Walkabout: About Those Windows, Part 2

Old Merchant’s House, Manhattan. Library of Congress

Read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 of this story.

Window treatments get a lot of attention in home décor, and for good reason. Windows are one of the most important elements of a room. They let natural light and ventilation into the home, they allow us a view to the world outside, and keep us from living in caves. They are important for good physical and mental health. We really don’t think of all of that, consciously, when looking for a place to live, but many an apartment is rejected because of the windows, or lack of them. So when it comes to decorating, especially in our older homes, we want these important features to shine. This was also true of the people who first lived in our brownstones, row houses, bungalows, mansions, and apartment buildings.

Last time we looked at some of the period window treatments of our predominantly 19th century homes. It may have been surprising to learn that many of those period treatments are as popular today as they were then. Interior built-in shutters, Venetian blinds, and roller blinds in cloth and paper, all were in demand one hundred and fifty years ago, and are still in production today. All of them provided ways to allow light and air into the room, yet provide privacy, and to varying degrees, keep insects, rain, and dirt out.

But to say “window treatments” and “Victorian” in the same sentence brings to mind the full power of High Victorian overblown draperies — yards and yards of swagged and draped heavy velvets or damasks, huge overhanging valances, miles of bullion fringe and tassels, and masses of lace. Most of us can’t run far enough away from all this. But read on, you may be surprised at the history behind this popular vision of the classic 19th century parlor.

If you live in an earlier home, a Federal era clapboard, or an early Greek Revival, you might be happy to know that for the average middle class homeowner, these homes were not originally furnished with heavy swagged draperies. Shutters, shades and blinds were the usual coverings, and curtains were simple affairs, a single layer of fabric gathered across the window on a wire or cord, or simple hanging curtains at either side of the window, hanging from rings on a pole. Artificial lighting was pretty minimal; candles and kerosene lamps, for the most part, so allowing as much natural light into the home, for as long as possible during the day was important.

Of course, the higher you go on the social scale, the more elaborate the window treatments, so I’m not saying that there were not homes with much more elaborate treatments during this period, there were. The mansions of the rich tend to be the ones that become house museums, and set the pattern for the era in our minds, so that’s what we see, and then go on to identify as normal for the period. The window treatments we’re looking at here are from the early 1830’s to the 1850s.

The windows in the parlors often had a wooden cornice, which screwed to the top of the widow frame. It could be covered in fabric, or painted to match the curtains. Hanging from the cornice was the valance, a short gathered, or pleated length of fabric, often cut to cascade down from a center point, usually trimmed in contrasting fabric, or with fringe. On either side of the window, the draperies would hang to the floor, gathered up and swagged with drapery pulls to the side of the window.

The valance was the most important part of this whole treatment, and as the years progressed, the valances got more elaborate and complicated, with all kinds of swags, tails, and draped treatments that went far beyond the average homeowner’s ability to do it herself. A new industry was born, that of the drapery professional, a task usually taken up by an upholsterer. Armed with illustrations, formulas for calculating the correct amount of tail on the overhanging swags, and samples galore of fabrics, trims, curtain rings and poles, this industry is with us still. Only electricity has changed the way things are made.

Of course, the writers of all things home related were at odds on all of this. Those tastemakers who were concerned with the average homeowner decried the frou-frou and complicated swags, advising their readers to stick to plain and simple window coverings. While many of the other magazines and books were equally enthusiastic about the more complicated window dressings. These publications were geared towards a more wealthy and striving audience, and showed their readers more and more fanciful window wear, paving the way for the styles of the latter part of the 19th century.

By the early 1850s through the 1860s, huge changes were afoot in American society. The Industrial Revolution was making possible the purchase of all kinds of things that had only been hand-made and expensive before, and therefore only available to the wealthy. A growing middle and upper-middle class was being created, and in Brooklyn, homes were being built to house this growing group. The simple lines of the Greek Revival houses were out, and the new Italianate rowhouses; the classic “brownstones” were in.

One of the popular interior features of the new Italianates was the parlor decorated with a tall, gilded pier mirror, which was placed on the front wall, between the two front parlor windows. Today, if they survived, many of these mirrors have been painted so often their original finish is a mystery. This mirror was integral to a new and very elaborate window treatment that became all the rage during the 1850s. Godey’s Ladies Book, which boasted they started the trend, called the window treatments “lambrequins.”

To be technically accurate, the lambrequin was part of the drapery, but the elaborate gilded wooden or metal carved cornice frames that topped the window frame, as well as the top of the pier mirror in the middle, set the stage for the rest of the window treatments, which were theatrical, indeed. From this cornice hung the lambrequin, which was a fabric frame, sometimes stretching hallway down the length of the window. The draperies hung on a pole hidden by the cornice and lambrequin. They were often the same fabric as the lambrequin, but could be a contrasting one as well.

These drapes, in of themselves, were rather simple, and were usually overly long, pooling on the floor, if not artfully swagged back by pulls, into pleasing pleated lengths. They were usually lined, and on occasion, underlined with third layer of fabric to hang heavily. In the winter, they were also great at cutting drafts, but this practical application was an afterthought to beauty. Underneath the drapes were simple lace or muslin curtains called “glass curtains”, probably because they were the only ones actually next to the glass of the window.

If all that weren’t enough, the lambrequins and draperies were further swagged with trims, cords and tassels, which were looped over the top and allowed to hang down. It was all quite elaborate, so much so that it could literally take hours to arrange the windows so that the pleats, swags, tassels and everything else were just so.

While some thought this arrangement to be the height of fashion, there were those who thought it was all just too much. Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister, Catherine Beecher, wrote and lectured on the modern American woman and her home. They were early pioneers of a simplified and organized home, and were not in favor of the elaborate window treatments espoused by Godey’s. Their idea of a lambrequin was a simple drape, perhaps with a simple pattern, covering the window frame, with simple hanging muslin curtains beneath. Their ladies had better things to do than spend hours arranging the drapes.

The battle between “more is more” and simple would go on in later Victorian décor, as well. As the Italianate gave way to the much more ornate Queen Anne and Aesthetic Movement styles, could miles of fabric be far behind? We shall see.

(Above: Pier mirror and elaborate cornices, 1854, Godey’s Ladies Book, as per “Victorian Interior Decoration”)

Old Merchant’s House, Manhattan. Library of Congress

1850s window ideas. Godey’s Ladies Book. Anthonylingwood.com

1859 Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, Philadephia. From “Victorian Interior Decoration”

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