Fire has always been a necessity in Europe for as long as air has been a necessity to breathe. Various forms of open fires have been recorded for centuries as a fundamental aspect of life particularly in the frigid climates of Northern Europe. Over the years, the development of fireplaces has played a major role in the way Europeans live and how their homes are designed.
The Evolution of Fireplaces in Europe
Rumford revolutionised Europe with the introduction of his fireplace. For centuries, Europeans had been faced with the burden of smoke infiltrating their homes. Before the arrival of chimneys, Romans would use tubes in walls to draw smoke out of buildings while most of the cooking took place in open atriums where there was space to allow the smoke to dissipate.
In much of continental Europe, smoke from open fires would escape through holes in the roof or holes in the walls made specifically for that purpose. However, enclosed houses simply filled with smoke. It is believed that the chimney originated sometime before the twelfth century. Historical records indicate that an earthquake in 1347 destroyed several chimneys in Venice.
Many attempted to resolve the problem of smoky chimneys ever since its invention. In the sixteenth century, Louis Savot of Paris, made a study on smoky chimneys suggesting recommendations and improvements to alleviate the smoke but with limited results. When wood shortages began to permeate throughout Europe leading to a rise in fuel costs, inventors like Count Rumford began to work on stoves that would reduce heat loss.
The Rumford Revolution in Europe
However, as the source of heat in Europe shifted from wood to coal, the need to resolve the problem of smoke filled rooms became even greater. Count Rumford battled this problem head on when he relocated to England from Bavaria in 1795. His early writings upon arriving in England suggested how appalled he was that the situation was not being addressed:
Rumford fireplaces became common from 1796 onwards. People rapidly began replacing all of the large walk-in fireplaces in Europe with a Rumford design in order to direct more heat into the rooms. The trend even caught on in America where Thomas Jefferson had a total of eight Rumford fireplaces in Monticello. But no country in Europe knows the Rumford fireplace legacy better than in the United Kingdom where the new fireplace design was an instant sensation throughout London where Count Rumford was based. Many of London's fashionable residences were modified according to Rumford’s specifications making him an instant celebrity.
Rumford's Legacy in Europe Heated More Than Fireplaces
Although the use and popularity of Rumford fireplaces throughout continental Europe are not as widely documented as in the United Kingdom, it is known that Rumford played a vital role in heating the hearts of people in Europe long before his fireplace was even invented. When Rumford moved to Bavaria from America in 1785, he worked for more than a decade establishing workhouses for the poor. He was well known for inventing a nutritious soup for the poor known as "Rumford Soup". The soup was composed of peas, barley, potatoes, vinegar, and water. It was served to children at lunch that were working part-time at Rumford's Poor People's Institute in Munich to produce clothes for the Bavarian Army. Rumford's concept of a kitchen serving food to the poor became the early foundations of the "soup kitchen" that expanded to England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Switzerland. Rumford also invented the wax candle to replace those made of beef fat while studying tallow candles and oil lamps.
After inventing his famous fireplace in England, Rumford also designed a kitchen range that would eliminate the unbearable heat and smoke that infiltrated kitchens. It was these innovations that heavily influenced the design of houses from the early stages of the nineteenth century to the Victorian era. In addition, he also invented the roasting oven, double boiler, and the pressure cooker. But Rumford did not stop there. He also significantly improved the operation and design of kilns that were used in the production of quicklime. This led to the construction of Rumford furnaces all over Europe.
The Rumford Fireplace Remains a Relevant Design Feature in Modern Properties
Although many Rumford fireplaces were replaced by modern forms of heating in the 1960’s, the design still remains a timeless centerpiece all over Europe and around the world. In fact, the Rumford fireplace is making a comeback as a feature in modern European homes.
People continue to be attracted to the aesthetics of the Rumford fireplace as well as the efficiency they are known for. With the cost of energy continuing to rise, home owners are evaluating more affordable methods of heating their homes. While the design remains simplistic, the fireplace can now be adapted into various styles to suit the design of a home. Historic homes are ideal for the Rumford design as it adds authenticity and ambience, but that can also work well in modern home designs. A number of restaurants, hotels and guest houses around the world are now incorporating Rumford fireplaces into the design of their common areas and guest rooms to add ambience to the property. Tourists enjoy the character that the Rumford fireplace adds to their experience. In the United States, the Boothbay Resort in Maine provides authentic Rumford fireplaces to warm guests every night while the Hampton Plantation State Historic site has made their Rumford fireplace a focal point of their tours discussing how the original fireplace in the parlor was retrofitted as a Rumford for efficiency.
In Europe, it is still possible to find Rumford fireplaces that remain in use today all over the continent especially in stately homes that are being opened for tours. There are countless opportunities to discover beautiful examples of the Rumford fireplace all over Europe. Although the popularity of the Rumford fireplaces in Europe is not as evident in modern documentation, it is clear that Rumford paved the way for many other innovations and institutions that we enjoy today. While the use of his fireplaces may have rapidly declined in the last century, his legacy in Europe went far beyond heating houses and kitchens. Rumford warmed the hearts of the poor in Bavaria pioneering a model of soup kitchens and school lunches that remain a legacy in our modern society that is highly relevant to this very day.
Back to Articles and Books
More About Count Rumford
Buckley Rumford Fireplaces
Copyright 1995 - 2014 Jim Buckley
All rights reserved.