typically reinforced with battens across the back for added stability. Near the end of the Regency, there were a few fireboards that were made of cast sheet metal, but they did not come into common use until long after the Regency was over. Most fireboards in the first half of the nineteenth century were of wooden plank construction.

The front of a wooden fireboard was often planed smooth, covered with gesso and painted. The fireboard front was not often painted a single color. In most cases, to maintain the focal point of the covered fireplace, the fireboard was painted with an interesting scene. The trompe l’oeil technique was very popular for fireboards. In France, by the end of the eighteenth century, it had become quite popular to paint fireboards with scenes of objects which might possibly be found in an empty fireplace, including clusters of ceramic pots, piles of books, or even the family dog or cat. In England, the more usual fireboard scenes were large pots of cut flowers or flowering plants in full bloom , set against a background painted to imitate the interior of the fireplace. However, there were also more sophisticated trompe l’oeil scenes to be found on some English fireboards as well. There are even a few fireboards which survive which are painted with views of the family estate in summer. Some might even be painted with the view which could be seen out the window of the room in which the fireboard was placed.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, as fireplace openings had become more standard, it was possible to buy ready-made fireboards. There were a number of fine art painters in England who specialized in flower painting, a large number of whom were women. When possible, they plied their trade decorating the interiors of houses, and even smart carriages, for the upper classes. However, quite a few of them supplemented their incomes by painting pretty floral fireboards for the middle classes. In most cases, the flower painter would have the boards made by a local carpenter, and she would then treat the smooth front surface and paint it. Some fireboards have been found on which the painting was executed on a canvas which was affixed to the front surface of the fireboard. Sign-painters had also taken up the production of ready-made fireboards before the end of the eighteenth century. Regardless of how they were made, or by whom, by the Regency, nearly every upper and middle class home would have fireboards over the openings to their fireplaces in summer, with the exception, of course, of the kitchen fireplace. These fireboards were often chosen for the specific room in which they were used. For example, large and dramatic flowering plants might be chosen for the main public rooms of a house, like the drawing and dining rooms, while more simple, native flowers might be chosen for a lady’s sitting room or bedchamber. In most cases, the colors of the painting on the fireboard would also be chosen to coordinate with the decor of the room in which it was to be used.

Typically, when summer came, each fireplace in the house, except that in the kitchen, would have its contents removed and would be swept clean of all ashes and other debris. Usually, the fireplace tools would be placed inside the swept fireplace and the fireboard set in place, flush with the fireplace opening. In old-fashioned fireplaces which still used andirons, rather than a fixed grate, the fireboard might be made with clips on the back to attach it to the andirons, which were left in place. In other cases, the andirons, along with the fireplace tools, were all placed inside the cleanly swept fireplace and the fireboard set in place, again, flush with the fireplace opening. With the use of a fireboard, not only could the fireplace be sealed for the summer, but all the necessary but unneeded accoutrements for the fire could be removed from the hearth and stored out of sight for the summer.

But the English so loved flowers that many of them were not content with painted images of them on their fireboards. In some households, the fireboards were often quite plain. Some were simply covered with the same paper-hangings used in the room, while others might be painted to look like a clean, empty fireplace, often with a patterned tiled back. Still others were made with molding affixed to the surface which matched that around the chimney-piece, and painted to match. However, these plain fireboards were typically the preference of those who loved real flowers. For, in front of these more simple fireboards would be placed one or more bough-pots, filled with fresh flowers. A bough-pot is typically a large vessel, usually made of ceramic or porcelain, for holding boughs or branches of flowering plants. Most true bough-pots have a cover with multiple holes through which these flowering boughs, or large cut flowers, can be inserted into the base of the pot, which is filled with water. Some bough-pot covers were removable, while many others were made as part of the vessel itself. Alternate contemporary spellings of this very handy flower-holder were "bow-pot" and "beau-pot."

Some bough-pots were so large they could hold close to a gallon of water, while others were quite small and would hold less than a pint. These smaller bough-pots could be set on tables, or more often, mantels or window-sills, while the very large ones were set in front of a closed fireplace in summer, filled with fresh flowers. The multiple holes in the top of the bough-pot made it fairly easy to arrange the flowers and helped keep them in position once the bough-pot was set in place, whether on a window sill, a mantel or in front of a fireboard. In fact, many bough-pots were made with a half-cylinder profile so that the back would sit flush against a fireboard and not take up too much space beyond the hearth itself. Bough-pots were made in a wide range of colors and styles, and were decorated with a vast array of patterns, from simple floral designs to classical Greek motifs, and even landscapes. Bough-pots were imported from China and had been made by a number of English ceramics and porcelain factories from the latter half of the eighteenth century. There would certainly have been a number of Regency homes in which those more old-fashioned bough-pots would still have been in use. This Google Image Search results set will give you a look at some of the bough-pots which have survived into modern times.

Though they are seldom seen today, both fireboards and bough-pots were common household items which were put into service each summer during the Regency. Fireboards sealed the openings of the fireplaces, protecting the house from an invasion of unwanted visitors of the insect and animal varieties, while providing convenient and out-of-sight storage for the fireplace equipment until it was needed again in the autumn. Bough-pots filled with large flowers or flowering branches, placed in front of a plain fireboard, presented a view of fresh and colorful flowers which was every bit as attractive in summer as a crackling fire would be in winter, thus maintaining the hearth as the focal point of a room even in the months when a fire was not needed. Though in most cases, a bough-pot was placed in front of a plain fireboard, there were almost certainly some households in which a bough-pot filled with fresh flowers was placed in front of a fireboard covered with painted flowers. Any combination was possible.

