UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES On this 4th Tuesday of the month, we focus on another historical feature designed for form and function. It provided light, air circulation, and sometimes identifying information for homeowners and businesses, while also maintaining security. This month’s feature is: TRANSOM WINDOWS. 

Transom window featuring “Bullseye” glass at the John Maddox Denn House.

 

What is a transom window?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, a transom window is:

“A window above a door or other window built on and commonly hinged to a transom.”

 

These windows initially enjoyed popularity in the gothic period of the 14th century in Europe, and really became popular in the 18th century during the Georgian architectural period. Some authors suggest that the fanlight transom design that was so popular during the Georgian period came about as a natural aesthetic extension of Palladian designs, which tended toward arched windows. Stained glass was traditionally used in church transom windows and later used in private homes in the Victorian era and subsequent design periods. These windows provided more than visual enjoyment, as they also served practical purposes. Some buildings utilized transoms as the location of a painted or stained glass address number or location of the owner’s or building’s name. In buildings without electricity or fewer windows (like row homes), they provided extra light. Both exterior and interior transoms also allowed for increased air circulation. And because of their locations high above doors, these benefits were afforded without sacrificing privacy and security. Transoms were so ubiquitous in use that their open state in publishers’ offices theoretically allowed aspiring authors to pass on their unsolicited, amateur work directly to the publisher by throwing them through the opening. This led to an idiom used in analogous situations, as follows:

 

“It came in over the transom.”

 

Examples of Transom Windows:

 

A lovely stained glass transom window from St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Lowell, MA has an even lovelier message behind it – click here to learn more about its meaning and gain a stunning illuminated view of the window. The church was built in the Gothic Revival architectural style between 1824 and 1825.

 

 

Image source: EmwBear ye each others burdens, main entrance transom window; Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church; Lowell, MA; 2012-05-18CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

In striking juxtaposition to the purpose behind the previous image, here is a beautiful example of a personalized transom window from the former Storyville Madam Lulu White’s address, a vestige of the long-gone structure, Mahogany Hall; it was built sometime between 1897 and 1917 during Storyville’s heyday, and demolished in 1949.
 

 

Image source: Infrogmation of New Orleans, Storyville exhibit, Historic New Orleans Collection – Lulu White TransomCC BY 2.0.

 

Stained glass transom window (and sidelights) in foyer of the John L. Wisdom House, in Jackson, TN, built in the Queen Anne architectural style between 1880 and 1881

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress

 

Transom fanlight window above door at the Chretien Point Plantation in Sunset, LA. Built in the Greek Revival architectural style in 1831
 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1947. Image source: Library of Congress

 

Transom Windows Today

Where to see them.

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in a historical neighborhood and spot as many transom windows as you can. Also look at historic churches.
  • (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums in-person or virtually. Many Georgian style homes are guaranteed to have transoms in the form of fanlights. Victorian era and later homes may have stained glass transoms.
  • Photo gallery – View transom window images on flickr here and here.

Where to get them (i.e., how to design or create one). 

  • Antique/Salvage Business – If your home is missing a transom window, consult resources in this article to create one if you have the space. Try to find salvaged or antique materials to be most accurate (and sustainable) – here is some inspiration. 
  • Restoration and Design tips – Find inspiration to restore your existing transoms here, here, and here

For further resources and reading:

  • For thorough information on window restoration in general, check out NPS guidelines for windows, here
  • Read more about the history of transom windows here and here.

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on “Haunted” Victorian Houses.

 

SHARE WITH US!

DO YOU HAVE AN ORIGINAL OR MODERN TRANSOM WINDOW IN YOUR HOME?

FEEL FREE TO SHARE BELOW!

 

Did you know that historical wood windows are one of the most vulnerable and at-risk elements of our architectural heritage?

