Curious museum visitors often ask about this interesting device.
Unlike many historic objects that have a modern-day equivalent, the pole screen provides a snapshot of a specific era. Ornamental yet practical, these screens deflected heat from your face as you sat near the fire. They could be adjusted depending on the height of the individual user. They began growing in popularity in the mid-18th century and were named for the vertical pole the screen was placed on. Typical forms have a small screen in the shape of a square, oval, or shield attached to the pole, which is placed on tripod feet. The screens themselves were decorated with embroidery, paint, or occasionally lacquer.
The stands were made by a cabinet-maker and were often very elaborate. Many used the wood of choice in the 18th century—mahogany. English cabinet makers Thomas Sheraton, Thomas Chippendale, and George Hepplewhite all made pole screens, and published their designs in their own respective widely distributed pattern books. Their designs influenced contemporary cabinet makers as far away as Australia.
Women then embellished the screens, completing the piece with needlework or painting displaying what was referred to in the period as their “accomplishments.” In Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice Charles Bingley says, “It is amazing to me how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are… They all paint tables, cover screens and net purses. I scarcely know anyone who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time without being informed that she was very accomplished.” Pole screens were transportable art, generally placed at the center of the home, the hearth, where social interactions occurred especially in the cooler months. These items were considered status symbols that showed skill, dedication, and femininity.
While modern fire screens exist, this unique form, made for individual use, with handmade intricate designs, depicts the culture and values of the late 18th and early 19th century.
By Rachel Lovett Curator & Assistant Director