The Kemence was the center of Hungarian family life for centuries. The Magyar language still retains many figurative meanings in connection with the fireplace. Most illustrative is “családi tűzhelyet alapitani,” which means to found a family fireplace, that is, to get married and establish a separate home or new family center. This aspect of Hungarian village life was transported to America. Individuals in many states have indicated the presence of the kemence in their back yards and farm yards.
One of the places in the United States where the kemence found a home was in the agricultural community of Árpádhon (Albany) Louisiana. This Hungarian settlement was founded in 1896 by immigrants who wanted the freedom to own their own land and engage in farming as they had in Hungary. They were attracted to Louisiana by the opportunity to work in a sawmill and purchase the cut-over timberlands for their farmsteads. Each farmstead consisted of several acres of land. Being isolated, every family built an outdoor bread-baking oven or kemence. The age-old custom of establishing a family heart in the new world as well as the old is reflected in the construction and use of bread baking ovens in America.
History of the Kemence
From the earliest times, Hungarian houses contained open and closed fireplace. These two types existed alongside each other and supplemented each other. The open fireplace was used to heat and light the room, as well as for cooking and baking. The closed fireplace, however, was used for heating and baking only.
In an open fireplace, or kandalló, the fire burned on a low bank. Above it a chimney of plasted wicker or tiles channeled the smoke out of the house through the attic. Cooking was done by hanging a kettle above the fire or placing the kettle on a low iron stand. Food was placed on a heated stone and a baking bell was placed over the food. The fireplace also provided additional light for family activities such as spinning and sewing, since most windows in Hungarian village dwellings were small.
The stove or kályha, was a further development of the completely enclosed fireplace in Hungary. The kályha was used only for heating. Tiles were added later to increase both heat retention and heat radiation. In this development the fireplace became not only functional but also decorative with its beautiful tiles.
This information was taken from an publication written by my mom for a Kemence Exhibit for The American Hungarian Foundation. The Hungarian Heritage Center is located at 300 Somerset Street in New Brunswick, NJ. This facility houses the American Hungarian Foundation’s library, manuscript, archival and museum collections which document the role and contributions of Hungarians and their descendants to American life since 1776.