The History of Window Screens

Written by sara kirchheimer
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The History of Window Screens
(12th century stone screen Al Rifai Mosque Cairo TravelAdventures.org)

Window screens were used as soon as there were window frames. Examples survive from ancient China and Egypt. In older societies, screens were made of wood, ceramic and stone to provide protection from animal or human intruders but still allow minimal light and ventilation into a building. Wicker or basketry domestic window screens provided visual privacy. Cloth screens provided protection from dust and insects. In the 19th century, as mining and manufacturing advanced, metal became widely available and wire drawing techniques were less expensive. Affordable wire mesh window screens were introduced in 1861.

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Cloth Screens

Cloth window screens were used from ancient times into the 1920s. In his poem "A Parting," the 8th century Chinese poet Li Po described a woman listening to birds through a "silken window screen." In 1865, a manufacturer of machine-woven lace window screens recommended adding a decorative pattern to the product, with no need to change the design annually when marketing to poor households. Cheesecloth was also a common window screen. Turn of the 20th century women's magazines recommended cheesecloth screens at school, so that windows could be opened in winter to avoid "that schoolroom smell." In 1920, a former New England school superintendent wrote that cheesecloth screens were more efficient heating insulation "foot-by-foot" than glass, while still providing ventilation.

The History of Window Screens
11th Century window screen Manikesvara Temple India commons.wikimedia.org

Wood and Stone

Wood, ceramic and stone fretwork were used as window screens from ancient times through the Middle Ages. In ancient Rome, stone window screens were called "claustra," and came to be included as architectural features. The same types of structures were called Jali in India and Moucharabiehs in the Middle East. Although many surviving Roman examples are plain stone lines or grids, the Indian and Arab window screens used in temples and mosques were often elaborate lattices of delicate fretwork. As these screens influenced architects in European climates, coloured glass was added into the fretwork of the screens and evolved into the stained glass windows of the cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

Wire Production

The materials for steel wire mesh window screens became available during the Industrial Revolution. Gold wire in jewellery had existed in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, because pure gold is soft. The simplest manufacturing process was hammering. Mesopotamians also had drawn wire techniques. Cut metal strips were hand drawn (forced) through the hole of a ceramic or stone bead to fold the metal into a tube, which was made smaller and smaller by drawing through smaller beads. During the Industrial Revolution, industrial drawing of wire through steel dies made wire an affordable commodity. By 1860, telegraph wires transmitted messages among larger American towns.

Gilbert and Bennett

Gilbert and Bennett Manufacturing Company invented affordable wire mesh window screens. Around 1820, Benjamin Gilbert of Redding, Connecticut, had developed a horsehair sieve that could be used to sift flour or strain liquids. At first, he wove the horsehair and cut the wooden frames himself. His wife attached the two pieces with waxed thread. Sturges Bennett joined the firm in 1828. During the 1840s, they purchased mill space and began to experiment with weaving steel wire mesh. One of the first applications of the wire mesh was as a non-fibrous, easy-release drying surface for adhesives. When the Civil War began in 1861, the loss of their southern markets prompted them to design an expanded product line, including window screens. Their window screens were painted to resist rust.

Current Window Screens

Modern window screen mesh is available in non-corrosive aluminium, copper/zinc alloy and fibreglass and is used in products designed to protect households from insect pests and for sunscreen products such as roll-up shades. In addition to providing protection from even the smallest insects, contemporary window screens are available in colours that provide decorative interest. Speciality screens are manufactured for pet owners, who want a screen that is scratch and bite resistant. Sun control window screens keep interiors cooler by blocking 80 to 90 per cent of the ultraviolet spectrum, thus reducing the summer solar heat gain burden on HVAC units by as much as 40 per cent.

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