A History of Twentieth Century Fireplaces: 1905-1939

We make Fireplaces from 1920s Art Deco fireplaces and classic Edwardian fireplace and mantel designs.

If the nineteenth century was the century of the cast iron Fireplace then the twentieth century, certainly up to the 1970’s, was the era of the tiled fireplace.

In 1905 much of Britain was coming out of the period of mourning that followed Queen Victoria’s death. The black cast iron Fireplaces that had become increasingly ornate during Victoria's reign were on their way out too. By the late 1800s cast iron Fireplaces had been incorporating tile sets as an adornment with Art Nouveau patterns featuring around the turn of the century. Embossed, tubelined, transfer printed and hand painted tiles all were widely used in 5 tile vertical sets in the frame and also set into the floor to create the hearth.

The Edwardian era saw a change of fashion. More substantial tiled Fireplace opening blocks were produced which supplanted the need for a cast iron frame altogether. A Fireplace Mantel surrounded the tiled panels or inserts which themselves framed the Fireplace opening. Wooden and Tiled inserts rapidly became the Fireplace of choice almost always with matching hearth tiles laid on top of the constructional hearth and finishing flush with the floorboards. Tiled fenders (also matching) would have been a common feature, though being a readily movable item few survive today.

Glazed finishes were often dramatic with mottles, pastel colours and iridescent glazes all common. Geometric styles, with the tiles cross-bonded in a bricklaying fashion were often used but perhaps the most pervasive design was the simple arch, known as a Clarence Arch – with or without a keystone.

The tiled back panels were prefabricated by a technique called ‘slabbing’ whereby the tiles were laid together upside down on a very flat surface, usually a slate table. Then temporary edges were placed around the tiles and the back was filled with a mortar. When set, the piece was lifted from the bench, and then grouted.

Early ‘slabbed’ jobs were all made using white plaster, often reinforced with slate or thick pieces of wrought iron. In the twenties this changed to a form of concrete, then in the 1970s this in turn was replaced by lightweight concrete mixtures, which utilized pearlite as an aggregate instead of stone.

Wooden Fireplace Mantelpieces to surround the Fireplace inserts were common up until World War One as were marble and slate Fireplace Mantels, many of which were strikingly and very skillfully painted. Over Fireplace Mantel mirrors became incorporated into the wooden Fireplace Mantel itself rather than being an optional extra. Mahogany, as in the Victorian era, continued to be a popular choice of wood, but Walnut and Oak were increasingly used, replacing the often darker cast iron, slate and stone Fireplace Mantels that had been popular at the tail end of the Victorian era.

In 1861 one of the founding fathers of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, and Faulkner which promoted hand-made textiles, books, wallpaper, and furniture. They reverted to medieval manufacturing methods, (basically hand made, although some machinery was used) using traditional materials. Medieval Fireplace hoods and ingle nooks saw a return. Many other designers also looked to the Middle Ages for influence. Arts and Crafts styles were united with mass production techniques bringing these designs to the general public at a reasonable price. Common natural forms such as birds, blossom and fruit dominated and abstract patterns were limited to borders and backgrounds. The classic tile design is the quartered tile based on popular early William Morris' designs. On many arts and crafts tiles each quarter had a different, simple stylised flower spray. This basic quartered pattern design developed into a variety of more complex designs.

The influence of the Arts and Crafts movement was very much in evidence by Edwardian times. The fussiness of high Victorian decoration gave way to tapered columns, cleaner lines and less ornamentation. The Arts and Crafts was a reaction to the uniformity of Victorian mass produced goods and the shoddiness of design and workmanship that inevitably followed. It attempted to revive handicrafts and applied arts and stimulate good design. Beaten copper Fireplace inserts were perhaps the best expressing of the Arts and Crafts tradition and were hand-made by the thousands up until the time of World War 1. These Fireplaces were often found in "stockbroker belt" semi detached houses of the period, typically the half-timbered Mock Tudor properties many of which had heraldic decorative themes.

