Andirons once played an important role in the hearth of the home. The fireplace was the primary source of heat in the cold months, but just as important, it was also the heat source for cooking. Andirons were placed inside the fireplace to support the logs, and some were equipped with extensions to allow support of a spit for turning the evening's meat.
The word andiron derives from the combination of the 13th-century word for iron and the Celtic or Old French word for young animal. This etymology is believed to contribute to the more colloquial term firedogs. Andirons were often made with quite elaborate decorations with animals being a common motif. Andirons, as they are known as today, were first used sometime in the 14th century, though forms of the device can be traced back to the Iron Age. The intent was to create airflow around the logs placed on top of the starter fire.
The starter fire, made with paper and twigs, needs oxygen to sustain itself. Placing heavy logs directly onto the starter fire smothers it. Andirons and a grate work together to allow the starter fire to catch and grow so it can light the logs. The logs, resting on the extended legs of the andirons, burn to ash. The andirons function as supports. To support the logs, two andirons must be used. The logs are laid across and rest on the backward extending legs of the andiron.
Andirons are made from fire-resistant metals, the most common being iron. The decorative posts of the andirons face outward from the fire; the post features the animal or other decorative element. Two legs support the post. A third leg extends backward and is elongated. This is the support for the log. Place a pair of andirons within the fireplace and the logs are laid across the backward extending legs. The decorative posts, referred to as guards, may be shaped as animals, family crests, figures or graphic shapes such as Greek keys.
Andirons were also used as cooking aids. The simplest type of andiron in Colonial America was the cob andiron. These were designed to hold a spit, allowing the spit to turn over the fire. A bar across the two guards of the andirons would support the pole that held a joint of meat, allowing the meat to be turned over the fire. Another form of spit supports was the hook, hung from the guards that a spit could be laid in. Other andirons would have bowls or pots cast into the design for porridges and stews.
The andiron was a technological advancement, a combination of fire and heat enhancement, cooking aid and decorative element. They are now little more than a novelty item, a collectible, a relic of a long ago lifestyle where people watched the fire rather than television. Though societies have moved on from dependence on the hearth as central to the home, a beautiful pair of andirons in the fireplace will still hold the logs over the starter fire.