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.

 

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UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, our focus isn’t on a specific feature per se, but more on a combination of features; a whole architectural style, in fact. And we’re focusing on how mutable cultural values created and then reviled that style, resulting in its being the focus of nightmares in popular culture. To honor Halloween season in a preservation-minded way, instead of covering traditional hauntings, we will examine how the aforementioned phenomena collectively created our modern vision of what is “creepy.” This month’s feature is: “HAUNTED” VICTORIAN HOUSES. 

Prototypical image of a “haunted” Victorian house. Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.

 

Why are “haunted houses” usually Victorian in style?

Many authors (here, here, here and here, to name a few) have pondered and analyzed this question. Sarah Burns (2012) summarized it best in her article “Better for Haunts”: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination, querying: 

“If we consider the Victorian house in its own time and place…there is nothing ominous about the mansard-roofed house…Half a century later, however, that very same style had become a signifier of terror, death, and decay. How, when, and why did the ghosts take over?”  (p. 3)

 

The answer comes down to what Burns refers to as a “shifting context” (p. 3), where architectural changes coincide with and are influenced by cultural and social reforms. There are many reasons for these shifts.

People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time. Many people naturally rebel against what their parents’ generation considered en vogue. The generations after the Victorians were no exception. The fact that the height of Victorian homes’ popularity coincided with the old tradition of laying out the dead in the family parlor (prior to the advent of the funeral parlor) did not help their image and may have added to the “creepy” mystique as trends moved away from wakes at home. These small scale reasons contributed to aesthetic preferences shifting away from Victorian style.

On a greater scale, aesthetics were influenced by social reform and philosophical ideals. The Victorian era – especially the latter-half – was a time of great economic (and other) disparity. Traditional Victorian homes visually represented this disparity with ostentatious displays of wealth, frequently characterized by conspicuous consumption by the nouveau riche. Heavy ornamentation and detail indicative of most Victorian styles – inside and out- represented the wealth of a small portion of the population. Some of this ornamentation was also made possible due to the second Industrial Revolution (itself a partial cause and manifestation of wealth disparity). Mass production enabled cheaper, quicker access to materials. But this also meant the wealthy became wealthier, the middle class became wealthier, and the poor stayed poor. In fact, the increase in urbanization made for overcrowded, unhealthy living conditions for the poor (who made up the greatest number of factory workers). They were also practically chained to their factory jobs and seen as inhuman machines by their employers.

Social reforms, including the arts and crafts movement and the labor movement, gained ground in government but also influenced architectural design. Many reformers (arts and crafts movement) saw industrialization as an undesirable replacement for craftsmanship as well as a social problem, and advocated craftsman style in architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Home interiors were not immune to the changes, as the sanitary or hygiene reform movement also impacted design, especially in the bathroom; wood and heavy fabrics were seen not only as outdated but also unsanitary. These architectural style changes became an expression of political, economic, and social values in addition to quality materials and workmanship. Architecturally, craftsman styles flourished through the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, modernism and colonial revival styles took hold, continuing to move away from Victorian style.

For all of the above reasons, Victorian homes fell out of favor, and people moved away from the old neighborhoods, leaving Victorian homes to be broken into apartments, turned into boarding houses, or derelict looming figures thanks to demolition by neglect, their once grand neighborhoods dilapidated and run-down. This likely furthered the view that these homes were “haunted” or “creepy.” This status was perfect creative fodder for authors and artists, who subsequently demonized these types of homes. As entertainment technology evolved, movies and TV shows followed suit (e.g., The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Psycho) further solidifying a negative view of these homes in the popular imagination.

The conglomeration of influences cemented Victorian homes as the style of haunted house for generations to come. The issue is that by doing this, in some cases, it has damaged the reputation of these houses leading to improper care for them, or even destruction of them. Luckily, enough of the population cares for these homes to have saved many of them, and we can see examples of Victorian architecture in nearly every town and city in the United States today. 

Letting Victorian homes wither away or even demolishing them due to misplaced fear is much scarier than actually saving and preserving these historic treasures. Anything that is dilapidated and not maintained will look creepy!

