Antiques Andirons America


It is taken for granted that at least one pair of antique andirons will be included in any well-rounded collection of antiques. Because they combine utility and decoration, they have been popular ever since pioneer hunters of the antique began to haunt old attics and woodsheds, country auctions and second-hand shops. Yet little has been written about these essentials for a blaze on the hearth. As with many other collectibles, their story evolves through a sorting and sifting of pertinent facts. A few brief mentions in early inventories, contemporary advertising of craftsmen and dealers, historic references to mining and working of the needed metals during the colonial period, some indications of the working ways of brass founders and blacksmiths-all these woven together give us a fairly clear picture of this taken-for-granted piece of fireplace equipment and its use in America, from early in the seventeenth century to about 1835, when fireplaces were superseded by stoves.

For two centuries American homes were dependent for both cooking and heating on wood-burning fireplaces. Andirons were essential and must have been part of the necessary equipment brought over by the first settlers although no specific mention is made of them.

We do find in the inventory of Governor Winthrop's estate, dated February 17, 1649, "2 pairs andirons-one pound, ten shillings." Since elsewhere in this most detailed enumeration of household effects of a New England family of importance each piece of brass or copper equipment is carefully listed, it is to be inferred that these andirons were of iron.

Four years later a list of the household furnishings of Captain Tyng of Boston includes "a great pair of Brass andirons." These were obviously for use in the parlour or "hall," as the most important room was then called. Various inventories and household lists of the time mention brass andirons but, so far as we know, none of those so meticulously listed and so prized by their owners have survived. In fact, any andirons used in America during the seventeenth century are so rare that we can do little more than generalize about them.

Just when they were first made in the American colonies is hard to state but those of wrought iron were probably produced for local needs almost as soon as the first blacksmiths set up their forges. It is a matter of record that about 1640, Joseph Jenks, the first New England ironmaster, had a foundry at Lynn, Massachusetts, and that two years later John Winthrop, son of the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was operating a smelting furnace at Saugus. Here the material was bog ore and the iron produced was considered the equal of the best grade Spanish bars then being imported.

There were many other early efforts at mining and smelting iron in the various colonies, some of which continued throughout the colonial period and until the richer deposits of ore were discovered around Pittsburgh. After 1650 there was clearly an ample supply of native iron. Unfortunately, the blacksmiths of the colonial period, who sometimes decorated their more pretentious andirons with an incised design, had not the forethought to mark them with the date of production. As shapes and patterns did not change rapidly, many of the andirons made in the more remote country districts adhered to the lines and proportions of the colonial period as late as the beginning of the nineteenth century.

In general, the design consisted of a simple arch which formed the legs and to this was welded a hand-wrought shaft, sometimes flat and sometimes round, that formed the front upright and terminated in a simple, ornamental finial. The shank or log rest was inserted in a hole in the front and made fast by hammering while hot, like a rivet.

The earlier types had the semicircular arched legs but lacked any effort to form feet; those coming a little later had a simple pad-shaped foot achieved by hammering when hot. For the more decorative of the wrought-iron andirons, added finish and refinement were achieved by the use of cast-brass finials of ball and simple urn designs. The blacksmiths who made these andirons also produced fire tongs and shovels with handles that matched the finials and, in the later period, made fenders of wrought-iron wirework that were fine examples of craftsmanship.

Along with the more ornamental andirons, those made for the fireplace where the family cooking was done were generally simpler and of larger proportions. The kitchen fireplace was the largest in the house. The fire was kept burning throughout the day and carefully banked at night to keep the embers from burning out while the household slept, relighting was either a matter of flint and tinder or borrowing a shovelful of live coals from a neighbour. Consequently, such a fireplace was liberally fed with a generous supply of logs that were frequently so long and heavy that they had to be dragged into the kitchen-living room on a small sled. Wood was plentiful and the colonial Americans used it with an abandon unknown in England as is shown by a contemporary comment on the seventeenth century manner of life in New England: "A poor servant that is to possess but fifty acres can have wood and timber in abundance and keep a better fire than many noblemen in England can afford."

Obviously, kitchen andirons had to be constructed for heavy and hard usage. Since spit roasting was one of the chief ways of cooking meat, such andirons were provided with hooks on which the spits might be rested and so keep the meat warm. An inventory dated 1695, of one John Cornish, a dyer, comber, weaver, and fuller of Boston, included in its list 441 pair andirons, shovel and tongs, 2 spits, 2 trammels and 1 jack." The jack, of course, was the mechanism for turning the spit and the trammels were the brackets on which pots and kettles were hung. All must have been of wrought iron, since elsewhere in the inventory utensils of copper or brass were carefully listed as such. Incidentally, the equipment quoted was about standard for a craftsman or farm household.

Although it is known that by the last quarter of the seventeenth century Henry Shrimpton and others were following the trade of brass founding in Boston and other large communities, and that the raw material for this alloy was produced as early as 1640, I doubt if many brass andirons were made in America before the Revolution. There was copper mining in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. About 1644 John Winthrop was casting brass at his Lynn, Massachusetts, foundry; and, in their day, the Wistars of South Jersey combined glassmaking with brass founding. They made brass buttons and, some authorities think, andirons. But the British Board of Trade was not inclined to encourage brass founding in the colonies and so the copper ore was principally exported to England.

