Our winter’s been unusually mild here and it was strange to celebrate Christmas without any hint of snow on the ground. But we’ve known since Thanksgiving that the white stuff will get here. In fact as I write this, we’re expecting our first winter storm to hit us overnight. I look forward to curling up with a book this evening and reading to the music of a crackling fire. We won’t be the only ones comforting ourselves that way.
For millennium humans have built fires to warm themselves and cook their food. The Puritan colonists brought their English ways with them. At first they built walk-in fireplaces at one end of the house, often taking up half of the entire square footage. It was usual to have two or three separate fires going at the same time, for different cooking functions. Ovens weren’t built into the fireplace until later. By then homes were usually a bit larger than one room, though still small compared to modern standards, with a central chimney and fireplaces on both sides. Settles — benches with very high backs — were placed as close as possible to the fire with the backs shielding them from the icy cold in the rest of the room. The houses were framed with clapboards and roofed with thatch or shingles, providing the only insulation against bitter winter winds. Everyone wore thick clothes and slept under layered blankets and feather beds.
At night, what was left of the fire was covered with ashes to keep it until morning when it would kindle the next day’s fire. If no embers were left, someone in the house was dispatched with a fire pan to a neighbor’s house to borrow some fire. If there was no close neighbor, fire had to be started with a tinderbox of charred cotton or linen and flint. Friction matches weren’t widely available until the 1830’s.
House fires were common occurrences and homes and barns frequently burned to the ground. It was all too easy for a woman’s skirts to catch fire while she worked, or for a toddler to topple into the fire. The fronts of fireplaces were spanned by a lintel, a length of timber as big as sixteen inches on a side, and often charred from the fire itself. Sometimes the charred wood would smolder all night and set fire to the house. The trammel-bar in the flue could also catch fire and give way, spilling the pots and kettles onto the hearth and sometimes injuring people sitting nearby. A trammel stick caught fire in the home of one Captain Denney and spilled boiling liquid onto four of his children who were lying or sitting on the hearth, scalding them so badly that one died.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the crimes penalized by the Essex County Court in 1655 was “carelessness with fire.”