Walkabout: About Those Windows, Part 3

What to do with the windows? This is not a new dilemma; it has been on the minds of homemakers since our houses were built. There has always been the choice between the simple and the ornate, no matter what the period, and the choices people made, then and now, had to do with function, location, and of course, money. In our last two entries, we looked at the historic window treatments of the late 18th through early 19th century in Part One, and continued up until about the 1870s in Part Two. Today, we’ll continue, looking at the late 1800’s, the time period during which most of the row houses in Brooklyn were built. But first a little background and context.

In 1868, English architect and tastemaker Charles Eastlake published “Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery, and other Details.” The book was a runaway hit, both in England and here in the United States, where it was published in 1872. Eastlake’s book became the bible of the decorating world, so much so that six editions were printed here in in the next eleven years, in order to keep up with the demand.

England, like the United States, was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, that great time of invention and innovation, where machines and technology had developed that could produce all kinds of products, that before, had to be hand made by skilled craftsmen of all kinds. On both sides of the Atlantic, the advances in technology had helped create a new middle class; the white collar worker, and this new class of people had more disposable income than ever before, and they wanted to show off their new station in life with material goods. Just like we do today, they wanted stuff.

Of course, factories were turning out great advances in transportation machinery, medical and scientific equipment, and all kinds of necessary products, but for the sake of this discussion, they were also making tons of consumer goods for the home. It was a new market; a booming market. Skilled cabinetmakers, who apprenticed with masters for years before going out on their own, had been creating only a few pieces of furniture a month, each piece hand crafted. Now, a factory, with the new technology that could facilitate turned wood, and carved detail, could produce hundreds of pieces of furniture each month, at prices that the middle class could afford. And the market was waiting.

Eastlake saw the trend of “more is more” growing, and he was not pleased. He advocated a return to simplicity, and a simple elegance. He especially was distressed at the way furniture makers were loading up furniture with glued-on elaborate machine carved pieces, and how cheap wood was being stained to resemble better wood. He advocated simpler design, and the use of walnut, oak and other woods, stained only with natural oils, to bring out their beauty.

Eastlake talked a great show, but he never designed a piece of furniture that we know of. Here, in the US, furniture manufacturers took Eastlake’s ideas and ran with them. They cut back on the florid carvings and began producing furniture with angular surfaces and incised lines and geometric shapes. American Eastlake was here, and it was hugely popular. The designs carried over into architecture, each feeding the other, and this produced the angular lines of our Neo-Grec houses, where the invention of the pneumatic drill had made producing the simple incised patterns on the façades of rowhouses springing up in just about every brownstone neighborhood, possible, and cheap.

Inside these houses, the tall parlor floor windows were framed with natural wood, often with simple carvings on the frames. Depending on the price of the house, fine woods were used, especially on the parlor floors, with window casings in oak, walnut, mahogany and other beautiful natural woods. Bedrooms and ground floors had simpler treatments, but all the floors, especially in the front rooms, had windows frames that were worthy to be seen.

Eastlake ruled in the 1870s, but as the decade progressed, Mr. Eastlake’s original ideas were so warped and taken out of context here in America, that he grew to hate the term “Eastlake,” as what we were doing had nothing to do with him. The furniture began to be on steroids, as the simplicity was soon gone, and some of the worst examples of High Victorian furniture soon had his name on them. The carving became hugely elaborate, the woods ebonized, covered in gold, silver and bronze, and the pieces so over upholstered, they became caricatured. It was time for another home revolution.

Yeah, yeah, you say, but what about the windows? Well, again you have two philosophies at work. The true Eastlake mindset championed the simple. Show off the beautiful woodwork with simple hanging draperies, gathered on a pole set into the window frame, held on by brass or wooden rings. Lace or sheer muslin curtains were set behind these drapes for privacy. Utilize the window shutters built into at least the front windows of all brownstones. Mass production had made these shutters able to be louvered up and down to allow for light and air. Draperies could be framed in the windows, or not. Lesser windows like bedrooms, kitchens, etc, could have roller blinds, spring mechanisms had been perfected so that they snapped rolled up and down, just like today. Again, curtains could also be used, if desired.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, in its day, the combination of Vogue Magazine and House Beautiful, always advocated more is more. Their advertisers were the same drapery and dressmakers whose goods appeared in their articles, so they tended to go big to sell their advertisers’ goods and services. Their windows looked like their lady’s dresses. The high fashion of the day in the 1870s was the bustle dress, where a stylish woman looked like a wasp, with a tight fitting bodice sweeping out into a bustled backside, with yards of fabric trailing behind her. These dresses were embellished with as much fringe, tassels and trim as possible. They looked like the very draperies they were often standing in front of. While Eastlake was preaching simplicity, Godey’s was worshipping at the altar of excess, and their illustrations of fashionable windows showed more and more fabric, frou-frou, swagging, draping and festooning than ever.

Just as the excesses of fashion and home décor of the 1980s produced the minimalism of the 1990s, so too did the trends of one hundred years before. Just as Charles Eastlake had championed the simple and natural, another movement was taking place in England; the Arts and Crafts Movement, as seen by William Morris. Like Eastlake, Morris was also appalled by the excesses of the machine age of furniture making and décor. But he not only wanted to go back to the good old days of English hand made goods, he wanted to go much farther back, and embrace the ideals of the Middle Ages.

He and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites began a movement in British art, architecture, and home, some of which still lives and is popular today. Humble, natural materials, like oak, brick, stone. Hand-made furniture, hand woven fabrics, tapestries and hand embroidered draperies, these were just some of the ideas out of Morris’ fertile mind. Simplicity in line and materials, and a handmade honesty in all things. I’m over-simplifying and condensing one of the most important movements in the history of the decorative arts, but only because we’ll never get past him, if I don’t. Needless to say, he greatly influenced those decorative arts both in the UK, and in the US.

Eastlake and Morris are all part of what we call the Aesthetic Movement, which lasted through the 1870s to about 1890. It produced some of the most beautiful decorative arts we have known, and coincides with the building of the majority of the row houses, as well as some of the suburban homes; we all talk about here on Brownstoner, every day. The Aesthetic Movement gave us ornament, surface decoration, color and pattern; something that was certainly not unknown before, but now, in an entirely new way. How did that translate into window treatments? Well, we had more of the same, and a few things that were new. We’ll talk about that next time, as we end the 19th century and move into the modern age.

(Above: William Morris style room. Victoriana.com)

1875 Fashions, Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Window treatments from Godey’s Lady’s Book, around 1875

Aesthetic Movement drapery treatment.

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