In my debut novel, Deflowering Daisy, the majority of which takes place in the summer, bough-pots make more than one appearance. They are filled with flowers and placed in front of the fireplaces in the country house where Daisy and her hero spend one extraordinary week during the summer of 1816. Bough-pots are just one aspect of floral history which is scattered through the story.

Dear Regency Authors, though I have used bough-pots in my novel, there is nothing to prohibit you from using them in yours, too. They are fascinating vessels which can serve as more than just flower holders, should you wish them to do so. For example, a bough-pot might make the perfect hiding place for something small, which is impervious to water. Someone searching a room might pull the flowers from a bough-pot, but probably would not bother to pick it up and tip out the water. Thus, the small item would remain undiscovered. Maybe the small item is a signet ring which proves the heritage of the hero, or might it be the key to cabinet in which some object of great value is stored. And remember the fireboards. What might be concealed behind one? Or on one? Maybe the painting on the front of a fireboard is a puzzle which the heroine and her hero must solve in order to find some long-lost family heirloom or some critical document which will save the day. When you have a Regency novel set in the summer, keep fireboards and bough-pots in mind. One or the other of them might be just what you need to add a twist to your tale.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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12 Responses to Fireplaces During Regency Summers

  1. helenajust says:

    I wondered about the bough-pots which were mentioned in Deflowering Daisy! Thank you for this article.

  2. I guess we’re most awfully provincial in Ipswich but I know several people who cover their fireplace with a plain board and have flowers in a big vase in front of it. Except they usually use dried flowers or silk flowers so they don’t have to change them. That’s modern life for you… I don’t bother. The cats would do things to the flowers. I might just paint a trompe l’oieull board though! I can think of another use of this, though; the language of flowers was not as big as it was in the Victorian era, but it was a medieval invention, and if two people [star-crossed lovers perhaps] had a mutual friend, and a knowledge of the language of flowers, the passing of messages in the choices of flowers might be a possibility.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      How cool that the practice still continues in England. I know it does in some parts of Ireland, but I was never in England in the summer and had no idea if fireboards were still used. Apparently, there is a modern resurgence of the practice here in the US, as I came across a few artists who paint fireboards on commission. Most of them seem to be of the trompe l’oeil variety, and are very attractive. You might be starting a new trend in the UK if you do one! Since painting the family pet in the fireplace was a popular motif, perhaps you could paint your cats on your fireboard. At least the pictures of them can’t get into any mischief! 😉

      I like the idea of sending messages via the choice of flowers, though I am not sure how easy it would be to work into a story. The only records I have found for the language of flowers is either that from modern-day florists, or a few books from the Victorian era. I have always hoped to find one from the Regency period, but so far, no luck. Then again, in a work of fiction, perhaps one could make up one’s own language, which would have the effect of making the messages that much more secure, if only a small group knew their true meaning.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I have a few notes about the practice of floral messages in the age of chivalry, the flowers being mostly what the Victorians would have dismissed as ‘weeds’. I keep hoping to find more about whether it ever continued, or whether it was totally unearthed with the Victorian passion for the Gothic. Of course, someone might have found notes in a commonplace book….
        Having cats painted on fireboards would certainly be less stressful than hurtling across a room to grab a tail before it disappeared up the chimney. I have a spark guard against that eventuality at the moment, but a fire board would be prettier.
        Yes, I managed to persuade her to come down. And being black, the soot only showed up in the footprints she left everywhere.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          They really do have to check out literally everything! Years ago, my cat at the time, a tuxedo cat, managed to get up into the attic when I was not looking. She finally came out of all the crawl spaces she had to investigate as an all-black kitty. She was VERY annoyed at the bath which followed! I had no idea what was on her and did not want her consuming it as she groomed herself. But I think she may have connected the bath with the attic adventure, since she never tried to go up there again.

          =^..^=

          • just as well! goodness, yes, I can think of all sorts of unsavoury things that might be in attic crawl spaces, and some of them have to do with things like insulation. heh, plot bunnie here, a cat gets into the chimneys in a bedroom and the young ladies at a soiree or afternoon tea are terrified by a knocking on the fire board…. ‘it’s a ghost!’… and the brave hero rescues the cat. And if truly heroic helps to bathe it….

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              He gets major points if he helps to bathe the cat!

              =^..^=

              • yes, MY hero had to wear motorcycle gauntlets to help bathe our muscular 16lb cat when he fell in a barrel of light machine oil at a local business. [no, I don’t know how.] And was still lacerated. We ended up with cat in corner of bathroom covered in shampoo and howling while we threw buckets of water at him to rinse off the bubbles. He went straight for the bed to dry off inside the middle of it. a hero who would ruin his driving gloves for the heroine’s cat is one to hang on to… my mother for one loves romances where children and animals are brought in [so do I] so the ‘aaaaah’ factor is worth considering….

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                A man who would sacrifice his motorcycle gloves to save a cat and endure all that clawing! No wonder you are still in love with him!!!

                I like stories with either children or animals, since they tend to keep things honest and to the point. Plus, there is nothing wrong with the”aaaahh” factor.

                =^..^=

  3. alinakfield says:

    Kathryn, you always have such interesting and informative articles. I’m in the midst of a story that takes place in the summer and I’ve added a fireboard to the room description.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the article so immediately useful. You are welcome to post a link to your book in a comment here once it is published, so visitors who wish to read it can find it easily.

      Regards,
      Kat

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