 

Examples of “haunted” Victorian architecture:

 

Gothic Revival architectural style seen in the caretaker’s home at Woodward Hill Cemetery (burial site of President James Buchanan) in Lancaster, PA. The gravestones seen in the foreground add to the foreboding ambience. Build date unknown. 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

Another Gothic Revival building at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, PA. Build date unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

View of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Primarily identified with Queen Anne architectural style, this now-infamous home that began as a simple farmhouse was renovated and added onto by Sarah Winchester (widow of William Winchester) from 1886 to 1922 in an effort to protect herself from vengeful spirits. Purported to actually be haunted, the architectural design elements as well as Sarah’s purposeful twists, turns, and “booby-traps” make for a creepy home inside and out, despite its obvious beauty.

The image above was taken by Liz Jandoli, for Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), date unknown. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

The Biltmore Estate – home to the Vanderbilts and America’s largest home – in Asheville, North Carolina, is constructed in the Châteauesque architectural style, and was built between 1889-1895. This home is also rumored to be actually haunted, but anyone might feel intimidated by this imposing, gorgeous structure.

 

 

 

The image above was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston for the Library of Congress, in 1938. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Victorian Architecture Today

 

Where to see it. 

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in most towns and see how many Victorian houses you can find; despite the negative connotations over the years, we are lucky to have many fine examples of Victorian homes throughout the United States. 
  • (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums – if you’re lucky enough to find an open museum right now following CDC guidelines, visit in-person. Otherwise, see if their website has a virtual tour. Biltmore Estate can be toured virtually at the bottom of this page. You can virtually visit the Winchester Mystery House here. You may also choose to visit a purportedly haunted house (assuming you feel safe during this time of COVID) and given the time of year, there are many options as we get closer to Halloween.
  • Photo gallery – View Victorian architecture images on flickr or explore sites like Library of Congress. 

Get (or protect) your own.

  • Real estate – There are many ways to find your own Victorian, and by doing so, you can help save these treasures and contribute to a more positive view of these historic structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has archives of real estate agents who specialize in historic properties, here. They also include listings of properties for sale, here. You can also peruse independent sites such as Circa Houses and Cheap Old Houses
  • Protecting, preserving, and maintaining – Not maintaining your historical home will guarantee that it looks creepy, so maintain your home so you don’t contribute to the negative mystique! Visit the many resources on our website (or contact us for help), and view our Fall Maintenance post, here. Visit The National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as The National Park Service for more information on protecting and preserving your historic home. 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • You can read Sarah Burns’ thorough analysis of the “haunted” mystique of Victorian homes – and JSTOR is currently offering free access if you create a login – here.

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on Butler’s Pantries.

 

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DO YOU OWN A VICTORIAN HOME? DOES IT HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING CREEPY OR HAUNTED? OR, IS THERE A VICTORIAN HOME THAT YOU DON’T OWN BUT LOVE?

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UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, we focus on a historical feature that is often a room unto itself, but can also be as small as a closet or cupboard. Its popularity has fluctuated, and its name has changed many times over the centuries. It was once the space for domestic servants, but now is regarded as both comforting and elegant by modern homeowners. This month’s feature is: THE BUTLER’S PANTRY. 

Silver sauce boat, as might be seen and prepared in a butler’s pantry. Photo by Deleece Cook on Unsplash.

 

What is a butler’s pantry?

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, a butler’s pantry is:

“A service room between kitchen and dining room.” 

