Saturday, January 11, 2014

The New England Fireside

Excerpt from A New England Girlhood  by Lucy Larcom. 

Primitive ways of doing things had not wholly ceased during my childhood; they were kept up in these old towns longer than elsewhere. We used tallow candles and oil lamps, and sat by open fireplaces. There was always a tinder-box in some safe corner or other, and fire was kindled by striking flint and steel upon the tinder. What magic it seemed to me, when I was first allowed to strike that wonderful spark, and light the kitchen fire!
The fireplace was deep, and there was a " settle" in the chimney corner, where three of us youngest girls could sit together and toast our toes on the andirons (two Continental soldiers in full uniform, marching one after the other), while we looked up the chimney into a square of blue sky, and sometimes caught a snow-flake on our foreheads; or sometimes smirched our clean aprons (high-necked and long-sleeved ones, known as " tiers ") against the swinging crane with its sooty pot-hooks and trammels.
Maine - Interior View of a New England Homestead, Woman by the Fireplace
Maine - Interior...

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The coffee-pot was set for breakfast over hot coals, on a three-legged bit of iron called a "trivet." Potatoes were roasted in the ashes, and the Thanksgiving turkey in a "tin-kitchen," the business of turning the spit being usually delegated to some of us small folk, who were only too willing to burn our faces in honor of the annual festival.

There were brick ovens in the chimney corner, where the great bakings were done; but there was also an iron article called a " Dutch oven," in which delicious bread could be baked over the coals at short notice. And there never was anything that tasted better than my mother's "firecake,"— a short-cake spread on a smooth piece of board, and set up with a flat-iron before the blaze, browned on one side, and then turned over to be browned on the other. (It required some sleight of hand to do that.) If I could only be allowed to blow the bellows — the very old people called them "belluses " — when the fire began to get low, I was a happy girl.
The Three Orphans, 1860
The Three...
Frederick Daniel...
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Cooking-stoves were coming into fashion, but they were clumsy affairs, and our elders thought that no cooking could be quite so nice as that which was done by an open fire. We younger ones reveled in the warm, beautiful glow, that we look back to as to a remembered sunset. There is no such home-splendor now.

When supper was finished, and the tea-kettle was pushed back on the crane, and the backlog had been reduced to a heap of fiery embers, then was the time for listening to sailor yarns and ghost and witch legends. The wonder seems somehow to have faded out of those tales of old since the gleam of red-hot coals died away from the hearthstone. The shutting up of the great fireplaces and the introduction of stoves marks an era; the abdication of shaggy Romance and the enthronement of elegant Commonplace — sometimes, alas! the opposite of elegant — at the New England fireside.
Afternoon Pastimes, 1917
Evert Pieters
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Have we indeed a fireside any longer in the old sense? It hardly seems as if the young people of to-day can really understand the poetry of English domestic life, reading it, as they must, by a reflected illumination from the past. What would the "Cotter's Saturday Night" have been, if Burns had written it by the opaque heat of a stove instead of at his
"Wee bit ingle blinkiu' bonnilie?'

By the Hearth, 1894

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