Windows: Panes in The Butt
by Marjorie Dorfman

A pane by any other name is still a pain.
. . .The Dorfman Archives

Have you ever wondered why windows are always so difficult to clean? Can you see through yours to the town or street below? If you can, you are lucky and too clean for words: if you can’t, read on for some tips, information and advice that no one requested in the first place.

I once knew a lady who informed me over an endive salad that she had exactly seventy-two windows in her home. Had I been on my toes, I might have asked whatever possessed her to count them in the first place, but alas, I was seated and did not think of it. I don’t know how many windows there are in my house: I only know that I have to clean them and that I can’t see clearly through most of them, (at least from the inside out). How about you? Do you know how many windows are gathering dust, dirt and nature’s grime right this very moment in your own humble abode? Do you have dormers, double hung sashes, French doors, mullioned, bays, bows, palladians, casements, clerestories or just plain panes? Who cares what these are and why are they here? Read carefully. A quiz will follow.

A dormer is set under a sloping roof. The double hung sash variety is comprised of two panels that slide up and down in vertical grooves with the aid of cords concealed in the jamb. The casement is hinged and opens in or out, like a door, operated by a crank mechanism or by a cranky hand. Introduced in Versailles in the 17th century, the French door is a casement that extends from the ceiling to the floor with glass panes that run its entire height. Mullions are vertical strips of wood that divide the panes of glass in a window. A window that projects from the exterior wall of the house is known as a bay; a bow is a semi-circular bay. The Palladian window, popularized by Renaissance architect, Andre Palladio, has three openings. The central one is arched and taller and wider than the others. (More to clean.) The clerestory probably gathers the least dust of all as this one lives in a gable or outside wall of a building that rises above an adjoining roof. All in all, we’re talking a lot of Windex here. N’est ce pas?

But what is this thing called glass anyway? Where did it come from and why is it in my house? Glass occurs naturally in the form of obsidian, forged in volcanoes and widely available to the ancient world for use as spearheads and other tools. The invention of glass as human technology probably occurred first in Mesopotamia around 3000 BC during the Bronze Age. The invention of the blowpipe by an unknown person around 30 BC brought a technique that although not easily mastered expanded the range and size of glass products. With this invention, glass became less of a luxury item and its manufacture became very important in the Roman Empire. It was during this time, known as The First Golden Age of Glass, that window glass (later known as crown glass) was developed. (Whether or not this permitted the Romans a bird’s eye view of the barbarians approaching the Empire’s borders is not known.)

The most famous account of the invention of glass is found in Pliny’s Historis Naturallus. It tells of an evening when Phoenician soldiers were camping out along the banks of the River Belus (located in modern day Israel) and placed their iron pots on the sandy shore. "When these pots became heated and mingled with the sand along the beach," writes Pliny, "a strange translucent liquid flowed forth in streams; and this, it is said, was the origin of glass." Window glass allows sunlight to come in but traps solar heat, much like what happens to a car when parked in the sunlight. The Romans were so obsessed with solar energy that they wrote within their legal code of law the Opieans Digesture, which deemed that no Roman could be denied solar access. (Forget about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Don’t steal my sunshine, fella!)

Glass found wide application in Roman daily life. It was used in mosaics, panels and façade decoration as well as window glass. The invention of mirrors made by coating flat glass with silver or gold foil also dates from Roman times. Can one speculate whose reflection Emperor Nero really saw in the mirror before he decided to set his whole world on fire? Pomponius Mela writes that Egyptians made large statues from black glass, while Pliny speaks of a four-meter high statue of Serapis and a column made of emerald green glass at the Temple of Ammon. Lucius Severus gave the name of his warhorse "Volucris" (meaning light wing) to the glass cup, which he used.

Little is known of glass making between the decline of the Roman Empire and 1200 AD. By 1291 an elaborate guild system of glassmakers had been developed in Venice, Italy. All glassmaking was transported to the island of Murano, both as a fire precaution and to control the secrets of glass making. (The artisans could talk, but they couldn’t swim too well.) This was the beginning of the Second Age of Glass. The Venetian perfected Cristallo glass, a nearly colorless transparent glass, which could be blown to extreme thinness and into almost any shape.

By the late 1400s glassmaking had become important in Germany and other northern European countries. During the 1500s, many Venetians went to northern Europe in the hopes of a better living. They made Venetian style glass and by the mid 1600s the glass industry flourished. The first glass factory in America was founded in Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s.The glass industry in the United States actually began in 1739 when Caspar Wistar built a glass-making plant in Salem County, New Jersey. Many other companies soon followed suit, producing large quantities of inexpensive glass, both pressed and blown.

In 1668, in France, a new process was developed for the production of plate glass, principally for use in mirrors. Molten glass was poured onto a special table and rolled out flat. After cooling, the glass was ground on large round tables and then polished with felt disks. The end result was a flat glass with good optical transmission qualities. When coated on one side with a reflective low melting metal, high quality mirrors could be produced. This process predominated until the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1800s there was a great demand for window (crown) glass. Blowing a glass bubble and spinning it until it was flat created crown glass. After the 1890’s machinery was developed for the precise, continuous manufacture of sheet glass. Artists who usually worked in other media began designing in glass. There was a renewed interest in stain glass. Louis Comfort Tiffany and John Lafarge were both trying to develop a wider range of visual effects for glass, although neither invented an easier way to clean it!

And so where are we today? We have all of this information and, as far as I am concerned, my windows are no cleaner than they were when I started writing this article. Windows are like in-laws and unwanted relatives, I suppose, and should be accepted for their over all worth and intentions. They let sunshine in (windows, not necessarily relatives), and I suppose we should all be grateful for that, if nothing else. Windows also force tests of reality, as I cannot deny who is walking up my path to give me some agita as I can see the perpetrators clearly (or not so clearly depending on whether or not I cleaned the windows.) I suppose acceptance is the best policy. (Honesty and goodness certainly have nothing to do with it.) I guess the next thing to do is take a deep breath, pick up the phone, (without cleaning it) call your broker and buy some stock in Windex!

Did you know . . .

Copyright 2003