Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Blinded, Shuttered, and Green

Darlington House was built in the early 19th century before the advent of electric lighting, HVAC systems, indoor plumbing, screens or storm windows, and assorted other modern conveniences that today most of us take for granted.  The house had no such conveniences for more than a century until they were first installed in 1931, when the Proctors bought it.  One of the pleasures we have had as owners (stewards, really) of the house has been learning how its occupants lived before there were such conveniences.  We have studied how they kept warm during the winter and cool in the summer, lighted their rooms, bathed, laundered, and made it all work.  It has been fascinating to understand how people of the early 19th century coped with their domestic challenges and to comprehend the genius with which they did so, considering the obstacles they faced.

Broadway, New York City
Watercolor attributed to Nicolino Calyo, 1840-1844
Museum of the City of New York

One of the best sources I know for learning about how people in pre-industrial America faced domestic life is the absorbing, well-written, and profusely illustrated book At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 by Elizabeth Donaghy Garrett.  I have spent many hours pouring over its 304 information-packed pages, and I encourage anyone who is interested in American domestic material culture to add it to their library.  Reading At Home helps put in perspective how fortunate we are to live in today's world of today's conveniences, no longer hostage to the time- and effort-consuming tasks of our forebears.

One of the things that repeatedly strikes me about how pre-industrial Americans coped with their day-to-day lives is that many of their solutions fit squarely within today's definition of living "green."  They, of course, had miniscule carbon footprints compared with ours today, despite the fact that they burned wood, and later coal, as their primary fuel.  They disposed of nothing unless it was irreparably broken or worn out, re-using and re-purposing as much as possible.  They were thrifty, which was considered a virtue.  But what really impresses me is the cleverness with which they maximized the efficiency of the solutions to their domestic challenges.

South Parlor of Abraham Russell, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Watercolor by Joseph Shoemaker Russell, 1848
Old Dartmouth Historical Society, New Bedford

It was not until I came to inhabit Darlington that I fully appreciated the ingenuity and versatility of venetian blinds and exterior shutters.  I had lived with venetian blinds over the years, and liked them, but it was only after we installed them in our dining room at Darlington that I came to comprehend what a technological marvel they must have been when introduced (and that they remain today).  I always appreciated that exterior shutters added to the visual attractiveness of many houses, but I did not at all understand that they are, in fact, a superb solution to the problems of light control, security, and ventilation when used for their original purpose (and when they are operable, as opposed to screw-on).

View from the House of Henry Briscoe Thomas
Unknown artist, c. 1841
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

While the windows in Darlington's dining room did not have blinds when we bought the house, it was clear that the window surrounds in the room were built to accommodate venetian blinds, a view confirmed by the architectural historian whom we have worked with since we began restoring the house.  We reinstated blinds in the dining room's windows, and ordered historically accurate, period-appropriate wooden ones from Devenco http://www.devenco.net/, a firm that specializes in custom-made blinds (plus interior and exterior shutters) for historic buildings.  They work perfectly, are handsome, and are pleasing to use.

Mrs. A. W. Smith's Parlor, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia
Watercolor by Joseph Shoemaker Russell, 1853
Private collection

Darlington was built with exterior, operable slatted shutters at its windows (known in the era as "Venetian" shutters), which were remarkably still hanging when we bought the house, almost 180 years after it was built.  However, the shutters were decaying and degraded, and we had to replace them.  We had them reproduced, line for line, and had them re-hung with the original wrought-iron hardware that I removed from the original shutters and reconditioned (a job that took me the better part of one winter's weekends to complete).  The "new-old" shutters operate smoothly, and we use them as they were originally intended: to regulate light and for security.  We love the way they look, and we appreciate them for being such efficient and elegant pieces of machinery.  They are painted, as are the interior blinds in the dining room, in a handsome grass-green color taken from period paintings of buildings built in America in the early part of the 19th-century.  Boy developed the color and had it custom-mixed in Benjamin Moore paint.

Here's what Ms. Garrett writes in At Home about shutters:

"First advertised in American newspapers in the mid-1700s, slatted shutters had become universal by the mid-1800s, for they protected household furnishings from the effect of sunlight; they discouraged the free entry of flies and mosquitoes; they screened out the dust and sand that blew about the streets; they enhanced privacy; and they promoted summer comfort."

