Period-appropriate window treatments, like most things in interior design, can be plain or fancy. It depends on your taste and budget, because there is historical precedent for both. The first owners of our row houses, free standing homes and apartments had many of the same choices we do today. In the last four chapters on this topic, we’ve looked at the historic window treatments of the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries. Current fashion, all through those one hundred plus years, went back and forth from ornate to simple, with several constants running throughout the entire time period: window shades, blinds and simple hanging draperies. Fancy windows, with valances, lots of fabric, trims and layers of materials came and went, and got more complicated as the 19th century progressed.
They were all a part of the phenomenon of the proliferation of consumer goods available through the wonders of the industrial and technological advances that dazzled the mid-19th century. The Industrial Revolution created a new workforce of urban factory workers. It created a middle class of management and office workers, and it allowed an elite comprised of inventors, manufacturers, wholesale merchants, financial and real estate men and other wealthy professionals to build great homes and estates and to spend money on all of the new and wonderful things available in all of the enormous stores that were opening everywhere.
But not everyone thought that such mass production of consumer goods was beneficial or healthy. A select group of men and women wanted a return to a simpler life, with less quantity and more quality goods. In England, the movement, collectively called the Arts and Crafts Movement, began as early as the 1860s, with the philosophies and artistry of William Morris, one of the century’s greatest influencers of the decorative arts. The work of one’s hands, not machines, was desirable. Craftsmen and women, like the guild workers of old, were to be treasured. Ironically, this movement, which romanticized the simple country cottage and croft, could only be afforded by the wealthy. Hand-made goods, then and now, cost more than machine-made goods.
Morris championed simple lines in his work in spite of the profusion of pattern. His draperies and window coverings were simply hung, suspended from drapery rings on poles. He loved hand-made embroidery and weaving, and his wife and daughters, as well as their helpers, embroidered motifs on drapery panels and bed hangings.
Over in Scotland, architect and designer Charles Rennie Macintosh was also creating a much simpler, often monastic living environment. His rooms were angular and spare, and in terms of window treatments, also as simple as possible, with plain linens and cottons, often hand embroidered with the simple floral and geometric motifs he liked. Also popular in his windows were plain cotton or linen roller shades, with one simple motif embroidered on the bottom.
These trends came to the United States and inspired our own Arts and Crafts Movement. It was far reaching, with Gustaf Stickley and his Craftsmen homes and furniture, and Elbert Hubbard and his Roycrofters on the East Coast, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School in the Midwest, and architects like Greene & Greene on the West Coast. The time was now the early decades of the 20th century and High Victorian, Queen Anne extravagance had been traded in for the simple lines of Craftsman furniture, smaller and more intimate bungalow style homes and simplicity of line and construction in all forms of interior decoration, including windows.
As I mentioned last time, styles and periods overlap and were fluid, so there were trends and styles overlapping and influencing each other. The Queen Anne style gave way to the Craftsman, but people were also re-discovering their colonial past, as the Colonial Revival style soon became the most popular home-design style in the United States during the first half of the 20th century. It’s still popular now in new home building.
The Colonial Revival was sparked by influences as broad as the centennial of 1876, to the Shingle Style “cottage” houses of McKim, Mead & White and others built for the super-rich, most built in New England. Window treatments here harkened back to Colonial times with exterior shutters that were almost always only decorative, and interior treatments that were also as simple as the Arts and Crafts Movement: simple curtains, or roller shades, or increasingly, nothing at all.
Stained glass was still an important window component, as were leaded glass and other art glass panels. In the very late 19th and early 20th century, these windows were not just decoration; they were important design elements that were meant to be seen. Stanford White’s use of Tiffany glass, Frank Lloyd Wright’s geometric patterns and Greene and Greene’s naturalistic patterns were not meant to be covered up by draperies.
In more modest homes, the same was true. Art glass, even factory-produced and catalogue-picked, was meant to be seen, and was, by the nature of its opacity, a window covering in its own right. The play of light and shadow, color and tint in these windows, both humble and proud, was a part of the architecture and the aesthetic. If they had to be covered for privacy, a sheer curtain was all that was needed.
Where once formal windows had a valance, under which layers of draperies were stacked, the new 20th century home found that only the valance itself was left. A formal parlor could perhaps have Austrian balloon shades, pulled high, or softly gathered mid length, with a simple draped valance to hide the hardware and soften the sides of the shade. In the new Colonial Revival homes, whether mansion or suburban home, the new colors were white; white painted woodwork, light colored painted walls or printed wallpaper. The old Victorian velvet draperies and passementerie just didn’t suit this new, more delicate look.
The new century also brought an end to a large servant class. The modern homemaker did not want to be arranging draperies, or caring for a ton of fabric. Washable curtains, and easy care draperies were a necessity. Venetian blinds also made a comeback, this time painted white, or as the century progressed, made of white painted metal, and later, plastic. Depending on the use of the room, or the formality of the household, they often were the only window treatment. Bamboo shades also start to show up, especially in Arts and Crafts houses, enhancing the natural look of wood.
As the kitchen became the domain of the lady of the house, not servants, the window treatments here took on more importance. Café curtains, which hung at the center of the window, allowed natural light in above them, but gave a sense of privacy. Often, a simple valance of less than a foot of fabric was also hung, gathered on a rod, or hung from tabs or rings. Whimsical prints, or plain sheers were popular. So too were plain fabric roller shades.
The choices for window treatments in the more modern home were still influenced by magazines and books, but these were now touting the new modern simplicity. Only the most formal rooms of the most formal of homes were swathed in stiff, formal draperies. Many windows had nothing at all, or just a shade. The choices, then and now depend on the style of the room, and the taste and budget of the homemaker.
The good thing about today’s myriad styles is that our old houses offer us so many choices. Those old windows have seen just about everything one could do. While we may prefer a plain window with no window treatment at all, draperies and curtains do have certain advantages. They block the sun in the summer, and drafts and cold in the winter. Roller and bamboo shades, Venetian blinds and shutters do the same, and offer privacy, as well. We’re back where we started. Whether your look is modern, eclectic, or period perfect, good window treatments can enhance the décor, comfort, and visual appeal of your rooms. Choose wisely!