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Step Back in Time: Experience a 19th Century Parlor and Hearth

An Interview with Tom Kelleher, Curator at Old Sturbridge Village, Part I

Hearth at Old Sturbridge Village

A woman tends a hearth at Old Sturbridge Village

In most homes today, a big screen TV or entertainment system gets the place of honor in the center of a living room or family room. Two hundred years ago, things were different. The room was called a parlor, and burning at its center for most of the year in New England was the hearth.

A new exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village, “By the Fireside,” opening September 10, 2011, takes a look at New England hearths and their decorations. Let’s take a step back in time with curator Tom Kelleher.

What would it be like to walk into a New England home during the winter in the 1800s?

In one word: cold! We’re so used to central heating now that we expect the inside of a home to be uniformly warm. In the 19thcentury, we have records of people talking about how they’re in front of a blazing fire, but the ink is freezing in the inkwell, or the dishrag is freezing in the woman’s hand as she washes dishes.  A fireplace doesn’t uniformly heat a room like a furnace.

Also, in the evening, the hearth was the real center of focus because it was where the light came from. Sometimes people would light a candle or light lamps, but a lot of times the light from the hearth was sufficient for keeping the home lit throughout the night.

Now, of course, every room in a house can be brightly lit all the time.

Yes. I think one thing a modern eye would also notice in a 19th century parlor in the evening is how firelight highlights certain things in the room. Polished brass andirons, fireplace shovels and tongs, or drawer pulls on a chest would all be emphasized by the dim light. Today, being able to turn night into day, these things don’t stand out as much.

Cooking over a hearth at Old Sturbridge Village

Dinner cooks over a hearth at Old Sturbridge Village

How did the hearth change with the seasons?

People cook year round, so the kitchen hearth was always going. But in the summer months, they didn’t usually bother to build a fire in the parlor. For one thing, they didn’t need the heat, but they also didn’t need the light because the days last longer.

How was the kitchen hearth different from the parlor?

Kitchens in the 19th century were fairly messy workrooms. They weren’t the sort of living spaces they’ve become today, and they didn’t have the vast arrays of cabinets to store everything that a modern kitchen has.  For a lot of families who didn’t have the luxury of a separate room for eating, the parlor was a dining room as well as a living room. They would dine in there, and when they were done eating, they might bring in a pan of water, and use the hot water from a tea kettle that hung over the fire to wash dishes. Then they’d put them away in the parlor because that is where fine dishes were often kept.

Will people be able to experience a 19th century parlor with a burning hearth at the exhibit?

At Sturbridge Village, we have seven furnished houses where our costumed staff are actually cooking, blacksmithing, and farming in the manner of the 19th century. In colder weather they’ll have fires going, like in the parlor of our parsonage, or at the Freeman farm house. So this is something we do all the time. As part of the “By the Fireside” exhibit, we’ll provide a brochure that will serve as a self-guide to the hearths of the village, so people can explore the living history beyond the gallery exhibit.

Part II of this interview explores highlights of the exhibit, including rare overmantel paintings, fireboards, and more.

“By the Fireside” opens September 10th in conjunction with a Collector’s Forum. Watch a video about the exhibit.

On September 11th, Stephen Fletcher, Director of American Furniture & Decorative Arts at Skinner, will present the event, “What Is It? And What Is It Worth?” For more information or tickets, go to or call 800.SEE.1830.


Images courtesy of Old Sturbridge Village,

2 thoughts on “Step Back in Time: Experience a 19th Century Parlor and Hearth

  1. Pingback: Old Sturbridge Village | Interview with curator Tom Kelleher Part II

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