Preservation Virginia has proclaimed historical windows endangered, saying, “Historic wooden windows are destroyed daily in lieu of new, inferior windows.  Salesman convince owners and architectural review boards members that replacement windows are superior to historic wooden windows when the truth is, these historic windows can last longer than any new wooden or vinyl-clad window.”

Despite this, windows don’t often have a high priority on the list of things we should preserve in our built history.  Yet they should.  If eyes are the windows into the soul, as the old adage goes, then surely windows are how we see into the soul of a historical building.

Windows are an important component in a historical building’s appearance.  Not only are they one of the few parts of a building that serve as both an interior and exterior architectural feature, they usually make up about a quarter of the surface area of a historical building.

Many aspects of windows contribute to a building’s architectural style and historic fabric – height, width, and thickness of frames and sills, the visual design of sash components, the materials and color treatments used, and even the way light reflects off the glass.

Muntins, historical glass, putty beading, moulding profiles, glazed opening widths and regionally specific patterns and features are more distinct characteristics of original wood windows that contribute to a historical building’s façade.  And all of these varied between architectural styles and periods and from region to region, making wood windows living artifacts from history – an archeological gold mine that helps us understand and document historical building practices and craftsmanship.

These features and variances can be difficult to duplicate with modern technology.  Today’s manufacturing and installation process is significantly different than the process used hundreds of years ago.  The characteristics imparted by modern machinery and installation techniques create an entirely different window than the traditional building materials created when the building was originally constructed.  Such a loss of historical elements is a permanent scar on a historical building.

Replacing original wood windows also often requires changing the window’s rough opening to install a window manufactured on national standards to the non-standard opening of a building constructed during a time when there were no building standards – another mistake that permanently damages a building.

Throwing out the artifacts from our built history that stand testament to how buildings have been constructed over the last several hundred years prevents future generations from gaining a deep understanding of a piece of history that’s just as important as the knowledge we gain from all the other artifacts we work so hard to preserve.

Just as we shouldn’t replace our historical art with modern replicas, we shouldn’t replace our historical wood windows with modern replacement windows.  Because once they are gone, they are gone for good.

 

“We regret much of what we’ve built; we regret much of what we’ve torn down. But we’ve never regretted preserving anything.” -Daniel Sack

Original windows serve a dual purpose of providing ventilation and light while being an important part of the buildings architectural design. These windows are constantly under attack from the marketing forces of the replacement window companies.

Window Restoration

Window Restoration in Society Hill neighborhood in Philadelphia

 

Here’s a horrifying experience recently shared with us:

I was one of those stupid people who put new vinyl windows in my old 1883 farmhouse. I had already spent a winter fixing the old, broken, and cracked windows since no one had lived in my house for seven years. I did show significant saving (on) heating oil the first year since I had storm windows as well.

Fast forward ten years and I am already seeing the gas between the windows escaping. Some of the locks have stopped being cooperative as well. And the warranty? Well, the company no longer makes windows.

And ever since installing the windows, I have had peeling paint on my siding. I didn’t know about siding vents – the kind you stick up under the clapboards – until earlier this year.

This is one decision I wish I could make again – I’d never get rid of my old wooden windows!

Sadly, we hear these kinds of stories all the time (so much in fact we make traditional windows to replace modern replacement windows).

Traditional Wood Windows with Insulated Glass at the Petersen House in Washington, DC

Traditional Wood Windows with Insulated Glass at the Petersen

House in Washington, DC

However, we also know that your wood windows are the prime targets for replacement window companies.

The information homeowners are taught to believe, is that original wood windows are substandard and the only viable solution is to replace them with their very own superior product. Chances are you’ll probably even get a guarantee too!

The original windows are part of your home and integral to the historic fabric of it. Windows are one of the most significant architectural elements, and they serve as both an interior and exterior feature.

Windows that are not properly maintained can become more than an eye soar. The functionality of their original design begins to falter, chilly winter air seeps in and humidity becomes the deciding factor if the window will open this time or remain jammed shut for perpetuity.

