J. Del Conner sculpted and cast four custom Firebacks in 2020 – 2021. Elements of The Bear’s Den, and the Heron House sculptures were later modified, placed on the new Classic Plain Panel frame, and added to our line of Original Designs.
Another custom Fireback, The Rabbit, for one of the oldest clubs in Philadelphia, will be cast at the end of April, 2021.
I recently received an email from a man named Ben who had inherited one of my firebacks and asked how the rust could be removed, and the casting cleaned. The photo attached in the email was of a 1980 Great Oak, the first year this design was available. In good condition and retaining most of its original finish, I recommended it would be as good as new after going over it with a wire brush, and applying a fresh coat of stove polish.
Curious as to its provenance, I asked Ben for a little history on this casting. After talking with his father, he told me this had been a house warming gift from the founder of Pennsylvania Firebacks, and old high school friend, chimney sweep Terry Polis. Ben thought that it may be from the first batch of firebacks we produced in 1979.
This fireback is a testimonial to their heirloom qualities, durability, and connection to a family’s sense of Hearth and Home. Ben told me that this fireback was “well traveled,” having been with his parents in five houses, and now in his, its sixth home.
Design and sculpting of this firebacks began in early 1979, while also creating the company logo, advertisements and promotional literature. That August, the first batch of Pennsylvania Firebacks, consisting of twenty Franklin Suns, and twenty of what was then called, The Green Tree fireback, were cast in Pennsylvania. I can identify that Ben’s is from the first batch due to its logo below the date. The second batch had a more open and legible logo under the date.
On this day in 1985 Halley’s Comet crossed the celestial equator. That night, the comet entered the overflowing bowl of Aquarius the water bearer. With them paying the freight, we donated copies of this fireback to the Royal Astronomical Society in London, The Society Astronomique de France in Paris, and The Astronomische Gesellschaft in Stuttgart, Germany.
If you can’t wait for its return in 2062, you can catch a little glimpse of it leftovers twice in 2020. Mark your calendars.
May 5: The Eta Aquariids This annual shower originates from none other than Halley’s Comet, and these meteors come in fast — 66 km (41 miles) per second! However, the shower’s radiant (in the Water Jar asterism of Aquarius) never gets very high above the horizon for observers in the Northern Hemisphere. Also, it rises only a couple of hours before dawn. Worse yet, this year’s peak will be spoiled by a nearly full Moon that remains in the sky virtually all night.
October 21: The Orionids Here’s another modest shower due to Halley’s Comet. This year its peak, early on October 21st, is well suited for observers in North America and Europe. Moonlight won’t be a problem, and you can start watching around 9 p.m. on the 20th, after the shower’s radiant (located above Orion’s bright reddish star Betelgeuse) clears the horizon. But the best rates, perhaps one meteor every few minutes, will come after midnight.
We recently made a pattern of a miniature Catoctin Furnace Stove Plate for our friends at the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society in Maryland. We are in the process of making 25 rubber molds of the plate that will used by students in their Education Program to make Plaster of Paris copies.
In the meantime, we made and donated 24 plastic castings of the plate with hooks to be sold as tree ornaments at their Holiday Festival. We at Pennsylvania Firebacks are happy to support this early American iron work’s all volunteer historical society in their restoration, preservation and education efforts.
J. Del Conner holds a mold of his most popular fireback design, “The Great Oak,” at his home, which doubles as a studio, in Hamburg, Berks County. Conner makes original firebacks, decorative pieces for fireplaces, and claims they are being pirated in China.
J. Del Conner’s biggest headache is currently out of stock, but the Berks County renaissance man fears more could be en route, via cargo ships from China.
Conner, 69, designs and sells cast-iron firebacks, large plates that are propped up inside fireplaces to protect the bricks and radiate heat. Conner started Pennsylvania Firebacks in 1979 in Philadelphia, and at his peak was selling 1,000 a year at $300 to $900 apiece, depending on size and intricacy of design.
That number is down to about 600, and he blames China. Conner says foundries there have stolen his fireback designs, made cheaper versions, and shipped them to suppliers in the United States. Conner was so frustrated, he bought one of the knockoffs himself. The copies are often hundreds of dollars cheaper than his product, but the quality, he argues, is far from the same.
“This is the one I made, and that’s the copy from China,” he said, holding two firebacks. “It’s the same exact thing. Theirs is 39 pounds and mine is 56. The back of theirs is hollow. Mine has my signature on it.”
