Seeking the History of Screened Porches
By Allan Douglas | Jun 26, 2014
Anyone who has experienced one has to admit that a screened porch is a wonderful addition to any house. A screened porch offers the breezes, scents, sounds, and sights of being outdoors – but without the bugs and the blazing sun. In rural areas – before air conditioning became rampant – many people used a screened porch as a bunk room on particularly sweltering summer nights.
Victorian home with a sleeping porch on the second floor. Usually built off a bedroom, the sleeping porch was screened in on three sides for maximum air circulation.
But like so many brilliant architectural adaptations, the screened porch has been shoved aside by more modern innovations and changes in lifestyle. Conversion to a year-round sunroom or blown out into a larger deck or patio that offers a full open-air atmosphere, the screened porch is fast becoming a nostalgic memory.
Have you ever wondered who first thought of enclosing a porch with window screening? Let’s have a seat in the Wayback Whensday machine and see what we can find out.
Window Screen Tid-Bits:
12th-century stone screen: Al Rifai Mosque Cairo
– Window screens were used as soon as people began framing windows. At first, screens were made of wood, ceramic and stone. They provided protection from animal and human intruders but still allowed some light and ventilation into a building. Cloth screens provided protection from dust and insects and allowed some light to enter.
– “Wove wire for window screens” was referenced in the American Farmer in 1823.
– An advertisement for wire window screens appeared in Boyd’s Blue Book in 1836.
– Two wire window screens were exhibited at Quincy Hall in Boston in 1839.
– In the 19th century, as mining and manufacturing advanced, metal became widely available and wire drawing techniques were less expensive.
– Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Co. in Redding, Connecticut, invented affordable wire-mesh window screens. During the 1840s, the company purchased mill space and began to experiment with weaving steel wire mesh. Among the first applications of the wire mesh were as a replacement for horsehair sieves and as a non-fibrous, easy-release drying surface for adhesives. When the Civil War began in 1861, the loss of its southern markets prompted the company to design an expanded product line, including window screens. Their window screens were painted to resist rust.
– Apparently, window screens designed specifically to prevent insect entry were not patented in the United States, although by 1900 several patents were awarded for particular innovations related to window screen design.
– By the 1950s, parasitic diseases were largely eradicated in the United States due in part to the widespread use of window screens. Today most houses in Australia, the United States and Canada have screens on all operable windows.
Pursuing the Porch
The porch itself dates to ancient Greece, when columned porticoes (from which we get the word ”porch”) marked the entrances to temples and halls. The American adaptation flourished in the 1840s, when large, prosperous, Southern plantations featured Greek Revival mansions with grand verandas. While not every American could afford a mansion, those of lesser means emulated the trend by adding porches to smaller houses throughout the country: a symbol of more leisure time.
Screening-in those porches was a logical outgrowth of window screening, an innovation that social historian Russell Lynes called ”the most humane contribution to the 19th century and the most unsung.”
In his book, “The Domesticated Americans,” Lynes traces the history of screening to a surplus of wire-mesh sieves produced during the Civil War that were later sold as window covering. But it wasn’t until the 1880s that the product was being widely produced and sold. Lynes cites a 1930 survey from The Journal of Home Economics in which window screening ranked as the third most important ”household appliance” behind running water and sewage disposal.
Who first decided to enclose an entire porch with window screening? That, unfortunately, seems to have been lost in the annals of time. But once it was thought of, the trend caught on quickly, and house after house screened out the pesky flies, mosquitoes, gnats and June bugs to make their preferred evening sitting space for comfortable.
Porch Popularity Plummets
It wasn’t long, however, before two other 20th-century inventions put the kibosh on the popularity of porches in general and screened porches in particular: the automobile and air conditioning. Many once considered a leisurely stroll in the cool of the evening, which often included a stop by a neighbor’s porch to socialize while the house cooled down after the evening meal, to be the highlight of one’s day. As we became a society of motorists eager to get where we were going and cool air could be produced and controlled inside our homes, porches became a decoration. A decoration that began shrinking up until it was nothing but a concrete stoop with a small roof over it to keep the rain off while the home owner fumbled for the door keys.
But trends tend to be cyclical and front porches are making a comeback, particularly in rural homes where folks tend to appreciate fresh air and the great outdoors.
Personally, when the summer evenings are warm and the sunsets are colorful, nothing beats spending the evening beside my beloved on a right fine settin porch with tall, cold glasses of lemonade.
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