October 4, 2019

What is the History of the Firescreen?

Embroidered firescreen circa 1770.  Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons and The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Firescreen in front of a fireplace, circa 1770.  Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons and the Cornell University Library

Okay folks, time for a quiz:  Multiple choice.  Historically, what was a firescreen used for?
A. A very pretty decoration to mask an empty fireplace
B. A shield from the heat of a roaring fire
C. A way to show off a woman's embroidery skills
D. A way to prevent a person's makeup from melting
E. All of the above

Before more effective heating methods, rooms were heated by roaring log fires.  Firescreens were placed in front of the fire to shield the occupants of the room from excessive heat.  They took many forms:  three panel, pole (first photo above), cheval (mounted on two feet as in second photo) or banner and could be made of wood, beautifully embroidered cloth, stained glass or other materials.

Was the firescreen used to prevent wax based makeup from melting?  It appears that this is a controversial subject.  In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, both men and women wore makeup, primarily to hide imperfections in the skin especially smallpox scars and by those of higher socioeconomic status   The more scars, the more makeup.  The makeup was lead and wax based.  Firescreens, either free standing or handheld were used to prevent the heat from melting the wax and the skin from interacting with the lead.  Lead absorbed through the skin is highly toxic and the cause of lead poisoning.

Others tend to disagree,arguing that most women did not wear makeup, much less wax based makeup, and if they did use a firescreen to protect the face it was to prevent the complexion from turning an ugly red in the heat.  This is supposedly the origin of the phrase "save face".  It appears to apply more to the nineteenth century than to earlier times.

I think both arguments have validity but it depends on the socioeconomic status of the individual and the era in which the firescreen was used.  Thus, if you answered "E"to the above quiz, you get an "A" for the day (it is, after all, my blog, so therefore I get to grade the papers!)

References and further reading:
Photos: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Compiègne._Family_Room_in_the_Château_(3486767576).jpg

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