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A Short History of the Heatilator Fireplace

September 22nd, 2017 · 1 Comment

By Garland Pollard

Early brochure cover of the Heatilator. Note the tubes that circulate heat, hidden behind the fireplace surround.

The inventiveness of the 20th century left us with many viable, yet overlooked, genius brands. One such brand is the Heatilator, a fireplace heating system that gets more efficiency and safety out of the fireplace. Heatilator was created in 1927, and it was a simple idea of making a cast iron wood stove look like a fireplace, and then surrounding the actual fireplace with air pockets, and letting the cool air circulate up from the bottom of the room to be heated by the iron fireplace surround.

My grandparents had a Heatilator in the library of their house, c. 1939-41, Bel Air, in Lancaster County. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in front of the fireplace, which I am guessing was one of the early models of the Heatilator. Today, you can rent the house as part of Belle Isle State Park; the house is wonderfully maintained by Virginia State Parks and as far as I know, the fireplace is still in use, and I guess if something went wrong they could get help from the company’s limited lifetime warranty. (A side question for any brand manager or CEO: Is it possible that you could offer a limited lifetime warranty for your product? What would that look like? Would not that be something to aspire to?)

The house with a Heatilator, hidden in the chimney to the left, on the south side of the house.

The genius of the Heatilator was that it would really heat the room; if you closed the door of the library, you could leave the rest of the house much cooler and stay in the warm library, all cozy. That there was a modern fireplace in the house could never be detected except by looking at the sides of the fireplace, which had vents. There were also no moving parts save the damper, though I guess you could really increase the efficiency by putting a small fan at the bottom of the vents.

Perfect Farm Companion

The gambrel-roofed house was deceptively elegant, designed in the Colonial Revival style by architect Thomas T. Waterman, who in the 1930s designed the rebuilt Governor’s Palace and Capital in Colonial Williamsburg. The author of the Mansions of Virginia history of Virginia plantations, he was also the first director of the Historic American Buildings Survey and first architect for Francis duPont’s Winterthur.

I don’t know who specified the Heatilator, but whether it was my grandparents or Waterman, it was and is a special item. First, the Heatilator did not look like an abnormal or modern fireplace. The only clues that was advanced were that it had vents on the side (ably disguised by Waterman’s fireplace wood surround paneling) and the back of the fireplace, which was black iron, instead of brick. If you weren’t paying attention, and hit the back accidentally with the andiron as  you stoked the fire, you would here an echo-ey “dung” sound of iron on iron.

I imagine that each family that grew up in a house with a Heatilator felt the same way. It is the odd brand that you do not actually see, but experience, as it improves your life on a regular basis. Most, perhaps, do not even know the brand name of the item, only that it is there, and functioning. It is a luxury item in the sense that getting it installed and properly fitted was expensive, especially in the Depression. But over the years, it was so functional in keeping you warm with wood from the farm that it actually saved you money. Every house built in a cold climate should have a wood burning fireplace, for not only reasons of their ability to bring the family together, but because they save lives during long ice storms, as your house does not freeze and you are not dependent on gas generators to stay warm.

A view of the east wall of the library at Bel Air. Wish I had photo of the fireplace.

My understanding of the “brand” had nothing to do with brochures or marketing. To me it looked like our fireplace, which had a copy of the Magna Carta hanging over it. There was no mantle, as my grandmother hated the way that mantles became cluttered with items. But inside, there was a highly functional item. But inside was a very heavy, well-crafted iron item. I know it is durable, as once the chimney caught fire as they used the fireplace daily, and there was no safety issue, as the roof was concrete tile (which simulated wood) and the chimney was large and heavily lined. The fire just did the work of a chimney sweep, free. There was no label or marker, as far I can remember. This makes an important point; a good brand does not need a label to identify it; the functionality that it presents to the customer is the “brand.”

The brand, according to their website, began in 1927. Today, Heatilator is part of the company Hearth & Home Technologies that owns brands that include Harman, Heat & Glo, Heatilator, Quadra-Fire, Outdoor Lifestyles and Fireside Hearth & Home retail stores. Hearth & Home itself is part of publicly traded HNI (NYSE: HNI) the Muscatine, Iowa-based office furniture maker founded by visionary Charles Stanley whose brands include Hon, AllSteel, Gunlocke (those famous slatted wood office chairs), Paoli, Maxon furniture, Lamex, HBF and OFM. HNI is one of those wonderful, innovative American companies that still makes many great products and thankfully has not been bought out and degraded by corporate raiders.

Energy Crisis to Off Grid

The company now offers a wide array of products, from gas insert fireplaces to electric fireplaces to standalone wood fireplaces. Some seem to be terribly complex, with electronic controls and the like. In terms of antecedents, the Heatilator is perhaps a cousin to the Franklin stove, though I am not sure it had the reverse “U” shaped pipe that is associated with the Franklin. It gained an extra burst of popularity in the environmental craze of the 1970s, when Carter revved up anxiety about energy (The Energy Crisis!) and good Americans bought heaters like the Kero-Sun and Buck Stove (a fireplace insert) to keep warm.

There are a number of super-luxury home appliance brands that endure, companies like Jotul (maker of the Little Giant wood stove), Esse and Aga. Heatilator is one of them. Heatilator was first made by the Chemical Toilet Corp., which later changed names to San-Equip, Inc., and then became part of a company named Vega Industries. HON purchased the fireplace division of Vega in 1981, and has supported and kept the brand identity clear and the product line strong. It has an allure that comes from its era of founding; after all the company survived the Depression, perhaps because it fit the mood of the times as it paralleled the popularity of the radio and Roosevelt’s fireside chats.

  • You can reserve the Bel Air house on your next visit to the Northern Neck of Tidewater, Virginia in Lancaster County. Visit virginiastateparks.com

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Tags: Energy

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 RegularGuy55 // Sep 22, 2017 at 7:42 pm

    We owned a house with a Heatilator fire place, and it really did warm up a whole room. I cheated a bit and added two small, quiet computer fans, one at each floor inlet, to provide a gentle ‘push’ to get more heat out.

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