The cast iron Fireplace making industry, which had probably been kept very busy in the run up to, the war, needed to adapt once the war was over. By the early 1920’s few if any traditional black cast iron Fireplaces were being installed any where in England. The answer the industry came up with was Vitreous Enameling.

Vitreous enameled cast iron Fireplaces were made in modern colours and finishes- predominately mottled brown and beiges, and were installed by the thousand in the bedrooms of 1920 / 30s houses.

Heating and cooking at this time was still mostly done by means of Bungalow Ranges, which were also vitreous enameled.

Attempts were even made to copy the look of a tiled insert in enameled cast iron as this rare example shows. So cast iron Fireplaces were still found around the home, but as a focus in lounges and parlours, they had, by the 1920’s almost disappeared, certainly in their traditional black form.

By the early 1920s a myriad of small and large manufacturers increasingly produced tiled inserts and also completely Tiled Fireplaces for the mass market. This industry (which only required a small initial investment to begin production) probably grew out of the existing tile making industry, and several of the more famous tile makers were also to become large-scale Fireplace slabbers. But the sheer number of small firms creating these Fireplaces, at least in part characterized the industry. For small tile makers it was relatively easy to begin prefabricating these fashionable items.

The style of Art Deco is difficult to define as it had many diverse influences. It is a complex collection of styles. In Europe and the United States it was more associated with the machine aesthetic.. Art Deco developed both as a reaction against the elaborate and sinuous Art Nouveau style and as a new aesthetic that celebrated the machine age and is a mixture of styles from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, originally known as the "Style Moderne" or "Paris 25".

Historical influences are discarded in favour of modern ideas, decorative detail is sacrificed to function and industrial designs and methods are adopted. It was used primarily in furniture, jewellery, textiles, ceramics, and interior design Early Art Deco pieces are identified by expensive materials and craftsmanship used to create sculpture and luxury items. Moderne designs often reflect the world-wide craze for Egyptology which swept the globe after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922.

The central characteristics of Art Deco are clean lines and sharp edges, stylishness and symmetry. It's sleek, streamlined forms conveyed elegance and sophistication. Bright primary colours, the use of chrome, enamel, and highly polished stone, and references to ancient Egyptian and Greek design are also associated with the style. Stylised flowers, girls, geometric patterns, zigzags, chevrons, lightning bolts and stylised animals show clearly the Egyptian influence as well as elements of the Orient, tribal Africa and the Ballet Russes. In Europe the influence of the Bauhausand others led to cleaner lines and less ornamentation.

Common motifs used principles of geometry with characteristic straight lines, triangles, zigzags, steps, setbacks, sunbursts or similar regular forms.

The expensive hand-crafted, limited edition pieces was a problem to modernist designers and brought a change to the Moderne style. Design became for everyone, not just the wealthy. As objects were increasingly mass-produced and the United States displaced France as the centre of the movement, Art Deco became even more geometric and linear.

In America, the style found expression in "American Streamline" with streamlined objects as diverse as locomotives, roadside diners, radio cabinets, jukeboxes, advertising displays and skyscrapers including William van Alen's 1930 Chrysler Building in New York.

In Fireplaces Art Deco was almost immediately translated into a wealth of designs, which used traditional Fireplace materials, but in a more spectacular, avant-garde way. Simple understated lines were set off by the use of reflective chrome, lacquered wood or tiles to give a modern feeling without being over ornate.Designs could reflect the Art Deco influence of the Mexican stepped pyramid or might be asymmetric, influenced by the social realism movement.

World War II resulted in the urgent need to re-house families and consequently to a move from traditional Fireplaces to quickly installed electric fires.

Prosperity began to return during the 1950s and Tiled Fireplaces returned although by the middle of the decade even the wooden Fireplace Mantelshelf had disappeared and décor trends accepted the wall-mounted fire.

With the introduction of central heating many hearths were removed and the fire surrounds stripped out or boarded up removing the architectural focal point of the room. In any case the focal point of the rooms had moved from the Fireplace to the television from the mid 1950s.

In the early 1970s with the living flame gas fire demand returned for fire surrounds in the Adam style. Initially these were housed in simple designs although stone Fireplaces later became popular again.