Andirons: Masterpieces of the Hearth

By Lucia Greene Connolly for Eve Stone Antiques, Ltd.

Originally designed to simply lift logs up off the hearth, andirons have been in use for more than five centuries. Their structural evolution has roughly mirrored that of the fireplace, changing and adapting as fashions and technology dictated. In his earliest quest to promote a better, more efficient fire, man found that raising wood up allowed oxygen to circulate, creating a healthy draft and producing a brighter, hotter fire. In the 15th century, andirons were fashioned from wrought iron and were very basic in design. Originally consisting of just a single bar between two tall ends, andirons were not used in pairs until hearths moved from the centers of rooms to outside walls as more sophisticated chimneys developed. During the 16th century, the blast furnace was invented, and with casting, technology advanced to produce heavier, more ornate andirons.

Over the course of the 17th century, design evolved to embrace practical needs: spit hooks were added so that meat could be precisely positioned over an open flame, log stays designed to keep logs in place appeared, and finials were used to hold bowls up over the fire. Early in the century, andirons were a mark of wealth, and less fortunate people simply used long, narrow rocks to keep the fire off the floor. Throughout most of this period, andirons were made of iron, but before the turn of the century, English blacksmiths began to embellish them with brass finials and feet. Brass was in limited supply and costly, but its addition in small amounts provided a strikingly attractive contrast to the dark iron, reflecting firelight beautifully throughout a room.

Early in the 18th century, several important developments influenced andiron design. Traditionally, fireplaces had been large to accommodate a variety of cooking pots and utensils, and most were without mantels, which didn’t enjoy frequent use until the end of the 18th century. Andirons of this period tended to be big, and heavy. Steadily rising affluence grew out of agriculture and expanding trade, and both the size of houses, and their furnishings, changed accordingly. In the mid-18th century—the Queen Mary period—trade between England and the American colonies prospered, and the Chippendale influence arrived from England. Founders in America began making fireplace tools, and andirons, that copied the heightened sense of design being imported from overseas. Andirons became more ornate; their columns were sometimes turned or fluted, cabriole legs came into fashion, and ornamental ball-and-claw feet gave them something beautiful to rest upon. More fanciful designs, such as twisted vases and diamond and flame finials, grew popular.

American metalworkers, who had been largely dependent on England for brass and its technology up until now, began to experiment with design. To provide strength against long and intense periods of heat, their andirons were cast mostly in one piece. Some of their designs were peculiar to American needs: to accommodate uneven hearth floors, they raised the center portion of the andiron foot, creating a low, flat arch with a flat foot at each end, a design that came to be known as the penny foot. Log stops were mounted on top of the billet bar, and a vertical support added underneath to keep the heat from bending the bar downward. By mid-18th century, American homes were becoming more stylish, with more rooms and additional fireplaces, and the British had turned to coal as their primary source of heat.

A critical factor influencing andiron design was that towards the end of the century, American fireplaces were growing smaller. Count Rumford, an American who lived most of his life in Europe, recognized that fireplaces were inefficient, and developed a new, shallower design that greatly augmented their ability to produce both heat and light. It was consequently difficult to use earlier andirons built for massive spaces, and the measure of the ideal andiron–roughly two-thirds the height of the fireplace opening-gained acceptance.

Given the considerable exchange of trade between England and America, and knowing that American founders commonly copied fashionable British patterns and style, how is today’s collector to distinguish between English and American andirons? Typically, 18th and 19th century English pieces had a wrought, tapered internal iron rod, square in section and shoulder near the lower end. Firedogs made of iron were often fronted with brass, and occasionally, enamel or brass. Some of the designs popular in 18th century andiron came from English metal workers, particularly in the last quarter of the century, who had used similar designs such as baluster shapes with spiral twists, on silver coffeepots and brass candlesticks.

In America, it was standard to make hollow castings in both centuries. Brass parts were cast in sand flasks, the legs were cast solid and urn-shaped finials, columns, and plinths cast as hollow, vertical halves then brazed together. Curved billet bars, or dogs, were listed as circular in 19th century American founders inventories, and may have been used to increase radiated heat. The principal centers for American andiron production were Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Some pieces are stamped with the maker’s surnames or initials, some are stamped with a number probably referring to a size or pattern, and other markings have been all or partially erased by decades of intense heat. Frequently, small parts were coded to prevent confusion during assembly. Typically, the codes appear as a series of punched dots, filed grooves, or engraved lines. Andirons were also coded according to size, which determined price. The larger the andirons, the greater the weight of the brass, and therefore, the most expensive.

Unfortunately, very few andirons bear the makers names, and predictably, those exceptions command higher prices. Collectors should be aware that many pairs have been reworked over the years, and they should always disassemble andirons for thorough examination. Experienced enthusiasts check to make sure the interior post, where the top piece is screwed into the bottom, is hand filed on its edges, as only antique pieces should be. With brass andirons, it’s advisable to place the pair face to face, checking to make sure the width and spread of the feet are equal. The same exercise should be done to check height. Additionally, the collector should place the pair together, back leg to back leg, to confirm they are the same length and have not been cut down. Caution must be used when disassembling andirons, because the threads can become corroded over time and the inner bar twisted off. Stylistically, reproductions are easily recognizable to the trained eye.

Authentic antique andirons bring joy to collectors who appreciate the centuries of design and technology that helped forge them. Outstanding examples of the best English and American metalwork, these andirons return enduring architectural and functional beauty to their original resting place—the hearth. As Eve is fond of saying, “The fireplace is the heart of the room as well as the focal point, so it is best to make sure your choice in andirons is an important one.” Eve Stone Antiques, Ltd. has the best assortment available as well as the resources to help the collector or decorator find the perfect pair of andirons.