The work over a fire-place in front of the chimney, especially a narrow shelf, usually ornamented, above the fire place; called mantel-piece, mantel-shelf, and mantel-tree. The word is written, also mantle, but the spelling mantel is more common, and is to be preferred as serving to distinguish this word from mantle, a garment. — Webster, 1882
On the side of [the park] bordering on the wood, there is a high wooden stile, and on this there sat perched, one sunny morning, a pretty little figure, all flounces and lace, and ribbons and bows, wanting but the crook to make her seem a china shepherdess, just stepped down from some high mantel-shelf… – Chapter XXV, “The Pride of the Hatherleighs,” in the August 13, 1870, issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (New York)
Only when you have fireplaces, do you typically have mantel-shelves, and only in Little House on the Prairie does Laura Ingalls Wilder mention the mantel, although there is a fireplace in the Ingallses’ log cabin from Little House in the Big Woods, as well as in Grandma and Grandpa’s cabin. Garth Williams included a mantel in drawings for both Big Woods (see the cover!) and Little House, but Helen Sewell only included one in the final chapter illustrations for Big Woods, not in the book which describes the construction of one. The mantel in the replica log cabin at the Little House on the Prairie Museum near Independence, Kansas, is shown in the photo at right.
Fireplaces can be flush with the wall and have no protruding hearth below or mantel above them, but a shelf made a convenient place to display or keep items out of reach of children, who were often told not to go to near the fire, anyway. A clock, treasured books, or a china shepherdess might find a place to rest on the mantel. In the Little House on the Prairie television series, the mantel was a prominent feature and shown in most episodes; not only is Ma’s china shepherdess displayed there, but the wooden mantel itself was carved by Pa, with the initials “CI-CI” in the center, standing for “Charles Ingalls – Caroline Ingalls.” The mantel used in the television show is now on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, as well as other memorabilia from the series. A photograph of the television show mantel is on the navigation button that brought you to this page; it is on display in the museum so that visitors may easily photograph it – and themselves in front of it.
When you visit Laura and Almanzo Wilder’s Rocky Ridge farmhouse in Mansfield, Missouri, as part of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum tour, your guide will tell you a story about the fireplace in the farmhouse. When the house was being constructed, forty loads of rock were used to construct the chimney, and Laura had her heart set on having the fireplace surround built of native rock from the farm, but Almanzo bought a load of fire-brick instead. For the first time in Laura’s life, she wept, which changed Almanzo’s mind.
You can read Laura’s story, “The Building of a Farm House,” in William Anderson’s A Laura Ingalls Wilder Reader, A Collection of Long-Lost Stories, Poems and Reminiscences by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Her Family (Ashland, Ohio: BookMasters, Inc., 2012), 51-63. “The fireplace was built of one enormous slab of rock across the whole length of the top and one at each end forming the whole end of the fireplace.” While the story features the fireplace itself, note the wooden mantle-shelf above, and the display of treasures it holds! Can you spot the photograph of Rose Wilder Lane? Click HERE to see a historical photograph of the fireplace, from the collection of The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library / Museum in West Branch, Iowa.
mantel-shelf (LHP 9-10, 19)