Window Lead Magnet Ad

You can be assured that the trusted replacement window sales representative will make sure you are well educated on the seemingly endless array of benefits that can be attained by purchasing their product.

The sales pitch will include such ‘facts’ as your existing single-pane wood windows cannot perform as well as replacement windows!

This incomplete information continues to be perpetuated by the replacement window industry with the goal of you buying their window. Homeowners accepting this information are often being provided data comprised to affirm the idea that original and historic wood windows are inferior to their replacement counterparts.

Single-pane wood windows in disrepair and poorly maintained, cannot perform as well as intact replacement windows or any window in optimum condition.

Wood windows that are not adequately maintained, neglected and in poor condition are often used to base conclusive assessments of the efficiency of replacement windows verses original windows.

It should not be surprising that replacement windows fair better in this scenario.

These comparison studies and their findings are used to influence homeowners, but they do not tell the entire story. In fact, a properly maintained single-pane wood window, weatherized, in conjunction with a storm window (interior or exterior) is equal to a replacement window in energy usage according to numerous engineering studies.

A replacement window may save a few dollars in heating and cooling cost, but to recoup the cost in the investment of a whole home window replacement, it will take you fifty or more years at less than a $1.00 a year in heating and cooling savings according to the University of Vermont study.

Yes, replacement windows do offer double panes (sometimes triple), low U-Values and Low-E glass. The really cheap ones offer a low price point too.
It doesn’t make them better.

Restored windows Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA

Restored windows Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster, PA

Another ‘fact’ that will be citied during the sales presentation is that replacement windows are “maintenance free”.

Maintenance free may imply a solution to a home’s rundown windows, but the solution is not found in mass produced and disposable windows.

Maintenance free means it cannot be maintained or repaired, with the average life span under twenty years, those very same replacement windows will find themselves in a land fill along with their nemesis, the original windows, they replaced. Every material and every part of a window wears, breaks down and needs some type of repair to continue proper functioning.

Fact is, that a replacement window cannot be repaired and cannot continue to work at the same level it was when installed. It is not comprised of the same individual components as traditional windows, it’s a single unit design and constructed as such to make it impossible to disassemble and repair.

When a replacement window fails, its maintenance free selling point becomes the reason you need another replacement window. It also becomes another opportunity for a replacement window company to sell you the latest and greatest ‘maintenance free’ window. The notion that replacing supposedly substandard wood windows with modern replacement worry-free windows, is certainly a misnomer. As in the case study above, homeowners are often disillusioned when the integrity of ten or twenty-year-old replacement windows deteriorate to level where they inevitably need to be replaced – again and again – welcome to the replacement cycle.

Original windows can be repaired and preserved because they predate the era of planned obsolescence. An era when buildings had to work with the environment to keep its inhabitants warm in the winter and cool in the summer. An era in which fixing things was preferred to replacement. An era before the skilled tradesman become product installers with an assembly line mentality of the building trades. The individual components of these windows can each be repaired, maintained or replaced in sections as need be. They were built for longevity, not for replacement.

Window Lead Magnet Ad
They can be preserved and their historical significance doesn’t need to be sacrificed for energy efficiency or functionality.

When an original wood window fails, it can be repaired and repaired again and it isn’t as daunting of a task as you just might think. Replacement window companies cannot make a profit if homeowners routinely maintain their historic windows. The replacement window industries’ goal is to sell as many windows as possible. Our goal is to help you understand there are options that preserve the integrity of your historic building and to arm you with information and facts.

Maintenance measures can be taken to keep historic windows energy efficient, properly functioning and able to last another 100 years:
 Painting
 Caulking
 Weather stripping
 Re-glazing
 And more…

Replacement windows will however permanently alter your homes interior and exterior appearance. Losing the detail and elegance found in the workmanship of true divided lights, wavy single pane windows, rails, muntins, profiles, depths and sills will be lost and replaced with flat and shadowless details, meant to replicate what was once there. Understanding the materials and traditional joinery used to build your original windows are superior to any replacement window is an important factor in deciding whether to restore or replace.

