Anyone who has ever visited a historic home or living history village has probably seen a fireplace fitted out with a cooking crane, perhaps with pots hanging from hooks or a trammel, but long before there were cooking cranes there was the humble lug-pole.
The lug-pole was a freshly-cut pole of green wood, sometimes called a back-bar, suspended between two ledges high up in the chimney from which hung chains, pots, kettles, and other utensils needed for meal preparation.
A lug is a handle or projection used as a hold or support. The chimney-side was called a lug prior to the 18th century, thus the pole that was suspended from side to side high in the chimney was a lug-pole.
The English sometimes called them a gallow-balke, and the hooks that hung from the pole a gallow-crooke. These terms are also found on early estate inventories in New England.
The estate inventory of Sir Timothie Hutton, Knt., a prosperous English fellow, dated 1624, listed among other items 4 ½ dozen pewter, 7 brass pots and posnets, 4 brass pans, 2 kettles, one pestle and mortar, 2 dripping pans, 2 frying pans, 3 spits, one pair of racks, a gallow balke, 3 pairs of gallow crookes, 3 pairs of pot crooks, a pair of tongs, a porringer, 3 ladles, one grater, and two chopping knives. – Hutton, Matthew. The Correspondence of Dr. Matthew Hutton, Archbishop of York. 1843. London.
The lug-poles eventually dried out from the rising heat and become brittle or charred, especially when the cook was careless with the fire and allowed flames to burn too briskly. A wise man checked the condition of the lug pole periodically and replaced it before it was damaged and weakened enough to break, spilling his dinner in the ashes.
Burns were common, and many fatal, when the lug-pole suddenly gave way spilling the contents of the kettles and boilers and splashing on whoever happened to be nearby. – Earle, Alice Morse. Colonial Dames and Good Wives. 1895. Cambridge, Mass.
The lug-pole cost only some labor to install or to replace when it gave way.
Because it did not swing in and out of the fireplace like a crane, the cook was required to lean in to stir pots and check for doneness as the food cooked. This was hot, smoky, and dirty work. Once the technology was in place, women were happy to replace the lug-pole with a cooking crane that swung in and out when their circumstances allowed.
In early America, crude chimneys were made from sticks or blocks of wood laid similar to the logs in a log house with generous daubing of mud between them. The lower part of the chimney was coated in a thick layer of mud inside to a height above the devouring flames, and the lug-pole was usually suspended at about that height. It wasn’t uncommon for a cabin to burn down because the chimney itself made from such combustible materials caught fire. Fortunate was the woman whose chimney was brick or rock at the bottom and topped with sticks and mud.
The chimney is  large with an oven in each end of him. He is so large that we can place our cyttle [kettle] within the clavel [mantle] piece. We can bake and brew and boil our cyttle all at one time in him. – John Winter, 1634, letter to friends still in Old England, quoted in Barrows, Anna. Everyday Housekeeping: a Magazine for Practical Housekeepers. Vol. 17-18.
The massive fireplaces of that era burned logs so long they were sometimes hauled into the houses by horses and many kept sleds for that purpose. There was a seemingly never-ending supply of wood so it wouldn’t be for some years that the size of the fireplaces would need to be reduced drastically in an effort to reduce the amount of fuel needed for them. – Cornell Science Leaflet. Vol. 1-3. 1907.
Perhaps my view is somewhat skewed, but I still find the hearth and its tools quaint and calming despite the amount of work that goes into preparing a meal.
A motley collection of pot-hooks and hakes, of gib-crokes, twi-crokes, and trammels were hung upon the lug-pole, and in turn suspended from these, at various heights from the fire, were pots and kettles and other utensils. In the hearth corners were arrayed skillets and trivets, peels and slices, the dutch oven, etc., and above on the clavel piece were festooned strings of dried apples, pumpkins, corn, and peppers. – Ibid.
No wonder early cooking vessels had extra long handles to allow the cook as much room between her and the danger of boiling water and hot food that might rain down without notice should the lug-pole burn through.
Eventually some were able to replace the wooden lug-pole with an iron pole for safety but that still did not afford the cook the luxury of swinging the food out away from the heat and smoke to be stirred and otherwise tended. The next phase in the evolutionary process, the cooking crane, however, would soon do just that.
Blissful meals, Victoria
Bib: Hazeltine, Gilbert Wilkinson. The Early History of the Town of Ellicott, Chautauqua County, N.Y. 1887. Jamestown, NY.
Academy & Literature. Feb. 11, 1899.