It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the more elaborate pieces of fireplace equipment were imported from England and elsewhere in Europe. An excellent example of the brass andirons used in the American colonies about the close of the seventeenth century is the pair of Spanish origin shown in the fireplace of the room from the Samuel Wentworth house, in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Most antique brass andirons now found in the United States date not earlier than the Chippendale period, as is indicated by the claw-and-ball feet, although some have the simpler pad foot. As regards design, brass andirons vary as to both feet and upright front shafts. With the former there are the pad, claw-and-ball, snake's-head, slipper, and the simple ball. The designs of the uprights include the classic urn sometimes surmounted on slender columns; those where balls of varying sizes are the decorative motif; and a design known as the lemon, for lack of a better name and because it identifies the shape. Sometimes it appears as a single finial; sometimes in two sizes of the same shape and termed "double lemon." The tapering steepletop design was also popular.

By 1790 there was a distinct increase in the andirons produced by American craftsmen. I think American independence and James Emerson's invention in England of a less complicated process of alloying copper and zinc to secure brass account for this change. For instance, the first New York City directory lists only two brass founders, Abraham Montayne and James Kip. In 1790 the number had increased to four; and in 1795, when Richard Whittingham, best known New Yorker of his craft, was first listed, over a dozen were following this trade.

Whittingham and his andirons are well known because it was his practice to mark them with a die "R. Whittingham N. York." He evidently found his trade profitable, for he worked in New York until 1820. Then his son continued the business for fifteen years more. Four other members of this family followed the same trade but no andirons bearing their names have yet been discovered.

Probably the best known American brass founder who also made andirons was Paul Revere. Although much has been written about his silver and his production of church bells, cannon, and marine supplies, relatively little notice has been taken of his andirons. Yet they are among the most pleasing designs produced. The period during which he made them dates, I think, from about 1785 to 1803 when he established his rolling mill to make sheet copper and brass at Canton, Massachusetts. In the ballroom from the Gadsby Tavern, at the Metropolitan Museum, may be seen a fine pair with vase columns, marked on the leg "P. Revere and Sons."

There were, of course, other brass founders who marked their andirons. Most of them apparently worked in the first half of the nineteenth century. Among them were John Molyneaux of Boston and Davis of the same city who made the graceful design known as the steepletop ; Henry Noyes of Bangor, Maine, whose low ball-finial andirons are distinctive in design; and the man, not identified as yet, who worked in New York and marked his wares with the initials HD on the leg rest.

About 1820 came the knobby baluster type which was a new design and continued to be made as long as our brass founders followed their practice of half casting the brass and then brazing the parts together. This made an easily recognized mark because the solder used in the process had a higher percentage of zinc. Therefore, if you would know whether your brass andirons were made before 1830, look for a silverlike, pencil-stripe line extending from top to bottom on both sides.

The method employed with these Early American examples was as follows: There was a mould of green or wet sand instead of the French or dry sand casting. The frame for the mould was a small wooden box, called a flask, without top or bottom. It was made so that the upper and lower halves would separate easily. Moist sand was packed tightly in the lower half and into this was embedded a wooden model that was a vertical half section of the piece of ornamental brass to be cast.

The upper part of the flask also was packed with sand and openings through which the molten metal could flow were formed.
Then the parts of the flask were carefully separated and the model removed. Next a baked core of flour and sand of the same general shape as the model but smaller was attached to the flat surface of the upper half of the flask so that it would partly fill the vacancy left by the model. The parts of the flask were once more put together and all was ready for the actual casting.

When cool the flask was again separated and the base casting removed. The embedded core was crumbly from the heat of the molten metal and easily removed. The result was a brass shell about a quarter of an inch thick with an exterior that followed the design of the model. Two of these were then fused together with brass solder that not only had more zinc than the brass itself but also a little bismuth to give it a lower melting point. Therefore, even after the finished cylindrical form had come from the lathe where it received its final smoothing and polishing, the fine, vertical, pencil line already described was clearly visible.

This was the accepted method for making hollow pieces of brass such as andirons, handles of shovels and tongs, and vase and urn finials. The silver line can be seen on pieces as small as the finials of docks. When inspecting an old pair of brass andirons for age, just unscrew the brass upright fronts and study the interior of the circular sections that form them. If they are really old, the line of fusing can generally be seen clearly.

Also, the supporting iron rod that extends upward from the legs will be seen to have characteristics or workmanship not possessed by later examples. It is clearly hand forged and the thread at the upper end where the top screws on is crudely cut by hand with a file. In andirons of a later day this same rod, being machine produced, will be even and the thread onto which the nutlike terminal screws will have the regularity of the modern die instead of the old handwork.

The literature of American brass founding and the few brief histories on the subject do not give definite information as to when the practice of casting in halves went out of use, but the testimony of brass founders well informed in the old working ways has established the decade 1830-1840 as the time when hollow circular brass pieces began to be cast whole. Work done by the latter method always has the upper as well as the lower end left open and the finish, a button or flamelike form, will be a separate lathe-turned piece. This screws onto the upper end of the supporting iron rod concealed inside the ornamental brass form, thus making the legs and top of the andiron one piece. A variation of the decorative, finely wrought andirons were those of bell metal instead of brass. This alloy can be readily recognized because of its redder tint, the result of smelting four parts copper with one part tin. It has a high degree of musical resonance, which accounts for the name. Andirons were not often made of it because the substitution of tin for zinc materially increased the cost. Therefore, antique andirons of bell metal in fine design command a higher price than those of brass. In addition to wrought-iron and cast-brass andirons, one other type began to be made toward the end of the eighteenth century. Here the upright was formed by an iron casting. One of the earliest designs was a somewhat comic portrayal of a Hessian soldier. Others included profile statues of Washington, patriotic representations such as the eagle, and genre motifs. Still others attempted to simulate sculpture. Finally, with the Victorian era, designers in cast iron had opportunity to indulge in a terrific orgy. It will take a long time to live down some of the creations brought forth during those years.

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