Sliding Interior Shutters

An architectural historian came over to help answer some of my questions about the house. While showing her the basement she noticed what appeared to be an odd looking wall separating some junk from some other junk. The wall was there when we moved in but we hadn't paid it any mind except to say that it was weird and we would tear it down one day. After looking at the front (the other side of the panels as they appear in the picture) of the panels, she recognized immediately that the wall was pieced together out of some sort of federal-era panels. She was looking at the "show side" of the panels through a crack on the other side of the wall so it was almost impossible to see what they were.
On the left is the wall made of federal panels.The back of the panels show here.
There are eight panels nailed to some 2 x 4's with giant wire nails.
I was able to pull one down without further damaging it and brought it upstairs to get a better look at it. I didn't know what made the panels "federal" or what they were, so I commenced reading and staring at it on and off for several weeks. The moulding, which I believe is called ovolo (quarter-round shaped), is very typical of federal joinery. It is not an "applied" machine-made moulding. Instead, it is carved into the rails and stiles using moulding planes and then assembled around the panels. 

The go-to text for federal joiners was Asher Benjamin's, The Country Builder's Assistant, published in 1797.
Benjamin's greatest influence is due to his pattern books, the first written by an American architect, which brought architectural history, style and geometry to ordinary builders in the field. These handbooks provided superb drawings and practical advice on not only full house plans, but also such details as circular staircases, doorways, mantlepieces, dormer windows, pilasters, balusters and fences.(copied from:
The ovolo, as drawn by Benjamin, in both the Roman and Greek (quirk ovolo) forms here. Our panels have the Roman version.
Benjamin, himself, did not bother with the ovolo in practice. I love his description of why Greek moulding profiles are superior in his mind to Roman. There is a beautiful, easy flow in his writing that marries his appreciation for both geometry and art:

The Roman ovolo moulding.
You can see where I chipped the paint back to see if the moulding is applied, or part of the rails and styles. On this one, the moulding is carved into the rails and styles, not applied as a separate strip. There is at least one that I've pulled down since that has applied mouldings. On this one, you can see the original coat of paint peeking out on the rounded part of the moulding that is exposed. It has remarkably few layers of paint (two, I think) for a piece of woodwork that is 200 years old (any house I have lived in for 3 years will have an average of 4  layers not including what was there already). The pegs, seen below as a circle on the style, also point to an earlier piece of joinery. 
Notice the marks that follow the outside of the panel.
At first I was fairly convinced that it was a wainscot panel. As the historian who recognized them in our basement noted, they measure almost 33 1/2 inches tall, which, she said, is common for wainscoting. As I looked more closely at it I noticed two things that seemed significant. First, there are marks on the panel about 1/4 inch down, all the way around. It looks like the panel was painted (a dull yellow or cream), installed, and then painted one time after that with a similar color. Second, there is also what looks like a handmade piece of brass hardware attached with flat tip screws. 

It is a  recessed ring that can be pulled out and then recessed back into the panel. The reason I think it is not machine made are its irregularities. The screw holes are different sizes and the concave divot in the center that allows fingers to grasp the ring is lopsided, in fact the whole piece is lopsided, and there are sand marks on the underside from casting. It is clear that a machine didn't produce this. I don't know yet whether all of the panels that still make up the basement wall have this piece of hardware as well because we have not dismantled the rest of the wall yet. 

The odd thing though, are the screws. They don't appear, at least to me, to match the timeframe of the brass pulls. They look to be mid-19th century gimlet screws. Here is a description of the introduction of the gimlet screw:
The development of the gimlet point (a threaded cone point usually having a point angle of 45-50 degrees) has been attributed to the 1837 U.S. Patent 154 filed by inventors Sloat and Springsteen. A mid-19th century source attributes the first gimletpointed wood screws to the Providence Screw Company in 1834. A historian of technology writing in 1941 attributes the first gimlet-pointed wood screws to Cullen Whipple at the New England Screw Company in 1849. The earliest example in this study dates from ca.1845.


The ring pulls, along with what appear to be track marks along the outside edge of the panel, point to interior sliding pocket shutters.These were common during the Federal period. There was a pocket behind the plaster and lath of the adjacent wall where the shutter (like a pocket door) could be recessed into and pulled out to cover the window when needed. One of the only images I could find of one of these shutters was in James Garvin's book, A Building History of Northern New England. The shutter in the picture below is from a house in Portsmouth, NH built in 1808. It looks to me to be identical to what we've got. 

