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Saturday, December 16, 2017

At This Happy Fireside: Overmantels and Fireboards at Old Sturbridge Village

At This Happy Fireside: Overmantels and Fireboards at Old Sturbridge Village by Christie D. Jackson
by Christie D. Jackson

The prominence of the fireplace in Early Republic homes was first driven by the simple necessity to heat the residence. Yet, over time, the design and decoration of the parlor hearth took on its own importance, signifying the wealth and refinement of the home’s owners. The embellishment in and around the parlor hearth centered on the inclusion of overmantels (paintings applied directly onto wooden panels above the fireplace) and fireboards (tight-fitting decorated boards used to seal off a fireplace from vermin and detritus during the summer months), merging the spheres of decoration and utilitarian function

Fig. 1: Overmantel, ca. 1800. Sweeping landscapes were one of the most popular themes in overmantel paintings. In this idyllic, and most likely imaginary, seaside town, a plethora of ship masts dot the coastline, while two disproportionately sized women greet each other along the road. The piece originates to the Perez Walker House that stood near the Walker Pond in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, far from any coast or port. (20.19.3).
Fig. 1: Overmantel, ca. 1800. Sweeping landscapes were one of the most popular themes in overmantel paintings. In this idyllic, and most likely imaginary, seaside town, a plethora of ship masts dot the coastline, while two disproportionately sized women greet each other along the road. The piece originates to the Perez Walker House that stood near the Walker Pond in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, far from any coast or port. (20.19.3).

Folk art collector and historian Nina Fletcher Little led the way in researching these decorative forms in the mid-twentieth century, but surprisingly little recent work has added to her scholarship.1 Since the majority were painted by itinerant artists whose identities are now lost and their provenance and connection to their original homes are often clouded at best, it appears little additional headway can be gained in learning more about specific pieces. However, by looking through a different lens—that of a social context—new light can be shed on the role and production of these works made during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Many prosperous homeowners in the eighteenth century commissioned artists to decoratively paint on the wood paneling above the fireplace, a tradition carried over from England. While any scene could be selected as the focal point, in New England, “rural scene pieces” as one regional artist described them, were most popular. Indeed, a majority of those on display at Old Sturbridge Village, and held in other collections, are of wide, sweeping scenic views. The landscapes are sometimes actual representations of New England towns or homes, but often, are imagined vistas embellished by the fanciful artistic license of the painter (Fig. 1). Still others were loosely derived from print sources, an approach common to other decorative arts media at the time.

Fig. 2: Unused fireboard paper, ca. 1840. This “View of Boston” block-printed image was made specifically for decorating a fireboard, and is probably based on a French lithograph by Jacques Gerard Milbert (1766–1840), who traveled in the Eastern United States from 1815 to 1823. (20.2.11).
Fig. 2: Unused fireboard paper, ca. 1840. This “View of Boston” block-printed image was made specifically for decorating a fireboard, and is probably based on a French lithograph by Jacques Gerard Milbert (1766–1840), who traveled in the Eastern United States from 1815 to 1823. (20.2.11).

Fireboards, or “chimney boards” as they were referred to in the period, served a more purposeful role (Fig. 2). In addition to being highly decorative their main task was to seal the fireplace during the summer months, thereby keeping chimney swallows, soot, and insects from entering the parlor. A tight fit was essential to this function so pieces were custom-made to fit a particular fireplace. A solid board and batten construction, a sturdy base, and, in some cases, notches meant to fit the piece over any protruding andirons, ensured that the fireboard sealed the fireplace completely (Fig. 3). A minority of fireboards were made of canvas, but as these were more vulnerable to the soot and rain that found its way down the chimney, they were not a popular choice.

Fig. 3: Fireboard, ca. 1820. Stenciled stylized flowers and leaves on this fireboard create a bold pattern that could be visible anywhere in the parlor. (20.2.2).
Fig. 3: Fireboard, ca. 1820. Stenciled stylized flowers and leaves on this fireboard create a bold pattern that could be visible anywhere in the parlor. (20.2.2).

