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.