Fond of Fire

Depositphotos_3717756_XLBy Mary Jo

Taming fire was surely one of the most significant developments in human history.  Probably the discovery happened numerous times and numerous places, but the results were profound. Fire provided warmth, hot food, the ability to venture out into darkness, fire pottery and bricks.

It could also be a tool for long distance communication.  There's a marvelous scene in The Return of the King, the third Lord of the Rings movie, where signal fires are lit to summon the troops to battle.  It's breathtaking to watch the fires catch on distant peaks.


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The Persistence of Fireplace Tools

Wench a_cottage_interior_william_redmore 2

Pensive, with bellows.

I was cleaning ashes out the woodstove today and putting aside some of the fireplace tools to carry out onto the porch to polish and get ready for storage for the summer.

Not all of them. Just the ones I don’t use often. I’m mostly done with the wood heat for the year, but there’ll be one or two more fires to light on cool evenings. From here on out it’s just for enjoyment. Just for the beauty.

Anyhow, I was considering my woodstove which is fairly sophisticated as woodstoves go. It’s covered with pretty tile and has fancy corrugations inside that do something about fire efficiency. There’s flues. There's a trap in the bottom to remove ashes while the stove is in operation. There’s thermal insulating rope around the door that has to be replaced every couple of years which is why I know about it. It has a thermal glass door. Thermal glass!

Space age woodstove.

Wench shovel

Also pensive. Has shovel. See broom to the side.

But my array of fireplace tools would settle comfortably next to my Regency heroine’s bedroom hearth. Or Elizabeth Tudor’s hearth. There is a perfection of form and design that’s brought these humble implements through centuries unchanged.

So. What do I have? Leesee …

A poker. Actually I have two. No idea how I ended up with two but I can’t bring myself to throw out the extra one.

You see, if I were a Regency heroine and were menaced by the villain, I’d bop him over the head with a poker and be perfectly safe.
But what if there were two villains? Huh? What then?

Nobody ever thinks about that.

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Colors in the Fire

Joanna here, talking about enjoying her fire.DSCN1436

I'm lucky enough to heat with wood in the winter, so I have a fire going in the stove for about five months out of the year.  I'm a hippie refugee to the country, rather than real country folk like my grandparents, so my woodstove has a clear glass door.  I get to watch the fire burn.  It never fails to lift my spirits.

My son sent me some packets of fire color.  You toss this in and the chemical — this particular chemical is Cupric Sulfate — makes the fire burn green-blue.  

These pictures can only give you a small taste of how lovely the fire is.  It's like the auroa borealis — or


my dog, wildly excited about the colors

what I imagine the aurora borealis would look like.    Seeing the Northern Lights is on my bucket list but I haven't managed to do it yet.

I understand the wood that floats in from the sea can just naturally burn with colors. That's something else I'd like to see.

Watching a fire burn is such a basic human kinda thing to do.  I feel connected to my distant ancestors who no doubt sat around the fire working on their computers and playing video games far into the night as the wolves howled outside the cave. 


Do you have a fireplace or woodstove or outdoor fire you get to watch?


Peat Fires and the English Regency

Feu_de_tourbeJoanna here, philosophising for a minute.

One of the ironies that strikes me from time to time is the realization that a somebody living in a simple suburban rambler or a condo in Cincinnati in 2013 is probably more physically comfortable than a duchess in 1780.  

Your Georgian dowager duchess warmed her tootsies at an open hearth.  She used a fire screen to shield her face from the direct heat of the fire.  She had a wing-back chair, maybe, to wrap the heat around her before it dissipated in the balmy 48 degrees of the rest of the room.  That chill whistle at the back of her neck was the cold air rushing in
to run up the chimney, taking much of the heat of the fire with it. 
That's why the 'drafty old manor house' in a Romance book is drafty.

What was the dowager burning on that hearth?  Into the Eighteenth Century, well-to-do Englishmen burned wood — and didn't they have a lovely open hearth with logs and firedogs and pokers on the side that were handy for fighting off unwanted advances. 

