The Collector’s Minute: Firebacks

A Colebrookdale fireback, circa 1763. An18th-century originals can sell for more than $3,500.

A Colebrookdale fireback, circa 1763. An18th-century originals can sell for more than $3,500.

In Colonial times, homes were heated by fire in stone or brick fireplaces. Normally, a great deal of heat from a wood fire escapes up the chimney, while more heat is absorbed by the brick in the back wall. The solution to capturing some of this escaping heat was the fireback, which were not only functional, but a highly decorative part of every fireplace. A fireback absorbs much of a fire’s heat and radiates it back into the room, making any wood-burning fireplace much more efficient. Additionally, a fireback protects the back wall from the cumulative wear & tear of the heat from multiple fires.

Colebrookedale was one of the first foundries in Pennsylvania—built by Thomas Rutter, Thomas Potts and Anthony Morris—with the furnace completed in 1720 on the banks of Iron Stone Creek near where Pottstown, Pa. is located today. Colebrookdale Furnace & Iron Works had a long and prosperous career, as this furnace—together with a forge—operated until just before the American Revolution.The furnace was still standing in 1785.

The example above—a Colebrookdale fireback, circa 1763—is a rare original, but most firebacks that one sees today are 1970s reproductions of the No. 5 and No. 6 Colebrookdale firebacks from that vintage. Similar firebacks are still in production, based on 17th- to 19th-century patterns used in both Europe and North America. Currently, the reproductions of the Colebrookedale firebacks sell for about $375, while the 18th-century originals can sell for more than $3,500.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.


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