The primary function of a fireback is to protect the wall at the back of the fireplace. This was especially important where the wall was constructed of insubstantial material such as daub (a mud and straw mixture coating interwoven wooden wattles), brick or soft stone. Protective metal plates that became available when cast iron was developed enabled fires to be placed against walls without danger to the fabric of the building. A secondary function is as a radiator of stored heat. 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. Wood fires have low efficiency, and for those that prefer the atmosphere of an open wood fire the fireback helps to minimise this problem. The thicker the fireback, the longer (and softer) this radiative effect.
In parts of southern Belgium and the adjacent areas of France and Luxembourg, iron plates formed part of the wall behind kitchen fireplaces allowing the radiative effect to be felt in the room behind, the heat being controlled by erecting a cupboard around the plate, opening or closing the doors of which controlled the heat entering the room; these plates were called takenplatten or taques de foyer.
Old firebacks are nowadays often used as a backsplash above the stove, reminiscent of 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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