Now that the holidays are here, vintage fireplace mantels come to mind with the season, like the one photographed above. From time to time, a piece comes through the door that seems, somehow, strangely familiar. Such was the case with a recently purchased ornate antique fireplace mantel. This one came from a townhouse under renovation here in Washington, DC. This wooden mantel has a copious amount of applied ornament, called “compo” or composition, which is made of wood dust and hide glue, molded into myriad ornate shapes and figures. In this way it was possible to replicate more expensive hand-carved ornamentation at a fraction of the cost. This vintage mantel was probably always painted some shade of white.
But how did we know this?
Well, luckily enough our little library of shop reference books includes a very tattered catalog of “Artistic Fire Places and Grilles”. It was produced by Charles F Lorenzen and Co. of Chicago IL around the year 1904. Sure enough, there on page 41 was this very mantel: it was their number 525 “Francis I” model. To quote the catalog listing:
“Made of white wood finished with three coats of white paint ready for enameling”.
The illustration of this mantel shows the complete ensemble with tiled hearth, tiled surround, decorative iron fireback, andirons, etc. “Priced as shown” would have cost $206.14—in US dollars of 1904. Without the tiled portions or any other extras, just the mantel alone was priced at $116.96. Another piece of the story shows up in the wholesale “net price list” tucked in amongst the pages. This discloses that the builder or vendor cost would have been $42.10 for the mantel alone. Remember this was in 1904 dollars—this would translate to about $1100.00 in 2012 dollars. Still a reasonable price today, except that all of us know that such a mantel newly built today would cost several times this amount. That is, if you could find anyone to build it with the same level of detail and attention to the fit and finish that they took for granted in 1904.
Catalogs like this one, and photographs of interiors of the day, are especially valuable when determining how things were intended to look and how they were used. This fireplace catalog shows a number of coal burning inserts, designed for use with just such mantels, as well as a few gas-fired units (with artificial logs on the fronts). There were bookcase-mantels offered, several quite large hallway mirrors as well, and a few pages of ornate fretwork panels (called “artistic wood grilles” here). The least expensive mantel was the number 564, “A Record Breaker”, offered at a retail price of $16.08 for the mantel alone. The catalog simply noted that “This mantel is properly proportioned and is correct”. Enough said! The most expensive was the number 500, The “Mazarin” at $572.37 retail, for the “as illustrated” ensemble. Standing at a massive, ponderous 8 ft. 6 in. tall, this was all constructed of the popular quarter-sawn “tiger stripe” oak throughout, with carved winged cherub heads gracing otherwise vaguely Corinthian column capitals. Oh yes—it had a single electric light socket in the center, over the mantel mirror. Doubtless this was considered a deluxe “modern” touch at the time. Most of our DC home builders seem to have preferred to install mantels from the $200 and under price range. Like the DC townhomes of the era, they were “comfortable” and tasteful without being overly showy and expensive. Some 100-plus years later on, the mantels they installed are ready to give another 100 years of service.