Collecting Mania: Antique Mantels

For centuries, fireplace mantels have been at the heart of American homes. Before the modern times of central heating systems, each major room or area in the home depended on its own hearth for heat. Fireboxes, whether they were shallow coal-burning examples or deeper wood-burning ones, were often dressed with brick, stone, or tile.

Adding a wooden frame also known as a mantel was considered a major decorative touch which can not only make a room stand out, but also provides a convenient place to display treasured household memorabilia, awards, photographs, and other minutiae. The beginning of the 20th century saw a rejection of the excessive Victorian design stereotype and American manufacturers reacted by producing a new style of fireplace mantels which were made primarily of oak, and were designed to be practical, simple, and straightforward, echoing the style of Mission Oak that was very popular at  the time.

As time went on, fireplaces became not so much a necessity but an option, thus many mantels were simply discarded and the fireplaces walled up during remodeling. This practice was especially common during the remodeling of apartments. It is difficult to believe but almost every single apartment in the United States Northeast that was built up until the beginning of the 20th century had its own fireplace and mantle. You'd be hard pressed to find even a single percentage of them still present!

If you're looking for an antique mantel for your own home, you can definitely expect to find some in salvage shops in a large variety of conditions and styles. Be sure to equip yourself with a flashlight, tape measure and your room dimensions. You may also want to wear old clothes because salvage shops can be very dusty.

To find the right mantel for your old house, consider the following:

  • Determine the date and style of your house and then consult design books for that era. This will help you identify common decorative motifs of the period that you can search for.
  • Study surviving woodwork - both interior and exterior - for decorative details that were commonly repeated in mantels, such as bull's-eye molding or Gothic Revival arches.
  • Consider the proportions of the room. Your house may have been built at the height of the Victorian Age, but keep in mind that a massive, ornately carved mantel will be better suited to a sizable parlor than a smaller bedroom.
  • Envision the room's final decor. If "period perfect" is what you're after, you'll know exactly what to look for. If your style is a bit more eclectic, however, you will have greater freedom in your choices.

Regardless of the style and age of your home - or whether or not you even have a fireplace - a recycled mantel can provide a room not only with visual interest but a bit of history, as well.

Prices for salvaged mantels can range from around $50 to $1,500, varying due to age, level of detail, size and condition. The least expensive mantels available today are the plain, painted ones. If you're looking for  a natural wood finish, it's usually more economical to buy one already stripped rather than doing it yourself.

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