Photo from A Building History of Northern New England by James L. Garvin: "Sliding window shutters of Federal-style profile and half window height, supported by a middle rail, Captain Samuel Chauncy House, circa 1808, Portsmouth, New Hampshire." Photograph by L.C. Durette, 1936. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, Reproduction Number HABS, NH, 8 - PORT, 124.
I found this from Georgian House Style: An Architectural and Interior Design Source Book By Ingrid Cranfield:

This is the first mention I have found of brass ring hardware used for the purpose of sliding a shutter closed. I don't know if the rings being described here are the same or if they are referring to rings meant to be mounted on the face of the style.

These shutters are larger than our current window openings although I think it had larger windows at one time. Either way I'm fairly certain that our house wouldn't have been a recipient of such elegant shutters with brass hardware.
It is also possible that these panels started out as window shutters in another house and were re-purposed in our house as wainscoting or paneling, and finally as a wall in our basement. Either way, I love to think that Josiah Blake, the possible builder of our house between 1806-1823, made these panels. Fortunately, that theory will probably never be proved wrong.

Update- 4/25/12

I removed 5 more panels from the wall in the basement. I was surprised to find that each of these is different. The rails and styles are different widths and the mouldings are varied, but all Roman as opposed to Greek.The fact that they are all different supports my theory that our house may have been a joiners shop. These shutters could have been leftovers from a job building shutters for another house. 
Some have the "track marks" expected on a panel that was used while others don't. Only one has the ring-pull hardware that I found in the panel above. I haven't had time to inspect them too much yet, but my working theory is that our house may have been either Bradbury Johnson or Josiah Blake's joiner shop sometime between 1800-1823.

A few of the panels have two pegs instead of one.
Some of the huge wire nails used to nail them up on the wall in the basement.
The panel on the left showing the second of two brass ring-pulls found.

On the last shutter (I have them all now) that I pulled down I found a solid brass roller on the bottom that was attached with nails. The nails appear to be type B cut nails, which might date the shutter to between 1810-1830, or earlier. I need to know more about specific nail technology in Exeter at the time, though, to be sure.

Roller on the bottom of one of the shutters, and what I believe to be machine cut, hand-headed nails.

I brought this hardware to a local antique dealer and conservator to see if he had any ideas about whether they were made locally and if he had an idea as to when they might have been made. He had no idea, although it was fascinating getting a tour of his 18th century clock collection. 

I decided to email the Keno brothers (the identical twin antiques appraisers of Antiques Roadshow fame) since they are Federal furniture experts. Low and behold, I got a really nice email from Leigh Keno. Here is what he said (addressed to Mr. Baldridge):

Dear Mr.  Baldridge,   Thank you for your email and images of metal hardware that you discovered on your shutters. ...

The best person to speak with, in my opinion, is Don Fennimore, who was formerly curator of metals, etc.. at Winterthur museum.  As you probably know, he wrote two great books about Metal Work at Winterthur, which you can find online.

He is a true expert in this area and would have the best advice.   I do agree that the rollers and rings look early ( i.e. perhaps circa 1800).   Of course they continued to make certain things first made in the 18th century  at the factories at Birmingham,  England for example, well into the 19th century.   

Winterthur has some great hardware books from Birmingham and your rollers and rings may turn up in one of them.

 I wish you all the best and am glad that you thought of me!



So with that information I checked the Winterthur's (early American decorative arts museum) digitized Birmingham England trade catalogs. Birmingham was a mecca of the newly emerging industrial age. Margaret Culbertson, Director of the Kitty King Powell Library and Study Center at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, described the emergence of trade catalogs during the 18th century:
Over 1,000 brass objects are illustrated in meticulous detail. In this era before photography, the images were made by engraving lines by hand on a copper plate that was then used to print the pictures. The price of each object was handwritten on the page after printing. Pages of hinges, locks, and pulleys impress the reader with their variety and the skill of the engravercurving baroque lines and rococo fretwork were all the rage and "most of that brass was manufactured across the Atlantic, in Birmingham, England. A directory lists 33 different brass founders there in 1770, and the number kept growing.( No. 2824: A BRASS CATALOGUE)

Although I haven't found the ring pulls (yet), I found an illustration of several rollers that appear to be identical to the ones on our shutters were available. The catalog I found it in was produced in 1765 by a Birmingham foundry. It's impossible to know when ours were made, though, since these were probably produced and imported for many years. It's very cool to see ones like it hand drawn in a 250 year old catalog though.

Until the nineteenth century casting was the usual method used by brassfounders, which involved pouring molten copper alloys into moulds. Braziers, a separate trade, wrought goods by hand from sheet brass....

