This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

The convenience and comfort of modern HVAC is a technological success story. By changing a few settings on a thermostat we can control indoor climate in a manner that our ancestors would have never imagined. The starting point of this revolution was the cast-iron heating stove, an invention of the 18th century with a well-known connection to Benjamin Franklin. This is a rather unusual story. Although the cast-iron stove replaced the fireplace as a heat source, it never replaced the hearth as a symbol of home. While the cast-iron stove (and, later, mechanical HVAC systems) made the fireplace functionally obsolete, we’ve maintained our emotional attachment to the latter. Thus, fireplaces remain a prominent feature in residential design today.

The cast iron heating stove was both a functional and decorative fixture until the mid-20th century. The BTHL collection traces the design evolution of the cast-iron heating stove, which was often referred to as the “parlor stove," from the mid-19th through the mid-20th centuries. The elaborate cast iron and nickel–plated metal stoves of the Victorian period were among the most popular variations. In the 20th century, the parlor stove was updated to meet the contemporary design aesthetic, including, at one point, a trend towards emulating a wooden radio cabinet.

The idea of the fireplace as the centerpiece of the parlor, living room, or family room led to the creation of a new building-products category. The masonry firebox and flue, the wooden millwork of the mantelpiece, and the fireplace accessories were all part of the complete package. Since then, fireplace design has evolved alongside architectural genres, from the simplicity of the Colonial period to the lavishness of the Victorian era. By the mid-20th century, the fireplace masonry’s massing became its major feature while the hearth was reduced to a simple opening. Decorative fireplaces with no ability to provide heat were the final evolution of the product in the 20th century, when form triumphed over function. The heat was off.

Below, we trace the evolution of this heat-source-turned-decorative-accessory with materials collected by the BTHL.

Stoves, Furnaces, Bath Tubs, Garden Bases and Ventilators, 1843, J. L. Mott Iron Works, New York
This catalog is among the oldest in the BTHL. While the fireplace would never loose its popularity in domestic architecture, the stove and, later, the furnace, turned the fireplace into an aesthetic option rather than a functional necessity.

Parlor, Cylinder, Laundry Stove, 1908, Henry N. Clark, Boston
These freestanding heat sources were marketed as parlor stoves—known colloquially as “pot belly” stoves—and were often finished with cast-iron and nickel–plated features to complement the stylistic embellishments of the Victorian era. A prominent feature of homes in the 19th and early-20th centuries, before the advent of central heating, the stoves could be installed in front of a traditional fireplace for seasonal use. Its design evolved in the 20th century to look more like a piece of furniture than a piece of heating equipment.

Kalamazoo Heaters, Ranges, Furnaces, Direct to You at Factory Prices, 1936, Kalamazoo Stove, Kalamazoo, Mich.
Stove companies adopted their design to changing domestic fashions, by, for example, emulating the look of furniture. The more traditional models featured faux wood-grain finishes on porcelain enamel.

Perfection and Invanhoe Oil-Burning Heaters, 1949, Perfection Stove, Cleveland
The parlor stove’s popularity lasted into the mid-20th century, when the typology was replaced with central HVAC systems.

General Catalogue of E.L. Roberts & Co., 1908, E. L. Roberts, Chicago
Elaborately milled mantels were one way a fireplace became a central feature of the parlor or living room. Millwork catalogs like this one, from E.L. Roberts & Co., were filled with examples in a variety of styles.

The Home Fires: A Few Suggestions in Face-Brick Fireplaces, 1923, American Face Brick Association, Chicago
The use of masonry for a fireplace’s functional flue and decorative facing has a long tradition. This publication showed masonry applied in a range of architectural aesthetics.

Heatform Fireplaces, 1956, Superior Fire Place, Los Angeles
The “Heatform” fireplace comprised a metal insert and flue, which could be adapted to a range of spaces and project types. The corner hearth inset within a larger masonry mass was a distinctive feature of Modernist interiors of the mid-20th century.

Beautiful Henry Hacket Fireplaces, 1956, Vermont Marble, Proctor, Vt.
Marble mantles were also popular and, like masonry, could be adapted to meet the needs of different designs and spaces. This catalog from a maker of marble fireplace mantles from the mid-1950s shows the range of product options on the market.

Complete Fireplace Units Ready to Use with Electric Fires, 1932, Edwin Jackson, New York
The evolution of the fireplace is showcased in this 1932 catalog featuring “electric fires.” These wooden mantels were available for rooms with our without conventional flues. The metal inserts were designed to replicate both wooden and coal hearths.

House of Lords: The Jewel Line Catalog, c. 1960, Hardesty-Quittner, New York
Fireplace accessories, including screens, andirons, pokers, brooms, and dust pans, were all part of a fully furnished home and changed with interior design fashions.