Challenging conventional knowledge on what it takes to maintain historic windows isn’t as daunting as it may seem. However, it requires shifting the paradigm of thought – understanding that maintaining your original windows can be a simple task and the reason to replace your windows is not to save energy costs or have zero-maintenance. 

Watch the video below to learn more options for your original wood windows.

Hi! I’m Penelope and I’m new around here, but my Mommy and Daddy know a lot about historic preservation and have been teaching me new things every day.Penelope Pic (1)

Yesterday they taught me not to chew on Karri’s office slippers (even if I really want to) and then they taught me something that really blew my mind…

Historic wood windows are one of the most “at risk” features of our historic homes.

Now, I’m still learning words, but “at risk” sounds pretty bad to me.  And apparently it’s all because the replacement window industry wants us to believe their plastic windows are better than wood windows.

But my Mommy and Daddy tell me it isn’t true.  They say wood windows not only look better in old houses, they don’t cause the moisture issues replacement windows do, AND they are more energy efficient.  They told me the guidelines for the best way to take care of America’s historic buildings say you should preserve and maintain your wood windows instead of replacing them.

And Mommy and Daddy don’t usually lie to me.

My Grandpa Chuck tells me that so many people didn’t know this and fell into the replacement window sales company’s clutches, that he’s been replacing a lot of replacement windows lately.  (I guess when people realize the plastic windows they put in weren’t the right choice they call him to make wood windows for them.  I wanna be just like him when I grow up.)

Now I have a secret to tell you, but you have to promise not to tell my Mommy and Daddy…  They gave me a report I was supposed to read so I could tell you more about this, but I was too pooped from spending the day at the office and I fell asleep before I finished it.

So I’m going just going to let you read this report for yourself:

“Put Replacement Windows to Shame: 10 Tools to Make Your Historic Wood Windows Last for Generations”

Window Report Image (Smaller File)Mainstream consumer trends would have you believe that you should replace your historic wood windows with vinyl, or other synthetic replacement windows.

Of course, you own a historic home – not a McMansion – making you anything but the typical consumer who follows mainstream trends.

Boy is this report for you, because in it we are going to give you the knowledge and tools you need to buck the system and put replacement windows (and their uneducated salesmen) to shame.

To get your copy of the report, call or email Moira at 717.291.4688 or [email protected]

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement WindowsWood windows are an integral part of the innate energy efficiency of historical buildings. If we have learned anything from history it is that sometimes with all our modern advancements we do ourselves more harm than good.

Advancements in technology do not always produce better results, and construction technology isn’t exempt from that. Built in a time of readily available building materials and energy sources, modern building designs typically make poor use of both. Historical buildings were built when neither was in abundant supply and early designers made the most of building materials and design options to construct buildings with a powerful combination of harnessed natural resources and innovative design that worked together to maximize energy efficiency.

Everything from exterior paint colors, to locations of balconies, to numbers and placement of windows, to physical placement of buildings on lots was carefully considered to maximize heating, lighting, and ventilation in traditional construction.

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The results are astounding and studies have shown that properly restored and maintained 18th & 19th Century buildings can be just as energy efficient as new construction, and in many cases even more energy efficient. (Perhaps not surprisingly, studies have also shown that buildings built in the 1950’s through the 1970’s were the biggest energy consumers of all.)

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The historical wood windows in your building contribute to that energy efficiency and, contrary to urban legend, new replacement windows are not more energy efficient than historical wood windows. Typically, studies that conclude such a finding have compared new replacement windows with historical windows that

DocImage7_481x600

have not been maintained or restored, are decaying, and have no complementary energy retrofits such as weather-stripping and storm windows.

If you would like to read these studies, you can access them in the resources section of our website.

