Fireplaces and Home Fires at the Davenport House

December 2nd, 2010

This winter, cold, piercing, winter! I am half frozen, with my back close to the fire and a foot stove beneath my feet.” (Margaret Baynard Smith speaking of Washington, DC in the early 19th Century)

Fireplaces and Home Fires at the Davenport House

Are we oblivious??!! One wonders, if we were stripped of our modern necessities – running water, central air and refrigeration – would we be able to manage?!! This isn’t rhetorical pontification. As we turn our thoughts to the upcoming winter months and impending holiday celebration, could we build and maintain a fireplace till spring? In the 19th century the winter hearth was a necessity in daily living as well as a comforting center of the home during the colder months and yet, what reference do we really have to it — really?

In thinking of a topic to concentrate on for holiday research, the DH settled on home fires and fireplaces as a way to amp up interest in past daily living and holiday celebrations. Who doesn’t like a roaring fireplace?! And, for many of us our only frame of reference to an open fire in the home is during the holidays. But for 19th century Savannahians, wood fires were a daily necessity – that is if one wanted warm, cooked food – even in the summer.

During the Davenports’ time the need for wood for cooking was year round while the need for wood to warm the body was seasonal with the most consequential months usually being November through March. Because of the abundance of wood, this was the fuel of choice. Newspaper ads and inventories indicated that coal was available—imported from England in the 1820s. The fireplaces in Isaiah Davenport’s fine home were originally wood burning. It was only after the Civil War that coal was commonly available for Savannahians. In 1823, Shadrack Winkler and W. C. Wayne sold firewood and would deliver it to their customers in Savannah.

One assumes Winkler would have pulled his wagon up to the lane gate of Mr. Davenport’s utility yard and one of Davenport’s slaves – maybe Ned or Davy– would have unloaded the oak or hickory (which are better burning woods than pine) and put it on the woodpile. Actually with the carriage house, well and privy there was not a lot of room on the 60 X 90 foot “tithing lot.” But, wood was a necessity to be stored handy to both the kitchen and warming fireplace use. Making sure wood was a burnable size (which might mean chopping wood), hauling it through the house, igniting and maintaining fires was a time consuming and labor intensive job for the servants of the household.

Charlie Seton Henry Hardee’s “Recollection of Old Savannah.” [Georgia Historical Quarterly. 1928 (His recollections go back to the 1830s)] revealed much about daily living in Savannah. Hardee remembers as a boy how fires were lit – both for the kitchen and for warmth – saying, “The flint and steel method, which must have been brought into use in very ancient times, was still in use when I was a small boy [1830s], and many years afterwards. The apparatus for producing fire with the flint and steel was very simple, and consisted of a receptacle for holding some kind of very inflammable (sic) substance, called `tinder.’ This receptacle was nothing more nor less than the lower part of a small cow’s-horn, and the tinder was made of scorched cotton, which is very inflammable (sic). A red hot spark struck off by the flint and steel was caught in the tinder and blown upon gently until kindled into a flame larger enough to ignite a few splinters of what the negroes (sic) call `fat lightwood,’ [kindling] and a blazing fire was kindled in less than no time. The whole outfit was called a `Tinder Horn.’” So to build a fire at the Davenports’ or anywhere else, one needed starter – flint, steel and the scorched cotton as noted by Seton – to ignite the fire; tinder – such as wood shavings, pine cones, or corn shucks, to accelerate the fire; “fat lightwood” or kindling to get the larger split logs burning. All of this was necessary whether for kitchen or drawing room.

In a household like the Davenports’ tools were available to perpetuate this process. A well drawing chimney was important. The andirons or firedogs held the split logs above the fire-starting floor of the hearth. Bellows were used to fan the fire. Tongs and pokers were used to manipulate the wood to its best burning advantage and shovels were for moving coals about and removing ash. Fenders kept cinders from blowing onto the floor outside the hearth. Only in the 20th century did these become romantic symbols of the Colonial Revival with no practical application.

