The most basic hearth in a house is a simple fire pit in the middle of the floor, with smoke filling the living space. The first great change to this form was the move from the center of the room to one side or end of the room, where the wall could give support to a smoke hood to direct smoke outside. Smoke hoods could usually be put into and removed from a building without affecting the rest of the structure, and from them developed the chimney, a permanent, integral part of a building. Although chimneys were difficult to remove or change, they were also easy to put on an interior wall or use in a house with a second story or attic, because they did not need to vent directly through a wall or roof. By the late medieval period hearths were generally wide and shallow. The mantel was supported by corbels and occasionally pillars. During the sixteenth century much of Europe saw the fireplace recede between the two sides, or jambs, that enclosed the hearth.
But in the Netherlands the opposite happened. The hearth moved into the room, the walls never materialized, and even the corbels and pillars of the medieval fireplace disappeared. Pieter Aertsen’s 1552 painting The Egg Dance shows an extremely shallow hearth with cloth hanging from the mantel. Interestingly, no other type of smoke hood or chimney is shown with this cloth, perhaps because the jambless fireplace is uniquely terrible at drawing up smoke.
The jambless fireplace may have developed because of the Netherlands themselves. The country is marshy, and in some places construction can only be done by sinking beams into the earth to support the building above. The Renaissance scholar Erasmus once described Amsterdam as a city of people living in the tops of trees because the entire city was built on these posts. The weight of a large enclosed hearth may have been difficult for builders in this style to support. Instead they shifted the weight of the chimney to the house’s support beams. Alternately, some surviving smoke hoods in Scotland (where they were called hingin lums and used into the twentieth century) appear similar to the jambless fireplace, and the smoke hood might have been integrated into the house’s structure to allow better venting for large buildings.
By 1650 the jambless fireplace was obsolete. The mid-17th century saw an increased control of airflow in fireplaces and chimneys as people developed a greater understanding of venting. Stoves were becoming popular for heating rooms, and there were hearths developed specifically for cooking, laundries, and industrial uses. The Dutch continued using the jambless fireplace, but the form was so impractical that in the 1750s it began to disappear in favor of the smaller English-style hearth we recognize today.
Few examples of the jambless fireplace survive, all of them from the first half of the eighteenth century. The Luykas Van Alen house in Kinderhook, the Jean (Jacob) Hasbrouck house and Bevier-Elting house on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, Washington’s Headquarters in Newburgh, and the Roeloff Westervelt house in Tenafly, New Jersey are the most famous examples. Restored jambless fireplaces are in the Cornelius Schermerhorn House in Kinderhook, the Peter Winne house in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Schenck House in the Brooklyn Museum. Other surviving or restored hearths are in private homes. One example is in the Half Moon Tavern (www.halfmoontavern.com) in the Ostrander-Elmendorf house in Hurley. These restorations are not only meant to restore the buildings’ original character.
They are thoughtful choices to value the early Dutch history of the area and to represent the Dutch protectiveness of their distinctive, precious culture.
Jean (Jacob) Hasbrouck house, Historic Huguenot Street
The Hudson Valley Dutch and Their Houses, Harrison Meeske
Dutch Vernacular Architecture in North America, 1640-1830, John R. Stevens
Dutch Colonial Homes in America, Roderic H.Blackburn
The Jean Hasbrouck House
Wyckoff House jambless fireplace
The Egg Dance, 1552