As we move into February, here in Southern New England, in a warmer-than-average winter the darkness of the season is starting to lift. We just had the prettiest full moon typically called the “Full Snow Moon,” which would have been more appropriate with all of last year”s snow.

Walking my greyhounds in the early evening on Sunday, the moon really shone like this image:


This time of year makes us crave warmth and light, and what better way to soothe ourselves than gazing into a fire in a fireplace, or sitting near the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

Being an interior designer, enjoying the warmth of the fire, I think about the connections between the heat it provides (function) and what contains it and surrounds it (form and decoration).

So, what about the “furniture” of our fireplaces – the mantels?


Mantel Styles – Colonial through Victorian in New England and Beyond

While the inner workings of the fireplace are key to the mechanics of a good fire, what I tend to notice most is the style of the surround.  Generally, the surround is called a mantel, which includes the shelf and facing above the fireplace opening, as well as the pilasters or legs that attach to the mantel.  Mantels as architectural elements were introduced into American homes in the mid 1700″s.  As you can imagine, as architectural elements, mantels reflected and continue to reflect the style of the house and its furnishings.  Just to show a few examples of New England mantels, starting with the colonial period (pre-revolution):


Above, here”s an elevation drawing and a photo of the actual fireplace (used for cooking and heating) and mantel in an early American Colonial house in Maine (

In addition to this more modest example of Colonial architectural style, both in house and mantel, there were highly embellished mantels being made in”…wood…and often adorned with hand tooled carved details to elaborate the style. Dentil molding, egg and dart molding, and American symbols such as wheat sheaves, eagles, swords, shields and cannons were commonly integrated into mantel design details. Popular motifs included classical designs with urns, medallions, griffins, baskets of fruit or flowers and flowing garlands. These moldings were being imported from England in large quantity by 1800, though the embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 cut off supplies of English composition moldings (made of concrete and plaster) to America. These highly embellished mantels were then finished off in a number ways: painting, gilding or glazing with a faux marble finish, or simply stained or waxed.”(

Moving through the 1800s, fireplaces, while still used for heating, became more efficient with changes in design, and the use of coal as a fuel.  Cast iron became popular not only for tools, grates and andirons, but also for mantels.  Fireplaces to burn coal became more shallow and the inside dimension of the mantel became smaller – 36 inches square. (

Cast iron stoves (burning coal and wood) became popular, so depending on the heating needs of a home, and the number of fireplaces, they could be more about their decoration and less about being a heat source.

As the Victorian influence became stronger, in the second half of the 19th century, mantels reflected the same varied influences as other architectural elements, including references to Renaissance, Rococo, Gothic, Neo-classical and Asian elements, ornate details and carvings, and plenty of shelf space to display collections of items.  Mantel materials continued to include wood, marble, as well as cast iron, as noted above.

I have added some images of British mantels, on their own, as well as in room settings.  With the popularity of the television series “Downton Abbey” both here and in Britain, I have included a couple of images of Highclere Castle where the series is filmed;  the first is the saloon, showing a large Gothic mantel, and the second, the dining room, showing its mantel with turned legs among other embellishments.  According to the Highclere Castle web-site, there was a significant building renovation done starting in 1838, with the interiors completed in 1878. (

There are certainly similarities between the Mark Twain House mantel and those of Highclere Castle.

Mark Twain House, Hartford, Ct. Mantel in the Library

Victorian Marble Mantel









Cast Iron Mantel – London –










Highclere Castle – Saloon –



Highclere Castle – Dining Room – Paul Hilton Photo –

Next blog entry…stay tuned for mantel styles after 1900…