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    The Fireplace Hearth Then and Now

    "Hearth and home" is a well-worn cliché. It's more about the comforting feeling a home brings and the most common gathering place within it ‒ the fireplace hearth. Family and friends have gathered around hearths for centuries. The word hearth takes on many definitions, but most people recognize it as the space near or around the fireplace. 

    Napoleon High Country 5000 Wood Burning Fireplace


    In this article, we will define what hearth means inside the home. And, we will explain what you need to know to find a hearth that's worthy of your family and friends.

    What is a Fireplace Hearth?

    A hearth is the noncombustible floor of your fireplace. That's the literal definition. Over time the hearth has referred to the firebox, the raised area around the fireplace, even the whole fireplace, mantel, hearth extension, and chimney. The word "hearth" sees a lot of use in the context of the whole area.

    Masonry fireplace with functional and decorative fireplace accessories


    Many product captions and articles on this website use it that way, too. Using the word in that way is not wrong; words have many meanings. But on a technical level, in the context of buying and building a hearth, it is not correct. In this article, we will be using the technical meaning of hearth when referring to its material makeup, regulations, and maintenance tips.

    A Brief History of the Fireplace Hearth

    The hearth has been around since humans discovered fire. Prehistoric hearths were first discovered in ancient caves and campsites. Fast forward thousands of years and hearths are still prominent in Ancient Greece, so much so that there is a goddess, Hestia, named after it.

    The Byzantine Empire used to impose a hearth tax whereby the government took money from every home with a hearth installed. Still today, this hearth tax is one of the best records of the population during the medieval times, considering the hearth was a hot commodity needed for survival.

    Hearth through the centuries infographic


    Fast forward again to the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, hearths moved from a necessary part of the home and established its rightful place as works of art and cherished heirlooms. They're still considered a gathering spot for storytelling, but due to technological advancements, the hearth is no longer critical to survival as it once was.

    By the late 20th century and the new millennium, having a hearth in the home lost its significance with the advent of central heating and cooling. Many homes today do not have a hearth. However, this drastic decline of the hearth has somehow reinvigorated the importance and uniqueness associated with it, placing it, once again, at the pinnacle of society.

    Many homes that do have a hearth use them as people did all those years ago: as a gathering place for the family; a spot for art and souvenirs; and still, a place for warmth, character, and charm. So, you may not see a hearth in every home, but when you do, they have the combined use that past centuries gave them.

    Over time, the hearth has evolved, much like the word. From its technical meaning on the cave floor beneath the fire to its symbolic significance as the familial gathering place, the hearth transforms as we do.

    Types of Hearths

    Many different materials make up hearths. Each material has its advantages and disadvantages. You have to pick the one that meets your needs. Be sure it works with your fireplace, as some materials are not durable enough to handle wood-burning fires.

    Man installing tile


    • Limestone - Limestone is one of the least costly materials. But, you can not use it with wood-burning fireplaces. Limestone works best with electric or gas fireplaces because the heat of a wood fire is too intense and may crack the stone. Color options are also limited because limestone only comes in shades of gray, white, or tan.

    • Slate - This stone comes in more colors than limestone. You can find slate in red, black, green, and even multicolored. This material can last years but use slate the same way as limestone. Gas and electric fireplaces work best because wood-burning can crack the stone.

    • Marble - Formed from limestone but more heat resistant, marble can handle gas, electric, and wood-burning fireplaces. The durability leaves something to be desired, yet it can chip easily. Nevertheless, with marble, you'll find a broader range of color options.

    • Soapstone - This a dense rock made from high pressure and high heat. Soapstone gets its name from its "soapy" texture. The color options are limited, with only shades of green or gray from which to choose. It does have a high resistance to heat, but like slate, it may crack over time.

    • Granite - This is your mid-range hearth material. It costs more than limestone and slate but less than marble and soapstone. Granite can handle wood-burning fires. And, because it's affordable and durable, it is one of the most used hearth materials. It also comes in many colors, patterns, and polish levels.

    • Ceramic - A highly customizable option is the ceramic hearth. It's strong enough to handle electric, gas, and wood-burning fireplaces. You can also choose any color, pattern, or finish to fit your home aesthetic. If you want something uniquely yours, go ceramic. 

    Your Hearth's Height

    Another thing you have to be mindful of is the height of your hearth. Some fireplaces sit on the floor while others are raised for a more grand appearance. So which one is best? Well, it's not a matter of one being better than the other. It comes down to your personal preference.

    A floor hearth (also known as a flush hearth) is great because it costs less in materials to build. It also takes up less floor space than raised hearths do. With a flush hearth, you have more room for furniture and, of course, you. There are drawbacks, though. If you have pets or kids, it is easier for them to have an accident with hearths flushed with the floor.

    Side by side images of a floor hearth and a raised hearth


    Raised hearths or sitting-height hearths are built off the floor, usually no more than 17 inches up. They do take up floor space, but they allow for friends and family to sit more comfortably near the fire. Raised hearths are harder for kids and pets to access. And, the height makes them a better focal point for your home. But, creating a raised hearth is more costly. You need the materials and the space to make a hearth at sitting-height.

