Editorial & Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper
Shutters are one of the most misunderstood elements on heritage homes and have become, to the majority, nothing but a piece of ornamental trim to flank windows and, in some cases, doors. Understanding these contrivances is very important, both to see if shutters on your home are placed correctly and to understand how they actually function.
In the very early days of settlement in North America, carrying windowpanes over the wildly pitching sea in a leaky ship from the Mother Country was at best only for the wealthiest of individuals and not for the commoners. Shutters, or blinds, as they were originally named, were horizontal or vertical sliding affairs. They were usually solid and affixed to the interior of window openings (replacing glass-paned sashes) becoming both a way to allow light and fresh air into the homestead and also as a way to keep out the elements our climate would throw at our early settlers.
Right Image 2
These sliding blinds soon gave way to the blacksmith forging lovely strap-and-pintle hinges, in which the metal strap affixed to the shutter could pivot on an upright pintle driven into the window architraves (see image 3, proceeding pages). The shutter was hinged to the outside edge of the window opening in such a way that it would close tightly into a recess set back from the face of the architrave. Earlier shutters were of the ledged variety or the panel variety (see images 1 ledged & 2 panel).
As the glass-making art became more commonplace in North America, glazed sashes were introduced into the marketplace and became much more affordable. Shutters, however, did not simply disappear; they were kept to either protect the sashes or to become an extra layer of insulation during long winters. In his book, The American Builder’s Companion (1827), Asher Benjamin illustrated his sash design: built-in interior shutters (also known as Venetian shutters) which would become the standard in northerly climates during the Neo-Classical and Revival periods of the first half of the nineteenth century.
Yes, I think you’re starting to get the picture – shutters were simply a device to keep out the weather or the scorching rays of the summer’s sun, and they were used as storm windows before glass became so reasonably priced that storm windows were introduced near the end of the nineteenth century.
Why did shutters become so fashionable on houses during the end of the nineteenth century when people could afford storm windows? The shutters were a way to keep the house cool during the summer months by closing up the shutters during very hot days or acting as screens for windows to let in night-time breezes. No, not a screen as we know of today; louvered shutters may have let in a few mosquitoes or other flying insects, but it didn’t allow bats and birds through, which was considered much more important to keep out of your house.
Many homeowners would store their shutters during the winter and install the storm windows into the recess around the windows. When summer came along, the storms, in turn, were stored and the shutters were put back up utilizing the same recess around the window architraves.
With the onset of the Second Industrial Revolution (1871 – 1914), fixed and movable louvered shutters came into fashion. Moveable louvers, operated with a tilt rod, and could be opened or closed conveniently. These shutters were split so that, on the upper half, light and cool air could be allowed in, or hot air out while the lower half could be closed for privacy. This style of shutters is aptly named Dutch shutters, and are usually only installed on the exterior of double-hung sash windows (required to operate the two halves independently) (see image 4).
Top Left Image 3 | Bottom Left Image 4 | Right Image 5
Not all houses require shutters, for example louvered shutters and more modern hardware, ruin the scale and style of an early Georgian. In the Revival periods, Italianate and Gothic, many windows were round, segmental, or brought to a point as in the Gothic head window. Nothing looks more ridiculous than square shutters on either side of an arched window (see image 5 for proper fit). If the window is one of the above-mentioned shapes, have custom-made shutters that fit the recess of the window including any arch – not bigger, not shorter, not squarer, and always attached to the architraves but never the wall of the house as in image 6.
Top Left Image A | Bottom Left Image 6 | Right Image 7
Louvered shutters should always be mounted so that the louvers are facing out and down. If the shutters are in the closed position over the window, this directs water away from the window not allowing any to pour in. This means that when the shutters are open, the louvers angle toward the house (see image 7). The bottom part should also be angled to the slope of the windowsill to ensure a tight fit and an authentic look.
Now, this brings us to vinyl shutters! An old proverb states, “One picture is worth ten thousand words,” check out this lovely old building on the East coast and decide how vinyl looks on historic buildings! (see image 8). Keep them painted, maintain them, take them off in the winter and store them, and they will provide you with great service.
Hardware for shutters changed over the periods from the Port Royal settlement (see image A) to the Edwardian Period (1605 – 1911). Close attention should be paid to choose the right hardware: hinges, shutter dogs (used to keep shutters in their open position), and even the styles of hooks used to secure shutters in their closed position. Do your research with respect to hardware to find authentic hardware to match your architectural design era.
With respect to colour of shutters, the earlier Georgian and Neo-Classical homes often had very dark shutters: lamp black, chocolate, or very dark, almost black, green. During the Revival periods, a darker or lighter shade of the main body colour of the house was used. During the Queen Anne Revival period, shutter frames were often painted the house’s trim colour and the body colour was used for the raised panels or the louvers. Or, if you want to go with the standard colour used to the point of cliché, go with verdigris – hunter or forest green!