Studies on energy efficiency also usually fail to consider “embodied energy”. Embodied energy represents the energy it took to manufacture a product. They say the greenest building is the one
already built when you consider this embodied energy – an existing energy investment that will never be able to be recaptured once you destroy the product it’s embodied in.

If the greenest building is the one already built, then the greenest window is the one already there. Historical wood windows have an embodied energy value that includes all the energy from harvesting and milling the wood to transporting and manufacturing the windows to installing them in your historical building.  Preserving existing windows conserves that embodied energy and reduces the use of additional energy when making replacement windows.

Which means that when you take all energy, energy expended on heating and cooling costs as well as the embodied energy, into consideration for defining the energy efficiency of windows – historical wood windows are far more energy efficient than replacement windows
.

 

Historically Sensitive Storm Windows

A Product Recommendation from Chuck

When storm windows first came into use to promote energy efficiency, they were installed on the outside of the house.  Not only did this take away from the architectural integrity of the house by impeding the view of major architectural features in windows, they also often created moisture on the outside of the window.

Fortunately for historic homeowners today, we have better options now.  And the option we recommend here at Historic Restorations are the interior storm windows by Allied Window.

historic preservation contractors, historic restorations contractors, historic building maintenance, historic building energy efficiency, storm windows for historic buildings, historically sensitive storm windowsAllied offers an “invisible” storm window installed on the inside of the window.  One of the major benefits of this storm window option is that it has a low profile that doesn’t limit visibility of a window’s historical architectural features.  Made from aluminum they can also be painted any color – send them a sample of the color of your trim and they’ll match it for a seamless integration into your window’s look.  They also have a good seal with an aluminum u-channel across the top, magnetic strips that the aluminum frame attaches too, and a rubber or brush seal that sits on the sill.

They do offer an exterior option with the same features of the interior.  Some people think this would be the better option, that an exterior storm window would help protect the wood in their window.  I don’t recommend this option – wood needs to breathe moisture and if there is a storm window installed on the exterior moisture will be trapped in the wood and promote rot.

We’ve had a good long-term experience with Allied.  We’ve tried other companies, much to our dismay, and Allied is the one that has provided a consistent service and product performance over time.

You can learn more about the products that Allied Windows offers by visiting their website at alliedwindows.com.

 

Even if you decide I’m too long-winded, or that I’m preaching to the choir, to read this entire post – MAKE SURE YOU SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM to get your free copy of a report on how to make wood windows last for generations we recently wrote.

 

Why Save Historic Wood Windows?

Did you know that historical wood windows are one of the most vulnerable and “at-risk” elements of our architectural heritage?

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement Windows

Preservation Virginia has proclaimed historical windows endangered, saying, “Historic wooden windows are destroyed daily in lieu of new, inferior windows. Salesmen convince owners and architectural review board members that replacement windows are superior to historic wooden windows when the truth is these historic windows can last longer than any new wooden window or vinyl clad window.”

Despite this, windows don’t often have a high priority on the list of things we should preserve in our built history. Yet they should. If eyes are windows into the soul, as the old adage goes, then surely windows are how we see into the soul of a historical building.

The windows in your historical building are an important contribution to how your historical building looks. Not only are they one of only a few parts of a building that serve as both and interior and exterior architectural feature, they usually make up about a quarter of the surface area of a historical building.

Many aspects of windows contribute to your building’s architectural style and historical fabric – height, width, and thickness of frames and sills, the visual design of sash components, the materials and color treatments used, and even the way light reflects off of the glass.

Muntins, historical glass, putty beading, moulding profiles, glazed opening widths, and regionally-distinct patterns and features are more distinct characteristics of original wood windows that contribute to your historical building’s façade.  And all of these varied between architectural styles and periods and from region to region, making wood windows living artifacts from history – an archeological goldmine that helps us understand and document our historical building practices and craftsmanship.

