A Brief History of the Humble Window Screen

The light bulb, the telephone, the automobile, and the phonograph are all ranked among the greatest inventions of the 19th century.  But what about the humble and often overlooked window screen?  Prior to its introduction during the Civil War, hot weather meant either keeping the windows and doors of a house closed, or opening them and subjecting the occupants to wasps, flies, mosquitoes, and a range of potentially infectious diseases.   In this article, we will briefly explore the history of the window screen, and then look at how they were used at the home of John and Frances Glessner.

EARLY HISTORY

Cheesecloth was sometimes used to cover windows as a way to keep out insects.  Being loosely woven, it allowed air to circulate, but it was easily torn, soiled quickly, and limited the visibility from inside.  Advertisements for wire window screens started to appear in the 1820s and 1830s, but the idea didn’t take off.  It was the onset of the Civil War that made window screens a household word (and necessity).

Gilbert and Bennett factory (destroyed by fire in 1874)

Gilbert and Bennett factory (destroyed by fire in 1874)

Gilbert and Bennett, a Connecticut based company that made sieves, is generally credited with the invention of the modern window screen.  The company’s business suffered during the Civil War, as they could no longer sell their products in the Southern states.  An enterprising employee had an idea that changed history – paint the wire cloth to prevent it from rusting, and sell it for use as window screens.  The idea took off, and the company made the production of wire cloth a major part of its business.  Homeowners would purchase the wire cloth and then nail it to wooden window and door frames they constructed.  The firm later introduced steel wire, which did not rust.

The firm of Bayley and McCluskey filed a patent in 1868 for screened windows on railroad cars, which helped to prevent sparks, cinders, and dust from entering the passenger compartments.   Screens were first advertised in the Chicago Tribune in May 1869, the advertisement reading in part:

“The annoyances of spring and summer, such as flies, mosquitoes, dust, etc., can be obviated by using the wire window screens manufactured by Evans & Co., No. 201 Lake street.  These can be obtained at fifteen to fifty cents a foot.”

Window screens not only made houses more comfortable, they also had a direct impact on health, as they kept disease-carrying insects out of homes.  Over time, the incidents of these diseases declined dramatically.  This aspect of window screens was considered so important that the Boy Scouts and other volunteer organizations would help communities install and maintain screens.

PAINTED WINDOW SCREENS

As was the case with window shades, artists soon saw the possibilities of window screens, which were basically canvases with holes in them.  Screens were painted on the outside, normally with landscape scenes, leaving the holes unobstructed.  In addition to being decorative, the screens were practical as well.  From the outside, the painted scenes blocked the view inside the house, providing a level of privacy.

Painted window screen, National Museum of American History.  For more images from their collection visit: www.americanhistory.si.edu/object-project/household-hits/window-screen

Painted window screen, National Museum of American History.  For more images from their collection visit:
www.americanhistory.si.edu/object-project/household-hits/window-screen

Painted window screens became extraordinarily popular in Baltimore, after a Czech immigrant named William Oktavec painted a screen to advertise produce in his store in 1913.  He was soon asked to paint screens for homes, and other artists jumped on the bandwagon.  It is estimated that there were 100,000 painted screens in Baltimore at its peak, many adorning the row houses with windows at sidewalk level, where privacy was most desired.  The screens are considered a Baltimore folk art and are still produced today, and a collection is displayed at the American Visionary Art Museum in that city.  There is even The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, formed to preserve and encourage the art form.

GLESSNER HOUSE

The building specifications prepared by H. H. Richardson for Glessner house specifically include window screens:

“Finish and put up to all the outside doors and windows, the best patent wire screens, to have steel frames and hardwood runs, except one window over main stairs on 18th St., one in library, one in Parlor, two in dining room and one in upper hall.  The window screens will be on the outside.  The doors will be made of 1 ¼” clear pine stock.”

Male servants' door at right, with screen door, 1923

Male servants' door at right, with screen door, 1923

It is interesting to note that the specifications call for the screens to be on the outside – an indication that screens were far from being universal at the time, so the contractors needed to be given extra instruction.  One will also note that screens were not put on every window in the house – the specifications list six windows that would not have screens, in each case in rooms where there were multiple windows.  

This bit of information relates directly to instructions written by Frances Glessner in 1901 for the servants who were to remain in the house during the summer.  She noted:

“When the weather is warm, open the windows and doors to court yard early in the morning and at about six in the evening – open only doors and windows which have wire screens.  Keep all closed from 9 o’clock in the morning until six in the evening.”

Screen door for the Prairie Avenue door, in storage in the basement. Note the custom made wall brackets to hold the door.

Screen door for the Prairie Avenue door, in storage in the basement.
Note the custom made wall brackets to hold the door.

E. T. BURROWES & COMPANY

The screens for the Glessner house were manufactured by E. T. Burrowes & Co. of Portland, Maine, the largest manufacturer of window screens in the late 19th century.  They were sold locally through Robinson & Bishop, the western managers for the company, with offices at No. 1202 Chamber of Commerce Building.  In October 1893, the firm won the top award at the World’s Columbian Exposition for their production of wire window screens and screen doors. 

The company noted that “our screens are in use in the best dwellings in every city in the United States,” listing the homes of Thomas A. Edison, P. T. Barnum, General P. H. Sheridan, George Westinghouse Jr., and Grover Cleveland in their advertisements.

In the early 1890s, the company published a 12-page booklet listing the names of hundreds of Chicago area residents who used Burrowes window screens in their homes.  Listed were many Prairie Avenue residents including George Pullman, Joseph Sears, Philip Armour, and William Hibbard.  The booklet was illustrated with photographs of thirty houses, including the “Residence of Hon. Robert T. Lincoln (U.S. Minister to England)” which adorned the cover. 

The Glessner house was illustrated as were several other prominent South Side residences.

2720 S. Prairie Avenue (demolished)

2720 S. Prairie Avenue (demolished)

2904 S. Prairie Avenue (demolished)

2904 S. Prairie Avenue (demolished)

2838 S. Michigan Avenue (demolished)

2838 S. Michigan Avenue (demolished)

1826 S. Michigan Avenue (demolished)

1826 S. Michigan Avenue (demolished)

Next time you open your window on a warm summer day, without the worry of a mosquito flying in, take a moment to recall the interesting history of one of the most useful and practical items ever invented to keep our homes safe and comfortable.