    No matter what height you choose your hearth to be, you will be at the mercy of specific hearth regulations.

    Hearth Regulations You Should Know

    The safety of your home is priority number one when it comes to the hearth. After all, you are planning to create a controlled fire in your home.

    Hearth diagram of minimum hearth and wall extensions


    Contractors and home builders follow the rules of the National Fireplace Institute (NFI). Here's what the NFI manual says about hearths:

    • Cover the space in front of the fireplace with a noncombustible floor covering (i.e. a hearth extension). The fireplace manufacturer will determine the size of the hearth extension you need. But, there are minimum requirements in the NFI manual if your manufacturer does not provide hearth extension guidelines.

    • If your fireplace has an opening smaller than 6 sq ft., the hearth extension must extend at least eight inches to each side and 16 inches to the front of the opening.

    • If the fireplace has an opening bigger than 6 sq ft., the hearth extension must be at least 12 inches on the sides and at least 20 inches in the front.

    • The hearth extension has to be easily distinguishable from the fireplace and the surrounding floor. 

    Now, these are simply the NFI rules. There may be local codes you must follow as well, so brush up on those before initiating your installation. If you want an extra layer of home protection, take a look at hearth rugs.

    What are Hearth Rugs?

    Goods of the Woods hearth rug


    Hearth rugs sit in front of the fireplace and protect combustible surfaces from contact with flames, sparks, coals, and embers that may fall on the floor. These rugs are tested and certified for federal flammability regulations. A hearth rug is an essential accessory when it comes to fireplace safety.

    These fire-retardant rugs give your home that extra layer of protection and work well with the material of your hearth, whether soapstone, limestone, granite, etc.

    These rugs come in a vast number of styles and colors. They also come in three main shapes: half-circle, square, and rectangle. It's best to choose your shape based on the location and dimension of your fireplace. Determine the size of your rug based on the size of your fireplace. The larger the fireplace, the larger your rug should be.

    Take care of your hearth rug the same way you would take care of your hearth and it will last for years and years. For more information on hearth rugs, check out our Hearth Rug Buyers Guide.

    Maintenance and Safety

    Hearth maintenance and fireplace maintenance require the same amount of legwork. So what you know about fireplace maintenance can help when it comes to the hearth. Here a few tips to help ensure your hearth stays happy and healthy for years to come.

    Burning wood coals


    • Clean your hearth before every use. Cleaning is more important for the wood-burning fireplaces, as there can be ash buildup that can cause a chimney fire if not cleared away.

    • Only burn the fuel your hearth material can handle. If you have a limestone hearth, do not burn wood as it will crack the stone. For wood-burning fireplaces, only burn seasoned wood.

    • Check for cracks regularly and have a certified professional come out once a season to inspect your hearth for damage.

    • Use a hearth rug. These protect you and the floor from anything that could pop out of the fireplace.

    You can maintain your hearth and fireplace at the same time. We have some helpful links that go into more detail when it comes to your specific type of fireplace.

    Summary

    Couple sitting near an open-faced wood-burning fireplace


    So what is a hearth? It's the bottom floor of the firebox, but at this point, you know it's much more. It's a place for families to gather around; it's a place to show off your personality through decorations, and it's a place for warmth.

    This article has given you the knowledge to help choose the right materials, take the proper precautions, and pick the right height for your home and hearth.

    From here, everything else is up to you. If you're still struggling for ideas, we have even more articles to help you with fireplace design ideas and fireplace decorations.

    For any additional questions, do not hesitate to call one of our NFI Certified professionals at 1-800-203-1642. They can field any questions you have and give you a knowledgeable response.

    References

    Cleaver, P. (n.d.). "The History Of The Fire Hearth". Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.fireplace.co.uk/blog/the-history-of-the-fire-hearth/88.

    Fireplaces Magazine. (2005). History of Fireplaces. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from www.fireplacesmagazine.com/fireplace-buyers-guide/history-of-fireplaces.html.

    Haldon, J. (1990). The state and its apparatus: Fiscal administration. In Byzantium in the Seventh Century: The Transformation of a Culture (pp. 173-207). Retrieved October 15, 2019 from https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/byzantium-in-the-seventh-century/C5C6EDC5699206AA9CDEE52655D0B809.

    Holt, S. (2019, July 15). The Inglenook: A History of Hearth & Home. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.thisoldhouse.com/manchester-house/21015349/the-inglenook-a-history-of-hearth-home.

    Ortal. (2017, June 28). Of Home and Hearth: A Brief History of the Fireplace. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://archinect.com/news/article/150014154/of-home-and-hearth-a-brief-history-of-the-fireplace.

    Parada, C. (1997). Hestia - Greek Mythology. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from www.maicar.com/GML/Hestia.html.

    Polson, M. E. (2013, November 6). The History of the Fireplace. Retrieved October 15, 2019, from https://www.oldhouseonline.com/interiors-and-decor/history-of-the-fireplace.

    About the Author

    Tommy Oler

    An avid writer and fan of fantasy fiction, Tommy Oler spends his free time reading and devising stories of his own. Tommy loves writing in all forms. He has written scripts for podcasts and sketches, news for TV and web, and today, articles to help people make informed decisions.

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