 

Pantries have existed in some form for quite some time. Pantries and their predecessors have been labeled or referred to with terms indicative of what they housed – etymonline.com notes the Latin (Medieval Latin “panateria – office or room of a servant who has charge of food” and Latin panis – bread” and “pa – to feed”) and French (Anglo-French “panetrie or paneterie – bread room”) origins of the word. Catherine Seiberling Pond also wrote a book specifically devoted to pantries (The Pantry—Its History and Modern Uses), and provides a wonderful overview of their history on her website.  Notably, the butler’s pantry emerged in the 19th Century England and America and saw the greatest popularity in the latter half of the century. This special pantry acted as a food prep and storage area for silver and china. In wealthier homes, it was the domain of butlers or other staff, hence it’s name. A separate pantry enjoyed popularity in many wealthy and middle-class homes for most of the 19th century, although new ideas and kitchen evolution appeared throughout. Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe were the first to suggest combining the pantry with the kitchen in their instructional guide The American Woman’s Home from 1869, and around 1900 the Indiana-born Hoosier cabinet was advertised as a kitchen and pantry all-in-one. But, it was not until the 1920s when breakfast nooks and other design changes replaced separate pantries in many homes. Pond also reports that increased innovation in kitchen technology including refrigeration and other things rendered separate pantry spaces unnecessary. Finally, in the 1990s a renewed nostalgia for classic living instigated more separate pantry designs, and many people still desire them today.

Butler’s pantries were typically used by butlers or other household staff as a transition space between the kitchen and the dining area. This allowed kitchen smells to be separate from the dining area. Some contained warming ovens and iceboxes to keep foods at the ideal temperature between preparation and serving. There were also cabinets to store china, glasses, silverware, and linens, and often included locked cabinets to protect the most valuable items. Some included desks and other materials for the butler to manage things, and in Europe some butlers even slept in the pantry to prevent theft. Very lavish homes had the most state-of-the-art technology in their butler’s pantries, including bell or call systems to order specific food from the butler, with a servant call bell system connecting their rooms to the pantry. Pond also wrote an article with more on the history of pantries, as well as pantry herms for Old House Online, here. Here is more information on the history of pantries, especially during the Victorian era, and here is a fine example of a high-end historic butler’s pantry. Pantries, no matter how lavish or simple, are the epitome of organization, as conveyed by this quote by Mrs. Elizabeth Ellet in her guidebook The Practical Housekeeper (1857):

“Let there be a place for every article, and when not in use let every article be in its place.”

 

Examples of American Butler’s Pantries:

 

Butler’s pantry in Homewood, on the property of The Johns Hopkins University in Batlimore, MD, built in the Federal period in the Palladian architectural style between 1801 and 1803

 

 

 

 

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

 

Palatial butler’s pantry in The Breakers, one of the grand “cottages” in Newport, RI, built in the Italian Renaissance Revival architectural style between 1893 and 1895

 

 

 


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

 

Butler’s pantry in The Perry Belmont House in Washington, D.C., built in the Beaux Arts architectural style, completed in 1909

 

 

 

 

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

 

Butler’s pantry in a Company Officers’ Quarters (Type A) in Novato, CA, built as a project under The New Deal at Hamilton Army Air Field, in the Spanish Colonial Revival architectural style, completed in the early 1930’s

 

 

 

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

 

Butler’s Pantries Today

Where to see them. 

  • (Virtual) museum tours – Check out historical house museums – if you’re lucky enough to find an open museum right now, visit in-person. Otherwise, see if their website has a virtual tour. Check out some of the museums listed above with the historical photos to start. You should also visit the Pierce-duPont House at Longwood Gardens in-peron when able, or virtually view these magnificent butler’s pantries (here and here). 
  • Photo gallery – View butler’s pantry images on wikimedia commons and flickr

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

  • Antique/Salvage Business – If your home is missing a butler’s pantry, 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. 
  • Design tips – If unsure of design, check out resources – especially historically-styled ones – here, here, and here.

 

For further resources and reading:

  • For the most thorough book about pantries in general – including butler’s pantries – check out Catherine Seiberling Pond’s book, here. Also connect with more of her pantry resources through her various blogs, here
  • Read more about the lives and roles of servants (and butler’s pantries) in great homes here, here, here, and here

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on Boot Scrapers.

 

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DO YOU HAVE AN ORIGINAL  OR MODERN BUTLER’S PANTRY IN YOUR HOME?

