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.
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.
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 Transom, CC 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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