Parts of a mantelpiece are labeled on this drawing of the formal Georgian fireplace in the West Parlor at Washington’s Mount Vernon. Not every mantel has an overmantel, which may end with crown moulding at the ceiling. The surround and mantel itself vary in size and proportion by style.
Proportion is different from scale, and both are important. Scale relates to both the actual and relative size of a piece in the room. Proportion deals with the relationships among various elements. You can have a well- proportioned mantel that is simply too big for the room (over-scaled). More likely, you’ll encounter reasonably scaled mantels with distorted proportions, like a too-narrow header.
Mid-Victorian ca. 1850–1875: Increasing wealth and trade-happy empire building meant there was a lot of stuff. A romantic oil painting is the backdrop for a gilded figural Continental clock under a glass dome, blue Minton vases, brass figural candlesticks, fairy lamps with Burmese art-glass shades, and a polychromed cigar lighter.
Linda Svendsen archive
Bring out the inherent (or preferred) style of your bungalow or Colonial Revival house with a well-dressed hearth and mantel.
An original fireplace is an important element of style. Its design is a clue: Does your house lean toward late Victorian (spindles on an oak over-mantel), Craftsman (beveled mirror and ochre art tiles), Mission or Spanish (black iron sconces), Prairie (Roman-brick wall with stone header), Tudor (an arch), or Colonial Revival (white paint and swags)? If it’s as obvious as those examples, choose appropriate fireplace accessories and decorative objects to avoid muddling the point. If your fireplaces are plain and mundane, use accessories and objects to make a style statement in concert with the house.
Over the mantel Traditional options for the wall over the mantel include artwork, a mirror, taxidermy, or a textile. In the first quarter of the 20th century, art was often a plein-air or landscape painting, a portrait, or such period favorites as Edward Curtis prints of Native Americans. When a mirror was used, often it was beveled glass set into mouldings over the hearth, rather than a florid piece hung on the wall, as in previous periods. Animal heads continued to be popular in Western and Rustic homes or dens.
Objects on display often look best if they trace a V (tall, low, or inverted) or a W. Find balance without symmetry in the volume of objects.
The mantelshelf Objects of great variety were displayed on the mantel during these years: travel photos in frames; pottery; candlesticks; vases with or without flowers; leather-bound books; framed art tile; antique ceramics;, collectibles such as boxes, glassware, silver, and pewter; small statues; and finds from nature—a bird’s nest, a branch or driftwood, pinecones, seashells. The style and degree of formality in your house will guide you. Choose a theme, and remember that Victorian clutter had become outmoded.
The arrangement itself helps define your style. Colonial Revival displays are symmetrical, sometimes obsessively so. Arts & Crafts arrangements sometimes use symmetry, as well, but often have an unstudied feeling with asymmetrical placement of objects—but balanced, of course. Finish the look with appropriate iron or brass fireplace tools.
Many houses ca. 1890–1925 exhibit a melding of Elizabethan and Jacobean, Reformed Gothic, English Arts & Crafts, and Tudor Revival forms. All of these revivals had roots in late- and post-Middle Ages England.
man·tel | \ man-t•l: the decorative frame around the firebox and the surround. It may be of wood, marble or other stone, or metal. The word also may refer to the entire mantelpiece or to the mantelshelf. In the bungalow era, mantels are often one with a brick or tile surround.
Mantel Styles by Era
The progression of styles is fluid, with overlaps and time delays outside of urban areas. Colonial (Georgian) raised-panel fireplace wall treatments appear in houses built as late as 1840. A prefab mantel ordered from a catalog may not be in sync with other elements of a 1920s house. GEORGIAN Distinctive of the classically proportioned Georgian fireplace is its overmantel treatment, often topped with a broken pediment. A bed moulding with egg-and-dart, dentil, or other detailing supports the mantelshelf.
ADAM/FEDERAL Adamesque or Federal-era mantels feature low-relief carved and reeded ornament such as scrolls, urns, flowers, eagles, and mythological figures. By 1800, the broken pediment had disappeared. Overmantels were scarce.
GREEK REVIVAL These mantels are usually based on the plain, post-and-lintel construction of Greek temples. White marble is the height of Athenian splendor, but most American Greek Revival mantels are of wood, sometimes faux-painted with veining.
GOTHIC REVIVAL These mantels accentuate the perpendicular. The firebox opening or overmantel typically features a pointed Gothic or shallow Tudor arch.
ROCOCO Many mid-19th-century marble mantels have an arched firebox opening. The spandrels forming the arch often overflow with carved fruits, leaves and flowers, or cherubic figures in three-dimensional relief. Wood mantels are carved.
RENAISSANCE REVIVAL Formal, delicately carved mantel-pieces once again are likely to include an overmantel.
AESTHETIC/EASTLAKE With influences from medieval to Turkish to Japanese, the mantel proper may be flat with minimal decoration, while the overmantel is an elaborate construction of shelves, mirrors, and niches for the display of worldy objets d’art. ARTS & CRAFTS The quintessential bungalow mantel is brick or local stone, sometimes inset with handmade tiles. But Prairie School mantels are modern, usually constructed all in masonry, with bold designs, such as a semi-circle arch.
REVIVALS The most widespread designs of the early 20th century are Colonial Revival. Wood is often painted in an off-white color. Various arch shapes define Tudor Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival mantels. Mantel Beauty
Antique, vintage, and reproduction fireplace mantels and accessories are available for your new construction or to enhance an existing fireplace.
A Colonial Revival classic, the ‘Farmington’ comes in standard and custom sizes. Shown in white paint on poplar, it’s available in pine, maple, oak, or cherry for staining and natural finish. Easy to install, starting at $900 (overmantel sold separately). Find surrounds, stone facing kits, gas and electric fireplaces, and accessories at
Decorators Supply sells such components as corbels, plinth blocks, and ornamental compo onlays as well as finished wood mantels and shelves. Furniture-quality custom mantels in Georgian, French, and Adam styles; see too the White River line of carved lindenwood mantels in stock sizes. Prices range from $2,800–3,200 and up.
Glass dome or cloche.
Show off a collectible, sculpture, or taxidermy in a glass dome or cloche on your Victorian mantelshelf. This company inventories new (hand-blown) and antique domes—round, oval, and rectangular—and matching bases in wood, marble, or brass. Pricing by size and rarity; a new oval glass dome 16.75″ tall costs about $325.
Victorian-style gas insert.
The Victorian Fireplace Shop’s English Victorian-style gas insert is shown with a screen and coal scuttle. Find everything for upgrades or new fireplaces, with a specialty in smaller and historic fireplaces. A ‘Windsor’ small gas insert is $3,798.
Craftsman-style mantel clock.
Handcrafted by Schlabaugh and Sons in Iowa, this Craftsman-style
mantel clock is made of quarter-sawn white oak and finished in a rich, deep stain. Under a glass lens, the dial is solid copper. The clock
measures 18″ wide x 10″ tall x 5″ deep, $383. schsons.com