The colorful, decorative finishes seen on overmantels and fireboards were created both by professional artists and by women within the home. Well-known overmantel painters such as Rufus Porter (1792–1884) and Winthrop Chandler (1747–1790) led the field, but many anonymous artists who painted not only overmantels but also signs and wall coverings toured New England in search of commissions. While payments could vary, records show Scottish-born Robert Cowan was paid 1 pound, 9 shillings, 7 pence for painting a fireboard in 1791 in Salem, Massachusetts.2

Some fireboards were created in the home using decoupage, stenciling, and papering techniques common to those used in ladies’ work. Decoupage surged in popularity in the 1800s with the new accessibility to printed catalogues, magazines, and books, and the treatment of fireboards using this method mirrors what was seen on furniture pieces and smaller household accessories. The stenciling and papering of fireboards often included floral patterns, sometimes mimicking the wallpaper decoration found on the walls. Fresh flowers were a popular way of enhancing a hearth during the summer months, so including flowers in the decoration of fireboards and overmantels provided a fashionable, ever-fresh alternative. The bold patterns often found with stenciled pieces were easily seen wherever a visitor stood in the room, highlighting both the hearth and the decorative object, a characteristic that scholar Jean Lipman notes was essential in fireboards of the period.3

Fig. 4: Fireboard, ca. 1800. The painted Delft tiles on this fireboard are meant to mimic the look of hearths that used actual English or Dutch tiles as part of their surround. The tree design used on these “tiles” was a common subject matter in New England fireboards of this type. This fireboard comes from the Pope House in Spencer, Massachusetts. (20.2.1).
Fig. 4: Fireboard, ca. 1800. The painted Delft tiles on this fireboard are meant to mimic the look of hearths that used actual English or Dutch tiles as part of their surround. The tree design used on these “tiles” was a common subject matter in New England fireboards of this type. This fireboard comes from the Pope House in Spencer, Massachusetts. (20.2.1).

Other fireboard decorations reflected design trends both domestic and abroad. For example, the use of vase, urn, or tile designs mirrored the popularity of Chinese export porcelains and Delft tile of the period (Fig. 4). Like wallpaper, papers could also be purchased to cover fireboards. Newspaper advertisements touting the latest in imported French and English papers were common. On May 3, 1839, one merchant boasted in the New Bedford Mercury:
“Joseph L. Freeman, at No. 3 Cheapside, has just received via New York from France, his spring supply of fine Paper Hangings. These papers are of entire new patterns and will class with any thing of the kind imported into New York or Boston; with rich Cloth Borders to match, and a large assortment of Chimney Board Pieces.”

Fig. 5: Fireboard, ca. 1830. The paper on this canvas fireboard is probably English and was specially designed for use on fireboards. (20.2.8).
Fig. 5: Fireboard, ca. 1830. The paper on this canvas fireboard is probably English and was specially designed for use on fireboards. (20.2.8).

In many advertisements, chimney board papers are listed alongside not only wallpapers and paper borders, but also draperies, upholstery details, and haberdashery, suggesting fireboards were commonly viewed as a type of decorative room accessory. Among the many fireboard paper styles offered, Thomas S. Webb in Albany, New York, announced in the Albany Register on August 11, 1794, that he had “handsome flower-pots for chimney boards,” confirming the period’s interest in floral patterns (Fig. 5). On April 12, 1796, in The Gazette of the United States, W. Poyntell of Philadelphia offered “borders, landscapes, and Chinese pieces for ornamenting breast works and chimney boards” (Fig. 6).

The fact that overmantels and fireboards were used in conjunction with fire was not without some dangers; period newspaper accounts confirm this threat. An article published in the Essex Register, based in Salem, Massachusetts, recounted on March 28, 1825, how a “fire was caused by some sparks falling from the end of the stove funnel into the fireplace, and setting fire to the chimney board [and] mantle piece.” In the 1830s, with the growing prescription by doctors for better room ventilation, another complaint of chimney boards arose, that of restraining a room’s airflow, specifically in the bedchamber. On December 14, 1833, the Brattleboro, Vermont, Independent Inquirer, reported that a room with “a bed closed snugly with curtains, with the doors and windows shut, and perchance, a chimney board” would leave its occupant ill, indeed.