We use our shutters at Darlington House.  During the summer we often close them for days at a time, both to reduce our energy consumption and also because the light that comes through the slats is wonderfully pleasant; I'm convinced that the rooms even appear cooler.  During storms we often close all of the shutters on the house to protect the windows from blowing debris, and we also close them when we are away for weeks at a time.  I love the way the house looks with all of its shutters closed, the place all battened down.  It is curious how many comments we get from neighbors (and strangers, for that matter), as many of them have never seen a house whose shutters are used as they were intended.

Reggie closing a shutter at Darlington House

Moving inside the house, into the dining room, here is a photo montage of a number of the arrangements available when windows are dressed with venetian blinds and exterior shutters:

Venetian blinds are a highly efficient means of controlling light and privacy in one's rooms.  Just as we use our shutters, we also use our blinds to regulate light in our dining room, and also for effect.  Unlike roller blinds, they allow one to see out the window when drawn, so it is possible to have full privacy but still have a sense of the outdoors.  There are many options for how one configures the blinds, depending on how much privacy or light is desired.  And on top of that, they are exceedingly handsome, neat, and plain.

Watercolors and drawings from At Home: The American Family 1750-1870, by Elizabeth Donaghy Garrett, Henry N. Abrams publisher 1990;
All photographs by Boy Fenwick


  1. Darling Reggie,
    Wonderful post. It brought to mind Jane C. Nylander's lovely book: "Our Own Snug Fireside
    Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860." Jane is a brilliant scholar of domestic life in early New England. Her husband, Richard, was president of Historic New England (formerly SPNEA) and is a noted expert on early wallpaper.

    If you haven't read "Our Own Snug Fireside," I cannot sing its praises enough, or any of the Nylander's books for that matter.

    Your adoring Dibdin

  2. Brilliant! It does my heart good to see a house where the exterior shutters actually suit the size of the window. Your house and your neighbors are lucky to have you!

  3. those shutters are divine! i have never seen shutters closed. all the original ones i've seen look too delicate to actually use, as if they would collapse if you tried to shut them. but who knows?
    i love housekeeping books like the one you describe. they are a window into the past. some of the books are funny and filled with anthropological insight. and the old ones are totally green. some of my favorite household tips are -polishing wood with an olive oil soaked rag- that works wonders if you've spilled a drink on a piece of wood and didn't notice until too late and- just wiping things on which you might have otherwise used a cleaning product with a clean, dry cloth or a wet cloth. it's amazing how often you don't even need a cleaning product to dust or wipe something down.

  4. Well, I logged on to recommend the Nylander book, but Mr. Dibdin got there before me. Definitely a must have.

    One correction however: It was Mrs. Nylander who was president of Historic New England. Mr. Nylander was senior curator. His book about early wallpaper is another must-have.

    Famously fond though I am of plastic shutters (not)....it is wonderful to see the real thing

  5. Mr Darling, a very interesting post and such a pleasure to see shutters that work! I have the book, and the other that Frognall Dibdin recommends - an excellent read. Another is Open House: a Guided Tour of the American Home 1637 -Present, by Merritt Ierley.

  6. I too have this book and have always found it enlightening. As for your loving restoration of your shutters to the point of actually be able to function ( you even did away with storms!) I applaud your passion, commitment and respect for real architecture. When houses really work its such a pleasure that it makes one wonder about why on earth we believe we've made them better by stifling their ability to fully perform.

  7. In all the years that Martha Stewart Living has brilliantly produced stories about "how things work", she has never done, to my recollection, the whole Shutter/Venetian Blind tutorial as you have shown here. Bravo, you've trumped Martha!

  8. I'm significantly delighted to have not one, but upon reading your comments section, several recommended reading selections.
    I remember my first experience with functioning shutters while in Spain. I was confounded as to why we (most Americans) would employ them for purely ornamental purposes. Thank you for shedding some light, pun intended, on the subject.

    Before parting, I must know, what is the color used on the interior wall shown?


  9. Excellent post. I love that you made the connection to green building technology--a point I've often pointed out to friends with more, shall we say, more modern taste in architecture. This summer I made a trek to Jefferson's retreat, Poplar Forest near Lynchburg, VA. Check out the shutter system he used in this house. I don't know if it is a "Jeffersonian" innovation or not, but brilliant, the bottom half of the sash can be covered while the upper portion remains open. The upper shutters can be closed and opened to control light, etc.

  10. Frognall: Thank you for your comment. You are right on target with the Nylander's book, a great suggestion. I do have it, but for some reason overlooked it on my shelves when preparing this post--an oversight, really. Boy had the pleasure of having luncheon and spending an afternoon with the Nylanders when he was enrolled in the Sotheby's American Arts course almost a decade ago, a memorable several hours, indeed.

