This is more misunderstanding than myth, but Cindy Conte of Michie Tavern, Charlottesville, Virginia (1784), asked me to address the subject, so I will!
“The 18th-century hearth is one of the most romanticized and iconic images of colonial times,” writes Cindy Conte. “Early depictions feature a woman in colonial garb cooking over a roaring fire. Sadly, this romantic hearth cooking image has been stamped into our mindset as permanently as it has been inked into old history books. At least once every season a tourist will point to the bread oven which is tucked to the side of our fireplace and exclaim, ‘That has to be wrong. A person would get burned baking bread if the oven were placed there.’ Surely, they are thinking of that colonial woman, a roaring fire and possibly a large black kettle. Quite often, we explain that once a fire was good and hot, the coals would be separated into piles (think of burners on a stove) and several dishes could be prepared at once. Bread could be prepared as well. Bread ovens were tucked into the side of hearths, at the back of hearths, close to the hearth, to the right of the hearth, to the left of the hearth and outside.”
Bread ovens (which had doors that are missing in these photos), could be constructed in various places around the fireplace. Why build one inside the fireplace where surely it would be harder to access? Frank Clark, Colonial Williamsburg’s supervisor of Historic Foodways, says the reason is: “It was cheaper. If you put your oven on either side of the fireplace, you must also build a flue to tie it into the main chimney. This takes more bricks and more labor from a mason. If you don’t, your kitchen fills with smoke when you use it. When you build it in the back of the fireplace, it feeds to the main chimney with no flue. It is, however, more difficult to use since you have to keep the hearth fire to the other side so you can access the oven.”
So bread ovens at the back or side of the fireplace are not mistakes.