Seeing Clearly: The 18th Century Window

February 20, 2014 in Life on the Farm at Morrison Corner, Living history, Uncategorized by M C

felfieJ1At 0°F snow squeaks, fingers sting, and we give up trying to heat the farmhouse.  If we can keep the pipes from freezing and popping, it’s a good day.  Once it dips into single digits sitting in my office becomes an exercise in endurance which requires a coat, hat, and fingerless mitts.

Getting oneself off to bed requires soapstone bricks be laid on the top of the woodstove three hours before bedtime.  An hour before bed the bricks are lifted off with oven mitts, wrapped in linen rags, and deposited, one at the foot, one in the middle, in the bed.  By bedtime those white hot bricks will have transferred enough heat to the mattress to defrost it, and lost enough heat in the process so they can be hugged to keep the shivers at bay.

In my youth I found all of this passable romantic.  I’m over it now.

Sufficiently over it so this past summer we decided Something Had To Be Done.  My grandmother claimed our house hosts a ghost.. likely her great great grandmother, who was reputed to be something of a character. I’ve come to suspect our ghostly presence is actually naught but cold drafts.  So many cold drafts they’ve developed personalities.  There’s the deeply sinister ones in the living room, dark and hulking personalities oozing from the uninsulated walls, and the cheerfully dancing breezes mischievously zooming around the bedrooms.  The bathroom draft has a sense of humor, zipping around a corner to play tag as soon as you step out of the shower, or worse, actually stepping into the shower with you to suck all the warmth out of the water.

DSCN0004The first hot tip that exorcising the ghosts wasn’t going to be a simple fix was when the efficiency expert stood in the middle of the kitchen floor, and laughed.  Apparently the scales used to measure efficiency don’t go up to our level of inefficiency, which an efficiency expert finds hugely amusing.  The estimate? Every 3.5 minutes.. all new air.  No wonder the woodstove can manage, running at full throttle, a warm air zone of 3 feet into the room.

A series of contractors all said the same thing: Give us pots of money.  “Pots” of money looks suspiciously like $250,000.  A cool quarter of a million and we might, at the end of the day, have a house which met efficiency standards for something built at the turn of the century.  The 20th century.. not the 21st.
And all of them announced my 18th century windows, wavy glass, eight over eight, single pane beloved windows… had to go.

frost1These windows may be inefficient by 21st century standards, but they are a marvel of materials and engineering.  There are panes of glass in these windows which likely were hand carried up from the port of Boston, there are saddle bars and stanchion bars which were shaped by hand, together they form the essential look of 8 over 8 lights which are the hallmark of New England’s early windows.  The style is so expected and ubiquitous there isn’t a line of modern windows that doesn’t offer at least some form of insert in an attempt to make a solid sheet of glass look the way we think a window should.

During winter cold snaps my windows ice over to form beautiful opaque ice ferns.  This is the moisture in the air condensing and freezing on the cold glass.  Ice on the glass can build up by a half inch during a long cold snap, leaving puddles on the sills when the sun starts to melt it through the windows, but before the ice melts it forms ephemeral art on glass.

Modern windows don’t form ice ferns, modern windows are double paned with gas between them to keep the cold air out, the warm air in, and the windows unencumbered by ice.  Growing up in a modern house a child might never see frost ferns, or have the fun of scratching their own art into the window’s glaze.

We bought a new house.  A modern house, built in 1980 instead of 1780.  The basement alone is a marvel, with the boiler in one corner the basement is warmer than any room in our old farmhouse.  As we change the decor and adjust some spaces to meet our needs I occasionally make my way down into the basement and sit on the concrete, marveling at the comfort to be had there.

frost2There are things I won’t miss about this old farmhouse… drafts that snatch the heat right out of a shower, bedrooms so cold forgetting to retriever the soapstone bricks in time to heat them up means delaying bedtime for an hour.

But I will miss my old hand crafted windows with their aged and wavy glass.  Historic preservationists are campaigning to save windows like mine, pointing out that restoring them to their original condition will cost about as much as replacing them with dull modern windows, preserve the integrity of the structure, and be good for another two centuries.

Properly restored windows will reduce the frost ferns, but the delicate paintings the winter cold blesses my windows with are part of the romance of winter, natures delicate art, cold made live on a window pane.

It’s a loss I’ll deeply regret.

Additional Reading

18th Century Windows for Homebuyers

Repairing Old Wood Windows

This Old House: Repairing Sash Windows



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