No matter how proud you are of your refurbished old house, we’re willing to bet you don’t want passers-by to be able to constantly peer into your windows. Enter the window treatment: Whether solid interior shutters or delicate lace panels, window coverings help protect the privacy of your interior spaces by obscuring the view from outside. They also can boost energy efficiency by blocking drafts from leaky windows in the winter, or full-on sun at the height of summer.
And then there’s their impact on décor—like rugs, pillows, and other soft furnishings, window coverings are a seemingly inconsequential detail with surprisingly hefty influence. In his landmark 1850 book The Architecture of Country Houses, tastemaker A.J. Downing enthusiastically recommended embellishing the window, saying, “Nothing ‘furnishes’ a room so much as curtains to the window…not merely because they take away from the bareness of plain casings and subdue the glare of light, but because there are always pleasing and graceful lines in the folds of hanging drapery—even of the plainest material.”
A well-chosen window treatment can seamlessly tie together a period-inspired room; the wrong one can put it subtly off-kilter. Read on to find options for homes of every vintage.
Shutters were the original window treatment, used since the days of ancient Greece to simultaneously block unwanted sunlight, protect interiors, and provide ventilation. Most commonly used in warmer climates, louvered shutters with wide blades, opened and closed via a central rod, were particularly popular in the deep South. (These “plantation shutters” have experienced somewhat of a renaissance in recent years, and now are readily available from many manufacturers.)
Interior shutters were also popular in the colonial-era homes of New England, but in this case they were solid, designed to keep winter drafts at bay. Board-and-batten shutters were the norm in country dwellings, while interior shutters in finer houses featured raised panels. The latter could either be bifold, or slide into special pockets (called embrasures) built into deep window wells.
Unlike other window treatments, which were often combined to enhance their effects, interior shutters typically stood alone. “In all the finest rooms of the 17th and 18th centuries,” writes Edith Wharton in the 1902 guide The Decoration of Houses, “the inside shutters and embrasures of the windows were decorated with a care which proves that they were not meant to be concealed by curtains.”
In their earliest incarnations in American homes, curtains were used more for protection from drafts than for décor—if they existed at all, they were typically plain, tab-topped panels or basic shirred valances. By the Georgian period, however, European influence was beginning to creep into the homes of the well-to-do, where understated swags and cascades made the most of expensive imported damasks, brocades, and velvets.
As American textile production increased in the latter half of the 18th century, so too did the length of curtains. These newly floor-length models were topped by painted or gilded wooden cornices and adorned with more elaborate embellishment in the form of tiebacks, tassels, and fringe—trends that continued into the subsequent Federal era. Federal and Greek Revival homes did away with the wooden cornice, however, in favor of swagged valances that paid homage to the diaphanous robes worn by mythological goddesses. Beginning in the mid-19th century and continuing for several more decades, curtain arrangements were often accented with lambrequins—flat, stiff panels of fabric with a curvaceous border that artfully framed the window opening.
By the time the Victorian era rolled around, curtain options had all but exploded, drawing on dozens of different influences and available in several different fabrics (velvet, silk, rayon, lace, chintz). Mixed liberally and held in place with fringed, braided, or metal tiebacks, curtains were perhaps the most prominent symbol of Victorian excess—no wonder, then, that the following eras (Arts & Crafts, early Modern) largely eschewed curtains in favor of showcasing decorative windows. When curtains were used in early and mid-20th-century homes, they were likely to be basic floor- or sill-length panels that hung straight down or were contained by simple tiebacks.
Thanks to their association with the mini-blind craze of the 1980s, blinds have gotten a bad rap for historic homes. But they actually have a rich history in interior decoration, stretching from the days of ancient Egypt, when they were formed from reeds plucked from the Nile.
In American interiors, wooden “Venetian blinds” (so-called because they’re said to have been adapted by Venetian traders who witnessed them in Persia) were introduced to the U.S. in the mid-18th century. These wooden slats—anywhere from 1″ to 3″ wide—were connected via a long, flat strip of cloth. They could be painted or stained any color: Dark cherry and walnut stains were popular during the Georgian period, whereas Federal interiors often featured blinds painted white or gray to match window casings.
Wooden blinds waned a bit during the decorative frenzy of the Victorian era, but remained relatively popular until the 1940s, when they were superseded by the latest technology: aluminum. Aluminum blinds were used frequently in mid-century homes, in a range of groovy colors. Vertical and woven blinds were also popular during this time frame, until they were washed out of fashion by the ubiquitous mini-blind.
Although lace has been used in interior decoration for centuries, it only achieved its status as a window dressing in the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution brought about manmade lace (known as Nottingham lace, after the city where it was widely produced). No longer concerned with exposing expensive handmade laces to direct sunlight, the Victorians began piling lace around the windows. Popular forms included swags and jabots, panels, and full-length curtains—even lace tiebacks.
The popularity of such frilly lace curtains was intense but relatively short-lived. Around the turn of the century, as they began creeping into mainstream outlets such as the Montgomery Ward catalog, domestic authorities of the day derided manmade lace curtains as a symptom of Victorian showiness without substance.
And yet, the use of lace as a window covering continued through the early 20th century, albeit in a much more simplified form. Arts & Crafts homes tended to favor Madras laces—Gustav Stickley recommended these sheer panels embellished with simple geometric borders in the pages of The Craftsman. Even more popular during this period were “glass curtains”—sheer fabrics like muslin that were colored or patterned.
The first spring-type roller shades were brought to the American colonies by German and Dutch settlers, but they didn’t really become popular in the States until after the War of 1812—but once they did, they never really fell out of fashion. Early roller shades were made of a thick cotton or linen—often oiled or glazed—called Holland cloth, which remained the preferred fabric until the 1950s, when it was usurped by cheaper vinyl. The only real technological advancement for roller shades came about in the late 19th century, when a counterbalancing mechanism and built-in stop allowed for the “automatic” spring shades we know today.
Throughout the eras, people have sought to dress up plain-Jane roller shades. In the early 19th century, semi-translucent shades were often painted with landscape scenes to add decorative panache. (Though a popular practice, it wasn’t for everyone; in The Architecture of Country Houses, Downing complained that such treatments “only hide, nine times in ten, a more interesting view of the real landscape without.”) Roller shades were often used in concert with other window treatments, such as curtains and lace panels. Stenciling—historically used to decorate the wall around the window jamb—has been adapted as a decorative treatment on many a reproduction roller shade.
By contrast, Roman shades—although immensely popular today for both contemporary and historic interiors—have a much briefer history. Though they’re said to have underpinnings in ancient Rome, they didn’t really appear on the window-treatment scene until the mid-20th century. However, they’re a close cousin of the festoon, a pull-up shade immensely popular in colonial interiors. Most festoons were homemade, unfinished affairs; Roman shades can mimic their appearance while conferring a more tailored aesthetic.
Looking for more old window inspiration? Check out these tips on antique window hardware for your old home.Published in: Old-House Journal February/March 2011