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UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – Periodically – usually the 4th Tuesday of the month – we’ll bring you a brief overview of a unique architectural feature. Most of these features have become unique to old buildings because they are now obsolete. Finding surviving features is rare as they often fall victim to updates and renovation. However, we think it’s important to be aware of them – besides, learning about them can be a lot of fun! This month’s feature is: THE BOOT SCRAPER. 

Boot scraper at the John Maddox Denn House, Alloway, Salem County, NJ. See our project page on it here

 

What is a boot scraper?

According to the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction (2003), a boot scraper is:

“A horizontal metal plate set in a small frame, once  located  near the front steps of most  buildings; used to scrape dirt or mud from the  bottoms of  shoes or boots before entering the building; common before the advent of paved streets.” 

 

Most people today do not know what boot scrapers are because they are no longer a necessity. In fact, they did not come into use until two- to- three centuries ago. Prior to that, people either did not travel much, or if they traversed the muddy countryside or farm fields, they likely lived in humble homes and were unconcerned about dirt or used other methods to clean. Paved roads were also uncommon for quite some time in Europe and the United States; mud and horse excrement, garbage, and all manner of undesirable debris were unavoidable when traveling. Consequently, there were many deterrents to walking.

Attitudes toward walking changed from the mid-18th through the mid-19th century. Walking was now viewed as a popular pastime instead of a sign of vagrancy or something adverse. The Romantic Movement’s appreciation for nature and civil improvements such as parks and pavement intensified the appreciation for walking. But, even as paved thoroughfares and pedestrian outings proliferated, processes for waste removal evolved at a much slower rate. Not surprisingly, the decision to enter a stately home following a walk through dirty streets presented a dilemma. The solution? The boot scraper.

Initially, boot scrapers were typically made of hand wrought iron. Their composition evolved to cast iron designs in the 19th century. They were generally secured into a stone or other base, or sometimes built into front steps, stair railings, or even built into the side of a building (a practice often seen in Europe). Boot scrapers were always placed at or near the entrance to the building. Unusual designs and materials can also be found (see here), a testament to people’s creativity. Some also included brushes into the design for extra cleaning power. Several patents for boot scrapers were also filed in the 19th century. Boot scrapers became so ubiquitous that they were often included in builders’ and architects’ plans. J.C. Loudon referenced boot scrapers in his Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm, & Villa Architecture & Furniture (1839), stating that:

“There are various forms of scrapers for building into walls, which may be had of every ironmonger…”

 

There are many fine examples of boot scrapers throughout Europe. Brussels, Belgium reportedly has a significant number of extant boot scrapers, as detailed here. The French called them “decrottoir” (translated to: “excrement remover”), with some Parisian examples here. English versions also include some built into the walls of buildings, as seen here

 

Examples of American boot scrapers:

 

Boot scraper at main entrance to the Upsala Mansion in Mount Airy, Philadelphia, PA, built in the Federal architectural style in 1798

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Boot scraper outside Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia, PA, building dating to between 1803 and 1805. 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Boot scraper from the “Banker’s House” on South Canal Street in Natchez, MS – an example of Greek Revival Architecture dating to 1836

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Boot scraper by main entrance to Stan Hywet Hall – a fine example of Tudor Revival architecture from 1915 – in Akron, Ohio. 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Boot scrapers today

Where to see them. 

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in a historical neighborhood and see how many boot scrapers you can find. Don’t forget to inspect stair railings for the subtler scrapers (just be mindful of private property!).
  • Photo gallery – Visit the boot scrapers flickr page, here

Where to get them. 

  • Antique/Salvage Business – If your home is missing a boot scraper, you can find historical scrapers via salvage and antique businesses, including this one.
  • Historic Reproduction Business – If searching for originals proves unsuccessful, search for reproduction types like these.
  • Modern Options – Even if you’re not looking for the historical variety, you may find a use for the modern styles, like these

 

For further resources and reading:

  • For another overview of the boot scraper, read the article here.
  • Take a virtual “tour” of American places with boot scrapers, here and here

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES!

 

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DO YOU HAVE AN ORIGINAL BOOT SCRAPER ON YOUR PROPERTY, OR DO YOU OWN AN UNINSTALLED ONE?

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