Each item required a pattern from which copies were cast and moulds were made by packing sand around the pattern in a rectangular wooden or iron frame, which was made in two halves. Molten metal was poured through a runner (a channel cut through the sand) and smaller channels, called risers, were cut to enable hot air and gasses to escape as the molten metal reached the mould....
The tools of the trade were inexpensive and easy to obtain - a lathe, vice and a few hand tools were the stock-in-trade of many small workshops. The "manufacturer" resided in the front part of his residence whilst upstairs and behind the house he "treddled the turning lathe, and, begirt with apron, examined the work, tied it up, made out the invoice and sent the finished work off to its destination." Excerpted from Revolutionary Players
Bisset's Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham, 1808
(Source: Birmingham Central Library)
 Seven Brass Founders are listed in the upper engraving with a view the Brass House above. The Birmingham Metal Company founded the Brass House in 1781; a consortium of local brass founders set up to free themselves from suppliers who raised the price of copper in 1780. Revolutionary Players

The Brass House, Broad Street, Birmingham from Bisset’s Magnificent Guide, or Grand Copperplate Directory (Birmingham, 1808). The Brass House was built in 1781 to manufacture the metal alloy in Birmingham and avoid the need to transport raw brass from elsewhere. (Source: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History)
I checked a couple of houses in downtown Exeter for this type of shutter. The first one I went to was a house now referred to as Bissell House, built in 1816 by John Rogers. It serves as the Phillips Exeter Academies' admissions office. Here is the history of the house that is displayed in the lobby: 

I didn't expect to hit pay-dirt so quickly, but sure enough, it has shutters that are identical to some of the ones I've got. On one window the track for the shutters was left. The sun was shinning through the windows when I was there so it was difficult to get a picture without a glare. This is the only shutter that hadn't been painted into its pocket. The woman who worked in that room didn't know that these were there.
Shutter painted into it's pocket.
Shutter track
 Latch pull hardware

 I found another house with pocket shutters about a half a block closer to downtown at the Benjamin Clark Gilman house, built in the early-mid 18th century, which is two houses away from where Johnson's house was. These are raised panel Georgian pocket shutters, all but one of which are painted into their pockets. 
Benjamin Clark Gilman House Georgian era pocket shutters.
 Here is some joinery from the First Congregational Church, done by Bradbury Johnson (below). It has the same detailing that ours do, and like the Bissell House shutters, above, has Asher Benjamin's, The Country Builder's Assistant written all over it. 

Update 6/7/12

Well, my detective work has rewarded me big time today. I decided to drive past the Tenney house where it now sits on High Street. It was moved there in 1897 to make room for the Court House. I wanted to see if I could tell if it had sliding interior pocket shutters.

For some background, the Tenney house was designed in part by Bradbury Johnson, influential federal era joiner and architect. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
The Samuel Tenney House is an historic building in Exeter, New Hampshire. This mansion was built circa 1800 as the primary residence of Samuel Tenney -- noted scholar, scientist, physician, Revolutionary War surgeon, patriot, judge and member of Congress—and his wife Tabitha Gilman Tenney, the noted early American author.
The master carpenter for the house was Ebenezer Clifford working with Bradbury Johnson. At the time, Clifford lived in the Gilman Garrison House, now owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. They also built the First Church, Exeter; the second Phillips Exeter Academy main building; and Atkinson Academy building.
Mrs. Tenney died in 1837, and the house was later occupied by the Honorable Tristram Shaw, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing New Hampshire from 1830 until his death in 1843. In January 1892, Dr. George W. Dearborn purchased the Samuel Tenney House from Frank H. Hervey.
Today the primary structure is located at 65 High Street, having been relocated there in 1893 from its location in the center of Exeter, next to and north of the First Church on Front Street, to accommodate construction of the Rockingham County Courthouse. On November 25, 1980, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Our house was once on the lot owned by Johnson when he designed and built this house for Tenney and his wife Tabitha. One of my theories has been that our house was Johnson's joiner shop. Well, low and behold, it might have been.

I was lucky enough to find the owner just coming out the door. Fortunately, she turned out to be incredibly welcoming, letting me and my two year old in so that I could get a look at the shutters. The shutters in the Tenney house are identical to some of mine, and have the brass ring hardware and what appear to be rollers on the bottom.The screws also look like mine before I removed them.

The connection between the sliding shutters found in my house and now the Tenney house is very compelling. If I can get my hands on the ring pulls and screws I can see whether they are, in fact, identical to what I have.

Update- 4/28/12 

Until recently, our house had a one bedroom apartment in the upper-back addition. The existing tenant conveyed when we bought the house and lived there until a couple of months ago when we turned it back into a single family house. I didn't know anything about joinery, federal or otherwise, when we bought the house. After the tenant moved we finally got a chance to to really "see" the apartment. I was surprised to find a beautiful little federal door. 
More to come as I find out more.

Written by Kerry Baldridge

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