The Chimney Corner, by Joseph Clark. (1834-1926).

By the mid-19th century the chimney corner was already becoming a relic of the past, however, for colonial Americans it was perhaps the most beloved space in the home.  The chimney corner is defined as the space inside a massive 18th century (or earlier) fireplace and the jamb on either side of the fire where one could sit easily and comfortably by firelight.

This may sound as if the occupants were roasting themselves, but those early fireplaces were so massive that there was plenty of space for sitting and other activities a safe distance from the fire that often burned on one end of the hearth. 

The 18th century mantle was also very large, extending the length of the ample fireplace and hearth upon which sat an array of utensils.  From the mantle or door jamb hung other tools such as tongs, an iron fire-shovel, a bellows, brushes, etc. 

 

A chimney corner from a vintage postcard, date unknown.

The chimney corner, also called an inglenook from the late 19th century, was a cozy place, remembered and loved by everyone who experienced its charm.

The old chimney corner!  It is endeared to the heart from the earliest recollection.  What dreams have been there!  What stories told!  What bright hours passed!  It was a place to think in, a place to weep in, to laugh in, and much the coziest place in the house to rest in.  It was there that dear old grand-mama used to sit at her knitting warming her poor rheumatic back against the warm wall; where grandpa used to fall asleep over his newspaper, where mama used to place her spinning wheel, and papa used to sit there too, and read in the great armchair.

Is there a room in our modern homes that will be remembered so fondly?  The writer of the previous passage went on to say children sat in the chimney corner and read fairy tales, played games, laughed and cried, and, “even puss and the house-dog loved the old chimney corner”.  [1]

Samuel Goodrich recalled the pleasures of the chimney corner of his childhood.

During the autumn a dye-tub in the chimney corner—thus placed so as to be cherished by the genial heat—was as familiar in all thrifty houses, as the Bible or a back log.  It was covered with a board and formed a cozy seat in the wide-mouthed fireplace, especially of a chill evening.  When the night had waned, and the family had retired, it frequently became the anxious seat of the lover, who was permitted to carry on his courtship, the object of his addresses sitting demurely in the opposite corner.  [2]

The chimney corner had its practical uses, not the least of which was food preservation.  Heavy strings laden with dried apples, rounds of pumpkins, onions, red peppers, herbs, and maybe even seed corn were suspended from hooks.  [3]

Meat was kept suspended in the chimney corner as evidenced from the following account.

An obituary spoke of the frugal nature of one deceased gentleman for whom no other joint of meat than a breast of mutton which was hung up in his chimney corner to dry and a slice cut off each day as it was wanted.  [4]

Samuel Hopwood was even known to preach to a small congregation from the chimney corner of his home.  “Samuel Hopwood, who visited this continent in the service of the Gospel, early in the present [18th] century, said he had frequently heard Richard Smith preach in his chimney corner, to the little audience of Friends and neighbors…”  [5]

In speculating as to the appearance of the good reverend’s home which could accommodate such a feat, it is safe to assume it had, “one of those great fireplaces which were built in those days, as large as a small room, with space for a large fire of logs in the middle, and a chimney corner settle or bench on each side, which seats, as the warmest, were considered the places of honor, and reserved for persons of age and dignity”.  [6]

Literature through the 19th century is filled with references to the chimney-corner, ranging in importance from a mere title for a collection of stories or poems, to a description of the chimney-corner and its contents.

There is a clock on the right-had side of the kitchen; a warming-pan hangs close by it on the projecting side of the chimney-corner.  On the same side is a large rack containing many plates and dishes of Staffordshire ware.  Let me not forget a pair of fire-irons which hang on the right hand side of the chimney-corner…  [7]

Reader, you may still wonder at this point about the size of a chimney corner and its particulars which the following passage may explain.

A very comfortable kitchen with a chimney-corner on the south side—immense grate and brilliant fire—large kettle hanging over it by a chain attached by a transverse iron bar—a settle on the left-hand side of the fire, seven fine large men near the fire—two upon the settle, two upon chairs, one in the chimney-corner smoking a pipe, and two standing up.  [8]

We have seen the chimney-corner as the focal point of the 18th century kitchen with its cook pots and kettles simmering away, as the warm nook for elders too frail for the colder parts of the house, as a private area for courting couples, and as a platform from which to preach the gospel.  The following account sums up that long forgotten space remembered so fondly and makes us yearn for the warmth and security it offered while showing us a need for education so strong that even one bound to labor through the years with not a bit of compensation for his worldly needs rose early and retired late in order to attain a degree of betterment for himself.  Can any of us say we would be so diligent?

 Education in the Chimney Corner, Mr. Haynes, the Colored Preacher.

 It is well known that chimneys among the early settlers on the western hills in New England were of a peculiar structure.  They were built of huge stones, with a broad base, occupying at least one third of the ground covered by the building.  The fire-place seems to have received its form either with reference to its consuming the greatest quantity of fuel, or for the purpose of forming a kind of sitting-room for the younger members of the family.  Hence the fire-place was nearly eight feet between the sides and a full yard in depth.  In one extreme was the oven, and in front of it was the long square block, which would comfortably seat the children, one, two, or three in number, as the case might require. 

Such was the chimney-corner where Lemuel Haynes in his childhood laid the foundation of his future usefulness.  While his mates were sporting in the streets, and even round the door, you might see him sitting on his block with his book in his hand.  Evening after evening he plied his studies by fire light, having the preceding day laid in a store of pine knots and other combustibles for the purpose. 

The luxury of a candle he rarely enjoyed.  Here he studied his spelling-book and psalter till he had literally devoured them.  He studied the Bible till he could produce by memory most of the texts which have a bearing upon the essential doctrines of grace; and could also refer, with nearly infallible accuracy, to the book, chapter, and verse where they might be found….All this and much more he accomplished on his block, in the chimney-corner, by fire-light.  At the same time no boy in the neighborhood performed a greater amount of manual labor. 

Bound by indenture as a servant, he was obliged to labor hard through the day, so that the hours of the evening and the twilight of the morning were his only time for mental improvement. 

And yet he had a system.  I make it my rule, said he, TO KNOW SOMETHING MORE EVERY NIGHT THAN I KNEW IN THE MORNING.  [9]

“The Chimney-Corner” by Henry Mosler (1841-1920)

Notes:

Reformed Church in the United States.  The Guardian.  Vol. 14-15.  Nov. 1863.

Goodrich, Samuel Griswold.  Recollections of a Lifetime.  1856.  NY.

The New England Kitchen Magazine.  Vol. 1.

The Gentleman’s Magazine.  March 1828. 

The Friend.  Vol. 44.  Feb. 18, 1871.

Ibid.

Borrow, George Henry.  Wild Wales:  Its People, Language, and Scenery.  1862.  London.

Ibid.

Parley’s Magazine.  1837.  New York and Boston.

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