The metal is heated by the fire, and then that heat is radiated into the room. The thick iron keeps the heat which would otherwise be lost and gives back this heat to the room. A fireback thus may increase the efficiency of the fire by as much as 50 percent. The thicker the fireback, the longer (and softer) this radiative effect. While wood fires have low efficiency, for those that prefer the atmosphere of an open wood fire the fireback helps to minimise this problem. Efficiency is a complicated concept though with open wood-burning fireplaces. Most efficiency tests consider just the effect of heating of the air. An open fireplace is, and never was, intended to heat the air. A fireplace with a fireback is a radiant heater and has done so since the 15th century. The best way to gauge the output of a fireplace is if you notice you're turning the thermostat up or down. Another important function of the fireback is the protection of the back of the fireplace from heat and flames.
Old firebacks are nowadays often used as a backsplash above a stove, reminiscent from its old function in the victorian kitchen. Moreover, they are used as beautiful pieces of decorative art and are sometimes displayed apart from the fireplace.
The oldest firebacks date from the 15th century AD, the early days of iron casting. Early firebacks were decorated with simple designs derived from everyday objects such as rope, moulds used in the making of certain types of foods (such as butter, biscuits or wafers), furniture fragments and other domestic and personal items. Designs formed from specially-carved wooden stamps (which included letters and numerals) and entire wooden patterns or models gradually became more widely used and often displayed coats of arms of royalty, the church and aristocracy. Pictorial designs with religious themes were common in Germany. Later firebacks bore mythological and allegorical subjects, as well as scenes from nature. The increasing use of coal as a domestic heating fuel caused a decline in many countries in the need for firebacks and their gradual replacement by integral grates. In France, wood-burning open fireplaces remained popular and firebacks continued to be produced there in the 19th century. Recastings of historic fireback designs are still made in England and the United States.
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- Nygärd-Nilssen, A.: Norsk Jernskulptur, Oslo, 1944
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- Mercer, H.: The Bible in Iron, Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, 1961
- Kelly, A.: The book of English fireplaces, Country Life Books, Feltham, 1968
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- Hodgkinson, J.: British Cast-Iron Firebacks of the sixteenth to mid eighteenth Centuries, HodgersBooks, Crawley, 2010
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