Who Invented Windows and Doors?

Updated on December 31, 2017
stuff4kids profile image

Amanda is a retired educator with many years of experience teaching children of all ages and abilities in a wide range of contexts.

A Word for Windows

No, nothing to do with the Microsoft word processing program. More to do with the origin of the word 'window.'

Our English word comes from the Old Norse, the ancient language of the Vikings. The Norse word it derives from is Vindauga.

What does it mean?

Vindauga ~ old Norse word meaning both "wind" and "eye."

So there we have it. The window was designed either to protect from the wind whistling through the house or to let those inside look out - or both, of course.

For the earliest house builders there were two important considerations above all others. They were protection from the elements and protection from wild animals or hostile humans.

The earliest houses didn't have windows. The only light that could get in was via an opening which served as an entrance and a circular smoke hole in the middle. The interior of most primitive dwellings, whether made of stone, wood or hide, was generally pretty gloomy. It was also practically impossible to tell what was going on outside without sticking your head out the entrance.

With rival tribes and wild animals on the prowl that could be pretty dangerous!

Celtic Roundhouse - No Door or Windows!

A primitive celtic roundhouse made of mud and thatch. No door, just an entrance hole that may have been covered with leather flaps in poor weather. No windows, either. It must have been pretty dark and smoky inside on a winter's night!
A primitive celtic roundhouse made of mud and thatch. No door, just an entrance hole that may have been covered with leather flaps in poor weather. No windows, either. It must have been pretty dark and smoky inside on a winter's night! | Source

The Romans Enjoyed Glass Windows

The Ancient Romans were the first people to make use of glass in their windows. Of course, it was only the very wealthiest citizens who could afford to enjoy glass windows. The first Roman windows were installed in Italian villas about 2000 years ago.

The way they made their windows is interesting. They were able to produce clear window panes by casting blocks of glass, typically quite thick, and then laboriously grinding the blocks and polishing them until they achieved a thin, transparent surface. Thicker glass distorted the view or remained translucent. The trick was to get the glass thin enough to see through, but not so thin that it would easily break or shatter.

In the 1st century AD the Roman glassmakers very quickly developed their skills and some of the villas belonging to the most prestigious Roman citizens even enjoyed luxurious 'sun porches' rather like a modern conservatory.

A Glass Window Pane From Ancient Rome

An piece of ancient Roman window glass from the 4th century and now housed in the Gäubodenmuseum in Germany.
An piece of ancient Roman window glass from the 4th century and now housed in the Gäubodenmuseum in Germany. | Source

Developing Window Pane Technology and Alternatives to Glass

The method for making window panes by casting, grinding and polishing continued in use right through until the middle of the 15th century.

Because the process was time consuming and difficult, the resulting clear glass sheets were very expensive and so such windows were only available to the richest and most influential persons. Glass in this period is only found in the windows of mansion houses, palaces and churches. The middle classes and the poor continued to dwell in the dark!

Another kind of window was developed by the enterprising lower classes, however. They would stretch oiled parchment or linen across openings. The oiling made the parchment more or less water resistant and also gave it a degree of transparency. In this way, some light could be admitted into the medieval home while still keeping out the worst of the wind and the weather.

Wooden Shutters Protected Windows

In medieval Europe, wooden shutters were often used not only to protect houses from the worst of the weather when glass could not be afforded, but also to protect the glass during times of social unrest or warfare.
In medieval Europe, wooden shutters were often used not only to protect houses from the worst of the weather when glass could not be afforded, but also to protect the glass during times of social unrest or warfare. | Source

Wooden shutters were used to cover windows at night - even when there was glass. Medieval Europe was often in the turmoil of social unrest and uprisings and revolutions were common. Glass, as a symbol of the wealth and privilege of the ruling class, was often an easy target for rioters and protesters.

Leaded Windows Were Common From the 15th Century

This is New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK. It is the last house that William Shakespeare lived in.  It shows the use of leaded windows, a technique developed in the mid-fifteenth century.
This is New Place, in Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK. It is the last house that William Shakespeare lived in. It shows the use of leaded windows, a technique developed in the mid-fifteenth century. | Source

Opening Windows

We may take it for granted in our modern homes that we can open and close windows as we wish. However, the earliest windows were fixed in place. It was not until the middle of the 15th century that specially made wooden casements with a hinged interior frame to carry the leaded glass, were invented.

As you might imagine, this additional craftsmanship made the first casements quite expensive and so again, only the wealthiest could afford to open their windows and let the air in!

Leaded windows are made by 'wrapping' small panes of glass in lead beading and then joining them all together with droplets of molten lead, rather like glue, which was poured into molds.

How to Make Leaded Glass Windows Step by Step

Renaissance Italian Glass Spinning

The art and craft of spinning glass was revived, if not invented, in Renaissance Italy. The glass workers used their special techniques to spin liquid glass into flat discs from which panes could then be cut.

This method was very effective and saved a lot of time compared to the old method of molding, grinding and polishing heavy glass blocks. The resulting glass had a good level of transparency and at the same time it was comparatively tough.

The technique of spinning glass was developed to make all kinds of other items, including decorative glassware for the home.

Elegant Sash Windows

These elegant sash windows are now synonymous with the architecture of Georgian England. However, they were first developed in the mid 17th century and first used in Inigo Jones Banqueting House.
These elegant sash windows are now synonymous with the architecture of Georgian England. However, they were first developed in the mid 17th century and first used in Inigo Jones Banqueting House. | Source

The Precursor of the Modern Window

The sash window was the precursor of the modern window, although it still relied on several small panes being conjoined either with lead or in a wooden framework. Indeed the term 'sash' in this context comes from the French, chassis, which means frame.

