Chimneys, Chickens and Catting

Brick central chimney on the 1677 Whipple House, Ipswich, Mass.

Chickens in the chimney? Quite a common phenomenon in seventeenth-century New England. Oh Yes!

Alexander Knight House, an exact replica of a 1657 house in Ipswich, Mass.

Early houses were fire-traps particularly if they were thatched. Sparks from the chimney were the main culprits, particularly if the firewood was pine or fir, whose smoke coated the inside of the chimney with a highly flammable type of soot or creosote. A stiff broom could keep the lower part of the chimney relatively clean, but where the broom couldn’t reach, chickens could. Every now and again, two or three were dropped down the chimney and their frantic flapping and scrabbling brought down most of the dangerous soot.

Thatched roof and catted chimney on the Alexander Knight House

The fire danger was increased multi-fold if the chimney was “catted,” i.e. made of wood or laths daubed with wet clay in the interior to (sort of) “fireproof” them. We have a good example in Ipswich, the Alexander Knight House, a replica of a small house built in 1657 with a catted chimney and a thatched roof – a dangerous combo!


CC-4Catting had to be thorough: a spark could find its way into the smallest gap.In 1631,his Journal, 1631, John Winthrop noted in his Journal that Mr Sharp’s house in Boston “took fire, the splinters not being catted at the top.”

Right: The “splinters at the top” of the chimney are being carefully catted so that Alexander Knight’s house will not suffer the fate of Mr. Sharp’s.



   Catted fireplace and chimney in the Alexander Knight House

In his famous letter to the Countess of Lincoln (March 1631) Governor Thomas Dudley of Boston wrote, “In our new towne, intended this somer to be builded, wee have ordered that noe man shall build his chimney with wood nor cover his house with thatch, which was readily assented unto, for that divers houses have been burned since our arrivall (the fire alwaies beginninge in the woodden chimney)…”

These early houses in New England followed closely the English models with which the settlers were familiar. The chimney is the exception: the central chimney, ubiquitous in New England, was unknown in Old England. To thrive in the harsh winters of Massachusetts, people needed every bit of warmth to stay inside the house. Also unique to New England was the catted chimney: We can only assume it was quicker and cheaper to build than a stone or brick one, and did not require the specialist skills of a mason. For obvious reasons, no original catted chimneys have survived.

Thinking about chimneys and soot and fires leads me to invite Shakespeare to close this post on a more philosophical note:

Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.


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