There are twelve fireplaces in the Davenport House. One on the basement level would have been the primary cooking hearth while all eight on the parlor and bedroom levels were for warmth. In the American South the cook fireplace had not changed much since the colonial period and manning the station required fortitude and stamina. The adult female slaves in the Davenport Household, Bella, Peggy or Nancy, did this work. “Stooping, bending, lifting, holding, reaching, pushing, stretching, leaning . . . the poor housewife [in the DH’s case a household servant] went through a back-breaking ritual to get her pots and kettles (usually wrought iron) into and out of that flaming cavern.” We assume, though there is no current evidence to prove it, that Davenports had an oven as part of the cooking hearth. “The oven had a separate ritual all its own. A fire had to be built within the oven cavity at the front of the fireplace and allowed to get its hottest. When the bricks were suitably bright in color, it was time to remove the fire and its ashes using a long, flat-bladed shovel. The brick bottom of the oven was then brushed clean with a broom of hemlock twigs, and in went the brown bread, beans, pudding, pie, or cake to bake directly on the hot bottom bricks. ”[Merritt Ierley. Open House.]

During the Davenports’ time there were four fireplaces in the basement level and one or all of them could have been used for cooking. The fireplace in the gift shop, though altered, retains its original proportions and is reminiscent of the cooking hearth – though some experts believe the largest hearth was the one on the southwestern corner now covered with a false wall. Up in the main part of the house are four fireplaces on both the parlor floor and the bedroom level. Along with those in the basement, these fireplaces have inner-workings – dampers, smoke chambers, etc. – in the walls required to let in air and take out smoke – all making the fireplaces operate as planned. The house has four chimneys -each containing three flues – one for each of the corresponding fireplaces per floor below. There are no fireplaces on the attic level but the area could have been kept warm by the accumulated heat from the rooms below (remember from 4th grade science that heat rises).

The fireplaces on the south side of the house in the public rooms convey status and the emerging aesthetic of the Greek Revival. The one in the Office is reminiscent of a November 7, 1820 ad in The Daily Georgian listing five marble mantles for sale and imported by Joyner E. Fenno on the recently arrived Sloop Cotton Plant. The ad read, “No. 3, containing one Italian Statuary Marble Chimney Piece, with mummy heads, unique caps, carved freezes”. The ad illustrates the importation of European mantles through the port of Savannah which were available to master builders such as Davenport. The fireplace of “green and pink” marble and featuring ionic columns in the Drawing Room, which was the most public of rooms, was intended to make a statement of tastes and style. As one 20th century historian writes, “In the domestic dwelling house of the period [early 19th century], the entrance doorway became the prime exterior architectural feature, telling one and all of the material success of the master of the house; in the interior, the fireplace wall further established his success and invited the guest to share in the physical warmth it offered.” [Henry Kauffman. The American Fireplace. 1972.] The remaining mantles in the family living quarters are made of wood and each is of a similar but different design featuring flat, fluted, paired or single rounded columns or pilasters. All are handsome and exhibit refined craftsmanship.

Later in the house’s history, residents used coal for heating as illustrated by both the Morning Room and Dining Room fireplaces’ appearance. In discussions about how to interpret the house, it was determined that returning these to their original wood burning appearance would be too costly and might cause structural damage. Their appearance indicates a later period in the house’s occupancy than the primary period of interpretation. The other fireplaces convey the wood burning origins of the house- when the family and friends would gather by the fire for warmth, illumination, conversation, entertainment or work.

One of the museum’s often asked questions is, “Does it get cold down here?” This is answered with an historical reference from a visitor to Charleston, SC, “. . . as the duke of Saxe-Weimar Eisenach pointed out, `one suffers no where so much from cold as in a warm climate, since the dwellings are well calculated to resist heat, but in nowise suited to repel cold.’” [Elisabeth Garrett, At Home] So, “yes,” it did and does get cold “down here.”