By the Regency, most
William bigg 1793 English city houses, and a goodly proportion of houses in the country, had refitted their chimneys to burn coal.  The firedogs on that open hearth were replaced with a cast iron basket for coal — still on an open hearth.  Oddly, the 'efficient and pretty tiled stove in the parlor' concept remained the property of Germans and Russians and those Americans in
their wild, snowy north.
That was the Dowager and the vulgar City merchant and the vicar's wife in Little Tweeting, Hamps.  The country poor weren't nearly as well off.  They burned what wood they could gather, what coal they could afford.  Where peat was available, the countryfolk burned peat.  Denmark peat digging

Today, we think of peat fires as Scottish and Irish.  Writers in the Regency period felt the same way.  Peat fires — turf fires, they were called — were treated as a Scots and Irish specialty.  They were deplored as a product of dire poverty by some writers and lauded as picturesque by others.  But to get to the Scots and Irish peat fires, those writers must have bowled right past any number of English cottages in Lincolnshire, Somerset, and Northamptonshire busily burning peat. 

There's not much said about these English peat fires.  A Regency couple fleeing villains might well have found the kindly old farm couple who took them in sitting by a thoroughly English peat fire. 

Loading the peat cart westhay somerset 1905So we turn to the question — What is peat and how come we can burn dirt?
In what may be the first description of European peat fires, Pliny says the natives of north Germany ". . . form mud with their
hands, which, when dried in the wind rather than in the sun, is burned
to cook their food, and warm their bodies chilled by the cold north

     Pliny, Natural History

Despite Pliny, good peat is not 'mud'.  It's decayed vegetable matter, compreessed and concentrated over thousands of years. 

When a lowland is so waterlogged you can't farm it, so marshy it won't Turfsteker_Peat-cutter wikigrow trees, so spongy you can't build a road across it, so mushy you can't graze animals on it — you may have yourself a peat bog.

s a video about how you cut peat.  The guy makes it look easy.  I suspect it is not. 

The very general idea behind peat cutting is you slice yer waterlogged peat, which is sitting in its bog as it has been for millennia, and lift it out .  You get largish bricks which are 95% water and not, in this condition, inclined to burn.  Then:

"They cut it out in long pieces, they lay them in a regular order carefully, in rows upon the ground, to be dried by the sun and wind. … As the peat dries, and is turned by persons appointed for that purpose, to dry it the better, it breaks into smaller lengths, and then it serves not only the poor but many other persons, for firing, and gives a good  heat."
      Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, VolumScotish Peat Gathereres 50-51, 1758.

After a week or two, when the bricks have shed most of their water, you stack them up in piles and let them dry some more, because you do not generally want to be carting all that water home.

Along the right here are various interesting photos of Victorians cutting peat, pretty much the way their ancestors did it centuries ago, I should think.
Click on the photograph for a better view.

When your peat is well dried and hard, you bring it home.  You might pile it in a simple heap, or store it in an outbuilding, or maybe make a neat little stack and thatch it on top to keep the rain off. Folks also took it off and sold it in town.  It was a fuel for the urban poor in some places.Peat farmer heinrich jessen before 1866

"It is sold for about ten shillings a waggonload, delivered at their
houses in the town. The ashes also prove very good manure for both grass
and arable land and the farmers give from four pence to fix pence a
bushel for th
em, which renders this firing very cheap."
      Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Volumes 50-51, 1758.

There's a good bit written, now and in the Regency, about the particular pungent, intriguing, and characteristic odor of a peat fire.  My own experience is that peat fires just smell like fires.  There's also some mention made of 'roaring' or 'blazing' peat fires — generally in advertising brochures.  I've found peat fires to be low and slow and pleasantly warm. 
I am ready to be persuaded by other folks' experiences.

Considering the antiquity of peat cutting, I can't find much on interesting folk customs associated with peat fires or cutting peat.  That does feel strange to me.  

I miss having peat-gathering songs and maybe maypole dances to open the 'turfing season'.

If you had to choose between a wood fire or a peat fire, which would you pick?  You don't have to cook on it or anything.  And you don't have to go out and dig the peat or cut the trees.  The fireplace fairy does all that.

Turf or wood . . . or maybe something else.  What would you want in your fireplace?

Some lucky commenter wins one of my books, her choice.