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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Winter/Spring 2004 > Window Dressing: Shutters and Blinds in Historic Houses

Window Dressing: Shutters and Blinds in Historic Houses

The desire to bring light and air into our homes has resulted in a progression from the small casement windows of the First Period, to the more elaborate multi-light window sash of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and now to the large uninterrupted glass panes installed in many new homes. As windows have grown larger, exterior and interior shutters and blinds have been used in homes throughout New England to provide privacy and security, prevent light damage to interior furnishings and finishes, and regulate interior temperature and glare. The history of shutters and blinds illustrates their utility, versatility, and appeal.

The terms "shutter" and "blind" both refer to hinged window coverings. Strictly speaking, a shutter is a hinged board or panel construction, while a blind has fixed or moveable louvers for ventilation. In general parlance, though, the distinction has blurred, and today the word "shutter" encompasses both types of covering.

Exterior shutters and blinds have been used in New England from the seventeenth century to the present. Heavy single-board and board-and-batten shutter styles, which could be bolted and barred, were typical until the mid-eighteenth century, when lighter, paneled shutters and louvered blinds became common. While shutters were usually hung in pairs on either side of the window, occasionally one shutter spanning the entire opening would be hung to one side.

Shutter subtypes proliferated through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including bi-fold versions and "Dutch" shutters split horizontally, so that the top half could be opened for light and air while the bottom was closed for security. More common in hot climates, awning blinds were hinged at the top of the window for maximum shade and air circulation. In New England, exterior shutters were traditionally painted either black or dark green until the mid-nineteenth century. The latter part of the nineteenth century saw a transition to bolder colors and more elaborate custom designs, such as the pointed shutters made to shield Gothic revival windows.

Exterior shutters were attached with a variety of hardware, including strap hinges on pintles, locking mortise hinges, and even wide-swinging H- or HL-shaped hinges. An assortment of latches were used to close exterior shutters, but the most common device to hold them open were shutter dogs, the dart- or S-shaped metal fasteners that turned on a lag screw or drive nail attached to the window sill or sidewall.

The functional use of exterior shutters declined in late-nineteenth century New England, as the combination of interior window coverings and exterior storm windows proved more convenient and effective. Although no longer central to the working life of New England houses, shutters remain popular decorative elements, framing window openings and providing depth and texture. Nowadays, exterior shutters are nearly always left open.

Interior shutters, a convenient alternative to exterior shutters, were extremely popular from the seventeenth through the early twentieth century. In their earliest form, they were used to keep out wind and rain in lieu of expensive glass windows. The most common early type consisted of a single panel that slid on a track running across the bottom of the window and the surface of the wall. This model was gradually refined, with single or paired shutters that could be slid out of sight into pockets in the wall. The most elaborate featured a second track halfway up the window, so that a total of four panels could be adjusted as needed. While pocket shutters came to be called "Indian" shutters in nineteenth-century New England, their widespread use actually began well after settlers' conflicts with native populations subsided.

During the eighteenth century, fashions changed and interior walls were brought further into rooms to cover timber framing members, creating deep recesses around window openings. The thick walls of masonry houses also had this kind of recess. Paneled interior shutters were made to occupy this space, called the embrasure, as both functional and beautiful elements of the interior woodwork. These "boxed" shutters folded seamlessly into shallow pockets in the wall, creating a paneled surround at each window.

From the late eighteenth century through the end of the nineteenth century, louvered interior blinds were fashionable window treatments. Those with narrower slats were available in the same configurations as paneled shutters, such as the "Dutch" and bi-fold styles. One creative type had multiple panels that slid vertically, held in place by pegs or clips to cover the window or concealed behind window seats when open.

Historically, the term "Venetian blind" was applied to any number of interior and exterior treatments, but it now connotes any louvered interior blind with moveable, wide wooden slats, either set in a frame or suspended on cloth tapes. Venetian blinds were prized because they could fan out to fill the semi-circular shapes of fanlights or Palladian windows. Early versions often had clear finishes to expose the wood graining, but they soon began to be painted dark green or black like their exterior counterparts. Wooden interior shutters and blinds fell out of favor through the twentieth century, as cheaper metal mini-blinds and other treatments became available.

While all of these exterior and interior window coverings are fundamentally simple in concept, for centuries, they were essential to maintaining a comfortable household. Today, they evoke a time when striking the balance between shelter and nature was a manual, circadian ritual. Though their role in our lives has changed, they retain their significance, both as examples of changing tastes and technologies and as beautiful architectural details.

-Roberta Lane
Stewardship Manager

ALL PICTURES ON THIS PAGE  Examples from New England homes illustrate a wide range of historic shutters and blinds, at once useful and beautiful.

Replacing Missing Shutters
In the absence of surviving exterior shutters, homeowners can find out whether their house ever had them by reviewing historic photographs or looking for physical evidence. Walls, windows, frames, and sills often retain signs of shutters past, such as holes that once held hardware, built-up paint outlining patterns of shutters or hardware, or surviving pieces of the hardware itself.

Those who wish to replace missing exterior shutters may follow a few simple guidelines to ensure that their new installation will be appropriate to their house, even if the shutters will never be closed:

  • New exterior shutters should be made of wood.
  • They should be sized so that they would exactly fit the inside of the window openings if they were closed.
  • They should be hung close to the edges of the windows, covering part of the window trim-never tacked onto the sidewalls of the house beyond the trim.
  • They should be installed on operable hinges not only to create the proper visual effect, but also to allow air to circulate around the shutters and to permit access behind them for future maintenance.
    Window Dressing: Shutters and Blinds in Historic Houses