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The Rumford Fireplace

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It has seemed an unwelcome thing to do in these winter days of COVID to have our fireplace going in the reception area of the Inn when guests are prevented from sitting before it because of restrictions about gathering in public spaces. But on the day last weekend when the temperature outside dropped to -1 we chose to enlist the support of the fireplace to heat the place.

We know many experienced Yankees that would regard that decision on such a cold day as bad policy. We were of the same mind, too, when we lived in our 1830s house in Sudbury, Massachusetts. It had two lovely fireplaces, but of a different sort from what we have at the Hancock Inn. They were deeper fireplaces and one chimney rose barely above the roof line. On bitterly cold days we were suspicious that those fireplaces were carrying more hot air out, up the chimney with the smoke, then conveying it to the rooms. We remember a discussion on this subject with the gentleman who was the second-generation owner of the barber shop in nearby Weston, Mass. He was emphatic about the use of fireplaces in dead winter: “I never use ‘em when it’s below 20 degrees,” he reported. “Furnace never stops running if I do.”

Not many of us think of fireplaces as technology but, of course, they are. As technology goes, however, they enjoyed only a relatively brief span of break-through advancement, back around the time the Hancock Inn was built, at the end of the 18th and very beginning of the 19th centuries. Until that time, fireplaces were frequently large, step-in, brick holes in the wall used as much for cooking as heat. And evidently smoke was a real problem. Fireplaces didn’t draw very well. One major reason for that was the absence of what is called a smoke shelf – all of about three to four inches wide, extending from the back wall of the chimney – which deflected cold air sinking from the chimney top into the upward moving hot air from the fire below to create a virtuous, circular current that trapped escaping heat, but carried away smoke.

Remarkable. It is thanks to a Massachusetts native, Sir Benjamin Thompson, better known – if he is known at all – as Count Rumford. He was one of two men thinking deep thoughts about fireplaces at the time, the other being Benjamin Franklin. But sadly, for the many achievements which ought to have made him a more notable figure in history, Count Rumford backed the wrong horse in the day, casting his allegiance with King George III, and exiling to Europe (where he acquired his title of Count from the King of Bavaria) while revolution raged in the Colonies.*

The Hancock Inn enjoys the benefits of a Rumford fireplace – perhaps not one built under the supervision of the good Count himself (though he became a New Hampshire resident and was advancing his technologies at the time), but one that certainly relied on his principles: a shallow firebox, a curved back wall to radiate the heat outward, and other particulars. So, when the thermometer dipped below zero this past weekend, we put it to work.

We expect Santa Claus down that chimney tonight. He may have been the only person to regret Rumford’s smoke shelf on his first encounter, but, as something of an expert himself, he must have noticed the improved warmth it provided as he hung the stockings. The forecast is cold, windy and wet for his passage through here this year. A fire in the fireplace will help dry him out, so we shall make it up for him and leave the usual treats.

May we wish you a very Merry Christmas with all the warmth the season can provide, and a happy, healthy, New Year!

Marcia and Jarvis.

Stanta Toy

*There is a wonderful short book, the source of all our Rumford knowledge, written by Vrest Orton the founder of The Vermont Country Store about Count Rumford and “The Forgotten Art of Building a Good Fireplace.” We have it in reception, but perhaps it is still available from the Country Store.

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