During the 1820s, household staff were instructed each evening to prepare for the next day’s fireplace duties, “In the first place, make it your business to have plenty of wood, coal, or whatever fuel you burn, in its proper place over night, as it will save you a great deal of time in the morning, as the mornings are so short at this season of the year, and it is a great advantage to have these necessaries in readiness, where perhaps you have three or four fires to make, and the grates and fire irons to clean before the family rises.” [Robert Roberts, Roberts’ Guide for Butlers & Other Household Staff. 1827.] Throughout the day the fires were attended to. As the household cycle moved to twilight, there was a period between sundown and when servants placed candles around as related by Margaret Bayard Smith, “We had a blaze kindled on our hearth and enjoyed our first autumnal fire. The sopha was drawn in its usual place, and I took my accustome’d corner. You know how I love this twilight, or rather fire-light hour, which makes winter dear to me.” And, “Virginia Randolf Trist similarly reminisced of winter evenings she spent with her grandfather Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. `When it grew too dark to read, in the half hour which passed before the candles came in, as we all sat by round the fire, he taught us several childish games, and would play them with us.’” [E. Garrett.]

As Henry David Thoreau writes, “I lingered most about the fireplace, as the most vital part of the house;” there is as much sentiment about the hearth as being the center of the home and the place where families gathered particularly in winter. But, while this must have undoubtedly been true in New England where the hearth-side conjured up ideas of Puritan mothers cooking and Pilgrim fathers stoking the warm winter blaze steeling the family for the harsh winter, one wonders its place in the heart of Southerners, particularly those living in the “Deep South,” where it is warm most of the year and where the traditions of cooking by the fireside were ordained as the laboring space of the enslaved servant for all but the yeoman household. Those working at a blazing cooking hearth in summer in south Georgia surely conjured up thoughts far from the comforting hearthside of winter.

Certainly Mr. Davenport would have remembered the welcoming and warm winter fires of his boyhood in New England and one hopes that there were congenial and hospitable feelings for all those who gathered in Southern homes during the damp and raw season. We think of them and respect their fortitude as we toast this season in the comfort of our climate controlled world. Here’s to gratitude and the remembrance of our forbears!


Inventory (1828)
1 pr. andirons shovel & tongs etc 6.00
1 pr firedogs & 1 desk 5.00
Sale of Personal Property (filed 1829)
1pr andirons, shovel, tongs & fender 4.00
1 pr. firedogs 1.50

Fire Wood.
The subscriber will deliver good Fire Wood from his yard, at the residence of any purchaser in the city, at 5 dollars an d a half cash per cord, by sending an order for the quantity wanted. And four dollars and seventy five cents per cord, delivered at the yard, which is situated on the west end of West Broad-street, above Waynes wharf.
Wood will be sawed at fifty cents per cord at the yard.

June 2, 1823, Savannah Daily Republican.

Of superior quality, landing from British brig Jessie, at Anderson’s lower wharf, for sale very low if taken from the vessel, by

January 12, 1823. Savannah Daily Republican.

Fire Wood
150 cords very prime Oak and Hickory
50 do Ash and Oak
For sale very low by
Mayor’s Wharf next above Wayne’s
Waggon and horses at all times in readiness to convey it to any part of the city at short notice.

January 3, 1823. Savannah Daily Republican.

Fireplace Additions to December
All fireplaces except the Morning Room and Dining Room have split wood on andirons.
Office: On the mantle is a steel grip and flint and some charred cloth and hemp which would be used to start the fire.
By the hearth is a basket of wood shavings which could be used for tinder.
Drawing Room: By the hearth is a basket of kindling and tinder.
Morning Room: A foot warmer is beside the hearth
Boys Room: A wood plane, wood block and shavings are by the hearth to simulate the Davenport boys making shavings for tinder.

“So little good have all modern contrivances really effected, that we of the present hour suffer the same inconveniences as the occupants of the Welsh fireside in the dark ages: when we remain near the fire, the part of our bodies nearest to it is liable to be roasted, whilst our back feels freezing, so that we are obliged, when `one side has lost its genial heat, to turn about and give the chilly side to the fire.’ No invention has as yet enable us to preserve a uniform and genial artificial climate in every part of our dwellings—and art in which even the Romans excelled us. Yet this is the age of ingenuity and luxury.”