Fig. 6: Fireboard, ca. 1820. The classical theme of the wallpaper used on this fireboard from Maine was a popular motif during the early nineteenth century. (20.2.18).
Fig. 6: Fireboard, ca. 1820. The classical theme of the wallpaper used on this fireboard from Maine was a popular motif during the early nineteenth century. (20.2.18).

Recognized for their decorative and practical functions, ever-resourceful Americans found even more ingenious uses for their fireboards. One particularly curious secondary use of a chimney board, recounted in an article in the Connecticut Journal on December 22, 1784, suggested that a chimney board could serve as a makeshift smoke house:
Those who have no house proper for smoking meat, may use a common fireplace for that purpose, by putting up a chimney board, that fits pretty well, leaving a crevice at the bottom, that the air may pass into the cimney [sic], to support the fire, or smoke, which is made of chips… The hams may hang in the chimney all summer.

While a creative use of a chimney board, the writer made a point of saying the fireboard could still complement the parlor’s décor while serving its smoke house function.

Fireboards even figured in fictional stories. In “Love Up A Chimney,” from 1835, a groom recounts how, after a secret marriage ceremony, he was forced to hide in the chimney when his unknowing father-in-law came into the kitchen for a glass of beer:
He was just leaving the kitchen, and I was preparing to descend, when down came the infernal chimney-board with a tremendous crash…He coolly observed that the fireplace was never used, and sending the frightened servant into the kitchen for a hammer and nails, actually nailed up the board, and locked the door on the outside. So there was I on my wedding night, in the light Kersey-mere trousers, fancy waistcoat, and blue coat that I had been married in, in the morning, in a back kitchen chimney.”4

In another humorous story, the lady of the house spiritedly asks: “if I happened to want a new chimney-board, and my first husband’s grandmother’s pictur [sic] happens to fit the fireplace exactly, why should not I use it as a back for a beautiful new fire-piece?” She proceeds to use the family portrait as a backing for her new chimney board, using a bristle brush and rye flour paste to cover it with paper, only regretting her action when relatives later pay her a visit and ask to see the portrait.5

The prominence of overmantels and fireboards mentioned in print—from the prescriptive to the humorous—speaks to the importance that the parlor hearth played during the Early Republic. These aesthetic and useful hearth pieces were elegant, personal statements by homeowners that reflected their taste in décor and helped create an inviting welcome for themselves and their guests. As one New Englander recounted in 1825, evenings would pass “rapidly and pleasantly away at this happy fireside.”6


By the Fireside: Decorating the New England Parlor Hearth, 1790–1840, on view at Old Sturbridge Village, through May 29, 2012, highlights the best of the museum’s extensive collection of overmantels, fireboards, and other devices used to furnish parlor hearths. For information call 508.347.3362 or visit www.osv.org.

See a video giving a behind-the-scenes tour of some items from the exhibit.


Christie D. Jackson is the curator of decorative arts at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts. All images courtesy Old Sturbridge Village.


1. Nina Fletcher Little, Country Arts in Early American Homes (New York: E. P. Dunton & Co, 1975), 178.

2. Fletcher Little, Country Arts, 189.

3. Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester, The Flowering of American Folk Art, 1776–1876 (New York: Viking Press/Whitney Museum), 192.

4. New Hampshire Sentinel (March 26, 1835): 1.

5. “Clementina’s Portrait” by “Miss Leslie” in The Gem Annual, 1855, A Christmas, New-Year, and Birthday Gift for 1855 (Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co., 1855).

6. “Miscellany from the Monitor the Fireside,” North Star, XIX, issue 2 (Danville, Vt., January 11, 1825), 1.

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