    T&CM: It is a great satisfaction when shutters actually fit the windows they adorn, and also work. You are right, it is increasingly rare that they do today.

    Lulu: I am not a fan of many of today's chemical-laden "time-saving" cleaning and polishing products, prefering instead old-fashioned greener alternatives. I will be discussing this in a future posting at some point, so please stay tuned...

    DED: Thanks for your input. I have the wallpaper book, but must admit I haven't delved into it much. I shall now do so.

  11. In Europe, shutters are still functional on a daily basis, not only in homes but also in hotels. So nice to come home in the evenings and see your bed turned down and the shutters closed. Makes for a fantastic sleeping experience. Same in the Caribbean, particularly during the siesta hours! Don't remember seen blinds in Europe...have you? must be an American thing.

  12. Blue: Thank you for the suggestion, I am not familiar with the book you refer to and shall order it immediately. Much obliged.

    Anon 7:24: Thank you for your comment. The front of our house, to the best of my knowledge, has never had storm windows. We have not installed them because they would interfere with the operation of the shutters, and interior ones are not practical, either. We have, however, reconditioned all of our woooden-framed windows, and they are remarkably snug.

    Anon 7:31: Why thank you, it never occured to me. Assuming her editors scan the blogs I suspect that such a tutorial may appear in the pages of MSL at some point, don't you?

    MT: Indeed. The DR walls are painted in a color that Boy had custom-matched to the original color they were painted when the house was built, a color that we were able to definitively confirm during the room's restoration a number of years ago. We were very fortunate, also, to find the original paint colors in most of the rooms at Darlington, and have restored them.

    Ryan: I long to visit Poplar Forest, the restoration of which I have followed with great interest on their website. Our drawing room has interior shutters of the kind you note in your comment, divided so that either the bottom or top half can be opened or closed. They are a marvel. You have inspired me to do a post on them one day, thank you.

    Lindaraxa: Thanks for your comment. Yes it seems people in other regions still value and appreciate shutters in a way that has been lost to most of the inhabitants of, at least, the North East US where I live. I lay the blame for this, plus the collapse of this country's porch culture, on air conditioning. I am working on this subject for a future post, likely when the weather warms up.

  13. I second Reggie's recommendation of Devenco.

    They made a couple dozen blinds for me twenty-some years ago. One of those blinds recently went south (due to household help), and Devenco replaced it with a perfect copy.

    (As I get older, I am more appreciative of people who can do things right the first time.)

  14. re: getting by in the 19th century - my ex monther in law used to give us this very Maine like quote "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without". as for my family and others on my rural road, they never threw anything away which has unfortunately lodged in my psyche. my business name is PACK RATS. i stocked it for years with all the stuff that was socked away here in the house (which, btw, had working shutters on all windows until the 1940's) and i have found several original wood venetian blinds that others had discarded (fools!). heavy but so much more cool. the old houses were built and sited to take advantage of the weather eg rarely does my old 1835 farmhouse get warm enough in the summer to even use a fan much less ac. the breeze and the ubiquitous maples keep it cool.

  15. My little bungalow in Memphis was built in 1922. The house was designed to stay cool just fine with the window shades and the attic fan. I closed the shades during the day while I was at work, then opened the windows and turned on the attic fan when I got home. In the eight years I lived in that house, I used the retrotfit A/C only a handful of times - and that was when I had company. I lived just fine without it. I prefer fresh air.

  16. TPR: Marvelous! I enjoyed your comment a lot, and I shall memorize your MIL's saying (worthy of being posted as a sign).

    Gold Digger: I lived in a house in Washington DC briefly that had such an attic fan. They are incredible, and I will forever remember the "whoosh" sound that happened when it was turned on and the air from outside was pulled through the house. Thanks for your comment.

  17. I love the look of the closed shutters.

    Our Spanish Revival house built in the 1940's had its original windows when we purchased it. Two of the windows in the living room opened onto the front porch and were large enough to walk through. There was no screens so essentially, anyone could walk in. Obviously, these windows were not practical for me. I hated to replace them because they were so unique but it was time.

  18. As for Venetian blinds, I believe they're called that for a reason. Lindaraxa wondered if they were American. Venice is full of them in fact. But! They're mounted on the exterior! Never inside. That said, they look so right, even traditional in your fine house Reggie.

  19. The use of shutters and custom blinds made living really comfortable for the people in this particular era. They can filter light and heat easily with the use of functional shutters. You will also notice the size of the windows are big for good ventilation and lighting.


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