 

[sws_grey_box box_size=”630″] Beyond their importance in contributing to how your building looks, your building’s windows play an important role in how your building functions. Perhaps one of the most important of those functions is how windows serve as an integral part of a historical building’s design to “breathe” moisture. Historical buildings function as a cohesive, whole system to handle moisture infiltration and the original design, installation, and materials used – including, and especially, the windows – were all picked for your building’s specific system. Changing your windows can significantly impact how your home handles moisture – a road no homeowner wants to travel down. [/sws_grey_box]

 

Historic Wood Windows Vs. Replacement Windows

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement WindowsThese features and variances can be difficult to duplicate with modern technology. Our manufacturing and installation process is significantly different than the process used hundreds of years ago and the characteristics modern machinery and installation techniques impart create an entirely different window than the traditional building methods created when your building was originally constructed. Such a loss of historical elements is a permanent scar on your historical building.

Replacing original wood windows also often requires changing the window’s rough opening to install a window manufactured on national standards in to the non-standard opening of a building constructed during a time when there were no building standards – another mistake that permanently damages your building.

 

The Importance of Historic Wood Window Restoration

Historic Wood Window Restoration, Save Historic Wood Windows, Wood Windows vs. Replacement Windows

Just as we shouldn’t replace our historical art with modern replicas, we shouldn’t replace our historical wood windows with modern replacement windows.

Throwing out the artifacts from our built history that stand testament to how our buildings were constructed over the last several hundred years prevents future generations from a deep understanding of a piece of our history that’s just as important as all the other artifacts we work so hard to preserve.

Because once they are gone, they are gone for good.

[sws_toggle1 title=”Which Windows are Historically Significant?“]The National Park Service’s Preservation Brief #9: The Repair of Historic Wood Windows notes that windows should be considered significant to a building if they:

1) are original,

2) reflect the original design intent for the building,

3) reflect period or regional styles or building practices,

4) reflect changes to the building resulting from major periods or events, or

5) are examples of exceptional craftsmanship or design [/sws_toggle1]

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The National Park Service’s Standards and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historical Windows recommend the following:

• Identify, Retain, and Preserve

• Protect and Maintain

• Repair • Accurate Restoration

• Sympathetic New Windows in Additions

• Preserving Decoration and Function

• Replacement In-Kind

• Compatible Materials

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[sws_toggle1 title=”What is NOT Recommended for Historic Wood Windows?“]

The National Park Service’s Standards and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historical Windows do NOT recommend the following:

• Removing Windows Important to Historical Character

• Changing Location or Size of Windows

• Inappropriate Designs, Materials, and Finishes

• Destroying Historical Materials

• Replacing Windows that Can be Repaired

• Failing to Maintain

• Replacing instead of Maintaining

• Inaccurate Historical Appearance

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How to Save Historic Wood Windows

Now that you know how important your historic wood windows, we want you to have the knowledge you need to save them.

Get your free copy of our recent report “Put Replacement Windows to Shame: 10 Tools to Make Your Historic Wood Windows Last for Generations”

 

 

 

 

 

Holidays in Historic Homes

THE HOLIDAYS – A time for religious observance, merriment, revelry, nostalgia, and magic. The customs we see today have their own history and origins, but true to classic “melting pot” traditions, those practices were blended into our current national amalgam of Christmas time. With so many ties to history and deep-rooted heritage, it’s the perfect holiday to relive the best parts of the past. This post is also an amalgam of information on timeless holiday practices, from other great resources and authors; it’s a one-stop-shop for devising your own holiday with an old-time feel. 

Elaborate old-fashioned Christmas. Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash.