In the earliest sash windows the upper section was always fixed and only the bottom section could be moved up and down. The double sash, in which both sections could be moved, was not common until the late 18th century.

The modern window, perhaps in a uPVC frame and of dimensions inconceivable to the early Roman craftsmen, has its origins in the sash windows and casements of these previous centuries.

Glass can now be made in vast sheets and can be very strong. We even have bullet proof versions! In many cases, modern architecture has allowed the window to completely take over and we have whole buildings made entirely out of glass.

The World of Glass Architecture

A Last Word About Doors

It is true that many modern doors are also made of glass.

We saw before that primitive homes had an open hole for access to the building. Later, these holes were covered with hide or simple panels of woven sticks.

In the medieval period, solid oak doors had been developed (although there is evidence that the Ancient Romans had doors made of paneled wood) and these were commonly reinforced with iron hinges and bracing.

Medieval Oak Door

A typical oak door from the Middle Ages, reinforced with iron hinges and studs.
A typical oak door from the Middle Ages, reinforced with iron hinges and studs. | Source

These early doors were heavy, hard to make and install, and so were only used in the mansions of the wealthy, castles and churches.

It was only much later that doors could be made light enough and cheap enough to be installed in every home.

And that concludes our look at the history of glass windows and doors. Next time you look out of a window, see a glass building, or shut the door to your room, you might pause a moment to consider the centuries long history that has enabled you to do those simple, everyday things!

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© 2015 Amanda Littlejohn

What sort of windows do you have in your home?

Submit a Comment

  • stuff4kids profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Littlejohn 

    4 months ago

    Hi M Fiesen,

    In the United States window styles and construction changed throughout the 19th century.

    In the early part of the century, the so-called "grecian style" was still much favored. These windows were formal in style with clear, classical lines and were typically all the same width in a single building.

    During this time most opening windows were of the sash design (sliding up and down) rather than the hinged type opening outward. Dormer windows, leaded glass, and stained glass "fans" over doorways were also popular.

    While casement windows were still considered too cumbersome to be practical, there are examples of rounded windows and arches from the mid 1840s onward.

    By the end of the century mass manufacture of standardized window frames had come into play, using a "ballon frame" or casement which incorporated either sash or hinged opening designs. These were lighter, easier to install, but less individual in scope.

    These windows were made from pine but for those who could afford custom builds, hardwoods might also be used. Three types of window glass were used in the 19th century: plain, crystal, and plate. However, whichever thickness or style you chose, glass-making technology in the period meant that window glass was always uneven in thickness, and might contain bubbles or other distortions.

    Brass, bronze, and iron were the materials most popluar for finishings (hinges, handles, ornamentation) and could be given a variety of finishes according to taste.

    Boston, MA has some very fine examples of original 19th century window design representing all the fashions of the century.

    I hope that helps!

  • profile image

    M Friesen 

    5 months ago

    I have looked for how windows were constructed for homes back in 1884. Our house was built that year on a farm but, does not have the original windows. I have searched several times the past 4 years for information. Can you guide me ?

  • stuff4kids profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Littlejohn 

    2 years ago

    Hi Besarien!

    I know what you mean about cleaning the windows! Glad I was able to spur you on. ;)

    "Wind-eye" is rather poetic, isn't it? You see those Vikings had a very artistic side, it wasn't all raiding and pillaging!

    Thanks again for your comment. Bless you :)

  • stuff4kids profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Littlejohn 

    2 years ago

    Hi Alun!

    Thanks for your lovely contribution to this article about windows and doors. I'm sorry it's taken so long to reply - I've only just received any notifications and I've got dozens backlogged from months ago. Must have been a Hubpages glitch.

    I'm with you there on feeling confused as to why windows and doors weren't invented earlier on. I suppose the absence of a suitable transparent material might have been an obstacle to some extent?

  • Besarien profile image

    Besarien 

    2 years ago

    Reading this article made me ashamed or how tough it is to see out my windows and glass doors right now! Thanks for reminding me to wash my glass tomorrow. I hate doing it but love the results. Thanks also for a cool history lesson. I learned a lot! Wind eye is so poetic!

  • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

    Greensleeves Hubs 

    2 years ago from Essex, UK

    Fascinating stuff. What always seems strange to me is how - despite their long history - many primitive dwellings lacked (and still lack in some tribal villages) such an apparently simple-to-design device as a window to let in light, or a closeable door to keep out animals. Next to walls, and the shelter of a roof, one would have thought windows (without glass) and a door would be the very first things to be invented to create a pleasanter living environment. I once visited a Masai hut in Tanzania which lacked windows - I should have asked what the reason was, because it would be easy to furnish an opening large enough to let in light and air, but small enough perhaps to avoid animals getting in. I'm sure there is a genuine reason, but it is difficult for me to understand the priorities of people who have lived in homes such as these!

    Good article as ever Amanda to encourage people to think a bit more about the things in life we take for granted! Alun

  • stuff4kids profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Littlejohn 

    2 years ago

    Hi Shelley!

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, I have discovered that some of the most mundane and everyday things which we often take for granted can themselves, if examined, become windows and doors into the fascinating history of human invention!

    Thanks again and bless you :)

  • FlourishAnyway profile image

    FlourishAnyway 

    2 years ago from USA

    What a simple question with so much history behind the answer. Thank you for the rich information.

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