Historically, a hearth is a fireplace, lined with brick or stone, used to cook or heat. It’s the architectural expression of the fireplace, the visible part, as opposed to the section hidden behind a wall and connected to a chimney. The mantel, which is separate from the fireplace proper, is something else altogether. The hearth is the most traditionally central place in a home; in fact, it’s Latin name is focus.
The hearth’s significance can vary inversely to warmth; fireplaces aren’t used much in summer months, but crisp fall evenings and blustery winter days can demand their use. A fireplace means warmth and comfort, in terms of both heat provided and the people gathered around it. It’s a central attraction, what decorators call an anchor, in any room. A stone fireplace is best, if dormant, caked slightly in ash and soot, looking recently and vigorously used. In actual use, it’s best filled with crackling, popping logs and warm, lazy flames.
Gas fireplaces offer the latter but not the first; gas lines don’t crackle and pop (unless near exploding) and sculpted metal “logs” neither crack, change shape, glow, burn, or smell like wood and home. Retiring to Scotch and cigars around a gas fireplace is like reading books on a Kindle. The superficial, identifying qualities are there (flames and heat, or, words and plot) but the feeling is gone. The gas rig offers no more comfortable pine smoke or gentle, dry crackling than the Kindle does dog-eared pages or creased binding.
Hearth taxes existed in England as early as 1662, and cost about two shillings per hearth, per home. Almshouses and schools were exempt, as were businesses other than smiths’ forges or bakers’ ovens. Subjects of the Crown paid one shilling on Michaelmas, and the other on Lady Day, until William III abolished the tax in 1689. Scotland followed suit a year later.