 

A History of Christmas Celebrations, Traditions, and Decorations

This Old House reported that in colonial America, Christmas was mostly about religious observation if it was acknowledged at all; most people treated it as just another day, completing work and chores as usual. Tiverton Historical Society added that many religious groups – especially the Puritans – banned revelry or celebrations because they saw these practices as being Pagan. However, other religions such as Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans brought Christmas celebrations to Colonial America. At that time, Christmas and all its trappings were designed more for adults than for children. Concepts like the 12 days of Christmas (from Dec 25 – Jan 6) were represented with balls, parties, and other celebratory events. Some religions held religious services honoring Christmas and its spiritual meaning, and religious carols were sung in and out of church. Foods were similar to what we have today, including hams, roasts, turkeys, pies and other desserts. Gift giving was infrequent, and usually bestowed upon employees or dependents by superiors. Early decorations generally consisted of available vegetation, such as holly, ivy, laurel, mistletoe, and greenery. Although a few historians believe that Hessian soldiers introduced Christmas trees to the colonies during the Revolutionary War, most scholars contend that German immigrants to Eastern Pennsylvania did so. The Norfolk Towne Assembly noted that the German Moravians did introduce creches (nativity scenes) in the 1740’s; putzes (little village scenes) also appeared in the late 18th century. Colonies like Pennsylvania and Delaware in particular were a hotbed for a variety of Christmas celebrations, traditions, and decorations due to religious pluralism. As we’ve discussed before with Susan Dippre, Colonial Williamsburg’s decorations – that many associate with a Colonial Christmas – aren’t historically accurate to colonial times, but a result of tourists’ interests and an attempt by staff to pay homage to Colonial materials and art with a modern (albeit 1930s) decorative sensibility.

Penne Restad discussed the significant growth and change of Christmas traditions throughout the 19th century. By 1800, many disparate traditions for celebrating Christmas existed throughout America, but trends throughout the  19th century ensured a fusion of these into the collective we know today as Christmas. Particularly, by mid-century, exponential change via technology, industrialization, and urbanization caused greater socioeconomical inequality, unrest, and tension, even as it increased connections between people with transportation and communication innovations. The populace consequently experienced a shared desire for “old” familiar comforts and values and a greater need for solidarity. These yearnings were manifest in various Christmas traditions that transcended religious and cultural differences, and enabled Christmas to act as a unifying American holiday. German influences were more prevalent in Christmas celebrations (including things mentioned during the Colonial period), but in the 19th century this was most evident in the Christmas tree. Christmas trees exploded in popularity by the 1850s, when town squares even began selling them. Early trees were decorated with religiously symbolic items or gifts which often included fruits, nuts, and candies. Ornament materials were initially natural and homespun. By the 1870s, ornaments for trees were so popular that manufacturers – especially in Germany – created more sophisticated, ornate pieces often made of colored glass. These pieces became a big business during this decade in department stores. The Woolworth’s Store here in Lancaster would have had these wares on offer. Gift-giving became more prominent in the 1820s, but by the 1870s and 80s, it exploded – both due to increased consumerism and because it served as a means for the privileged to attempt to appease the less fortunate (as well as their own consciences a la Ebenezer Scrooge) through charitable giving. Santa Claus – the ultimate gift-giver – was a major part of Christmas tradition for early Dutch settlers, but was solidified in the American popular imagination by Clement C. Moore. He penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822 to entertain his children, and this became what we now know as “The Night Before Christmas.” Several other artists and authors had already expanded on this saint prior to this piece, and continued to do so after. One of the most famous portrayals was that of  Thomas Nast, posted in the January 3, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly.  The English tradition of Christmas cards also appeared more broadly in America in the 1850s, and the tradition really took off when Louis Prang began manufacturing these miniature pieces of art; they fulfilled consumers’ sentiments, but also acted as appropriate substitutes for letters, in-person visits, as well as more traditional gifts. By the end of the 19th century, Christmas was very much like we know it today – including its ironically heavy ties to consumerism and capitalism, despite its purer origins. 