Conner said he’s tried to track down the manufacturer, which has been fruitless. Hiring a lawyer, he said, wouldn’t be cost-effective. Instead, he’s focused on trying to reach out to the suppliers in the U.S. He’s found his designs for sale on Home Depot’s website.
“There’s not much you can do. You can send letters,” he said.
Many websites now say “no stock currently available” for the knockoffs, “but that doesn’t mean a shipment isn’t on its way now from China,” Conner said.
Competition from China is nothing new. The country has been the world’s leading exporter of manufactured goods for a decade. Conner’s firebacks aren’t the only uniquely Pennsylvania products counterfeited there. Zippo lighters, the largest employer in rural McKean County, battles rampant piracy in China, where its products are wildly popular.
In January, the Inquirer reported on a regulatory quirk that enables China to grow mushrooms and market them as a “Product of the USA.” The rapid advance of the Chinese market quickly imperiled several Chester County mushroom farmers.
“They’ve managed to cripple me,” one farmer said.
Jesus Espinoza, a spokesman for the Alliance for American Manufacturing, said trademark infringement affects every industry, from telecommunications to fashion, even something as unique as firebacks.
“It’s basically theft,” Espinoza said. “Family-owned business are especially affected.”
Country Iron Foundry, a Paoli-based fireback manufacturer, did not return requests for comment. Firebacks are also made in England, Belgium, and France, Conner said.
While firebacks are the bulk of Conner’s income, he’s also an inventor of sorts, making bird’s-eye-view maps, illustrations, and wax molds. The Germantown native studied at the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia and made a living as a freelance commercial artist, designing a logo for Six Flags Great Adventure. Until Philadelphia’s soda tax arrived, Conner made his own brand of black cherry soda for a decade, based on a recipe by the physician Philip Syng Physick, his great-great-grandfather. The soda was sold in Old City, he said, and he even held a “Phyzz Phest” every year at the Physick House on South Fourth Street.
“The soda tax, in seven months, killed it,” he said. “It just got to be too much.”
In recent years, Conner moved from an 1854 stone house in Germantown to a modern home in Hamburg , 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, that overlooks a rolling landscape of red barns and farm fences. He sketches and designs the firebacks in a home office, taking rubber molds to a nearby foundry. His home is filled with guitars and artifacts. One of his favorite fireback designs, “The North Star,” shined behind the fake logs in his gas fireplace.
Conner said a chimney sweep friend had recommended making firebacks, and Conner was familiar with them, having seen a roomful on display in the Mercer Museum in Doylestown. He was licensed to make reproductions from Winterthur Museum. Some of Conner’s pieces have been displayed at the Museum of the American Revolution. He’s currently designing firebacks for the daughter of the late British children’s author Roald Dahl.
But Conner says he can’t compete with China and fears there could be more firebacks coming.
“One of my designs, ‘The Field of Leaves,’ was selling for less than what it cost me to make it here in Pennsylvania,” he said. “How can you compete with yourself? I’d be losing money on every one.”
Founded by chimney sweep Terry Polis in 1979, Pennsylvania Firebacks, Inc., is about to mark the 40th Anniversary of its revitalization of the art form of the cast-iron Fireback.
When the turn to alternative energy emerged in the late 1970’s, as an artist, I had the pleasure of creating graphics and advertisements for my friend Terry and his then new sweeping business.At the time I lived in a two hundred year old farmhouse with nine fireplaces, in the middle of an arboretum, and an oil crisis.Needless to say Terry was a cherished client.
In 1979 I had the pleasure of partnering with Terry in revitalizing the forgotten art form of the Fireback by sculpting the first American designs in modern times.That year I designed and sculpted the Franklin Sun, and Great Oak (at that time called the Green Tree), Firebacks.
While still sculpting and making patterns of these first new Firebacks, the first advertisements for Pennsylvania Firebacks had to rely on line art drawings of the designs.These first advertisements appeared in the November 1979 issues of the Smithsonian, Natural History, House and Garden and a few other magazines.Subsequant advertisements in these magazines featured photographs of the newly cast Firebacks.
In 1981 the North Star Fireback, and Field of Stars Firebacks were introduced.Also that year the Franklin Sun Fireback was modified to its present form and work on the American Eagle and others begun.
Still hand cast with the finest materials by skilled foundry workers in Pennsylvania, we are honored by the public reception and customer loyalty we have received from the debut of our first advertisements to this day.