Many of the trends of the late 19th century continued into the 20th, with increased commercialism, as noted by Bygone Theatre. By the 1910s, Santa looked pretty much as we visualize him today, and Coca Cola solidified this in 1931 with their artistic rendering. Glass ornaments were being made in America in addition to Germany after WWI. By the 1920s, well-off consumers were popularizing use of electric lights for trees. Things were generally simpler again during the depression, although WWII afforded a bit more prosperity with practicality – shiny brites came about at this time (but gifts were focused on war efforts). In the post-war boom, styles became more “gaudy” and lots of babies meant a booming toy industry, and many toys made popular Christmas gifts. Relatedly, many child-focused TV Christmas specials were born. The 1960s continued many of the characteristics of the 1950s Christmas with more variety – think bright pastels, more tinsel, and unique décor. Hallmark yearly ornaments originated in the 1970s, and the 80s and 90s reflected the trends of the previous 20-30 years with increases in technology that allowed for more frequent viewing of classic TV Christmas specials, and more artists creating Christmas albums.

In the past 20 years, people have leaned toward family photo Christmas cards, Hallmark Christmas movies, and “ugly sweater” parties – a new nostalgia for Christmas fashion from the 80s and 90s. However, the darker side of this time has included exceptional consumerism, to the point of injury and death, with corporations capitalizing on people’s gift desires via Black Friday and other limited-time sales. As a result, the holidays have become, for many, one of the most stressful times of the year. It’s left many people longing for simpler times. Pandemic restrictions, and related economic depression and stress will likely mitigate some of these trends, hopefully encouraging people to focus on more meaningful things than what they “need” to buy. Read on for old-fashioned Christmas inspiration to soothe your modern stress.

 

Observing an old-fashioned Christmas

Creating your old-fashioned Christmas.

  • Activities and traditions – Many of our modern activities and traditions stem from old traditions, so if you’re already doing them, keep doing them! However, if you need more inspiration, check out posts here, here, here, and here. Check out specific food traditions and ghost story-telling, too (here and here). 
  • Preservation and protection – Rule #1 is DON’T DAMAGE YOUR HISTORIC FABRIC!
    • Consider hanging decorations without making new nail holes (use existing holes, picture rails, and try to distribute weight of items across several nails). You can also take advantage of over the door or window hangers or ribbons for items like wreaths. If there is room, a hanger over your front door is suitable if it does not scrape at the door and door frame. Double-hung windows accommodate fabric ribbons pinched between the sashes. You may even use weights to hold garlands in place. Use utility hooks like command strips with caution and at your own discretion, as these may still damage walls (or the item you’re hanging on them if they lose adhesion and fall).
    • Be careful what decorative materials you use – tape, glitter, and faux snow can all be damaging to finishes, or even cut soft surfaces in the case of glitter.
    • Live plants may be best relegated to the outdoors to prevent insect and moisture damage to your interiors. If you do have live decorative plants indoors, keep them distanced from artwork, carpets, and upholstery. Also keep a barrier between container plants and your furniture like a saucer. You may also use Volara Foam – archival quality material that Biltmore Estate uses for its decorations.
  • DIY Decorations – Decorate based on the time-period or cultural origins of your home (or those that you would like to emulate).
    • Colonial Era – remember to keep things simple. If you would like to deviate from austere historical accuracy, consider following the example of Colonial Williamsburg, or other home owners here and here. For Moravian/German ideas, look at Historic Bethlehem
    • 19th Century – as aforementioned this time period runs the gamut of style, depending on what decade you’re interpreting. Choose one specific style, or meld them together. Biltmore Estate and the Merchant’s House Museum are just two examples from which you may take inspiration in-person on virtually. 
    • 20th Century – Basic traditions were maintained, but the aesthetic changed significantly in the course of 100 years. The early years were similar to the late 19th century, but things really began to evolve mid-century. Old house guy talks about a 1940s Christmas tree. Mid-century Modern ideas can also be found here, here, and here.
    • General – find inspiration for more primary resources from This Old House, at the bottom of the post.

 

For further resources and reading: 

  • Refer to the resources linked throughout this post for time-period-specific information. You can also find more history here, here and here.
  • More sites to visit in-person and virtually can be found here and here.