A brief history of sash windows

The true origin of the sash window is something that is still open to debate but various theories have been put forward. Generally, it was thought that they were invented in Holland in the late 17th Century, but more recently it has been suggested that they could have been invented earlier in the 17th Century in England, most likely in Yorkshire. Another theory suggests French origins since the word "sash" is derived from the French "chassis", translating to “frame”.

What is clear is that sash windows were used in some of the finest houses of England with examples including Chatsworth House, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace. Sir Christopher Wren adopted their use which helped to establish them as fashionable status symbol across Britain. This spread to use in Colonial lands as the British Empire exported the style. The simplicity and advantages offered, such as providing good ventilation whilst reducing the chance of rain entering, meant that the popularity spread and was adapted for use in a range of buildings from small cottages to large palaces.

The Georgian period saw the sash window design change from a single moving sash with a fixed top, to the more familiar system of two moveable sashes. The most common material used was Oak for the frames with thick glazing bars to hold small crown glass panes. With the improvement in glass manufacturing, larger panes started to appear leading to the classic Georgian design consisting of six over six panes with narrow glazing bars.

Victorian buildings used box sash windows as the focus for their buildings to such an extent that the rest of the building was designed around them. This encouraged ornate decoration of their homes, including such as curved horns, multi-arched heads, intricate mouldings, leaded lights and latticework, all of which began to appear in the sashes. This in turn led to windows being sized from the ground upwards which helped to increase the amount of light to the rooms as well as completely changing building design and appearance.

As the twentieth century approached, the sash window was used in the majority of properties. After the first world war, popularity declined most likely due to the labour costs involved in manufacture when compared to the easily produced wooden or metal casement window. The construction of sash windows involved more sophisticated techniques and mouldings with added labour costs. This resulted in mass-produced steel and timber windows being adopted generally especially with the expansion of the new style housing estates. It was rare, but thankfully some estates in the neo-Georgian style continued to use sash windows.

During the twenties and thirties, sash cords were often replaced by chains, which had been used for larger plate-glass windows in the 19th Century, but were rarely used in houses at the time. By 1939, the use of sash windows was confined largely to neo-Georgian buildings, particularly post offices, banks, public houses and local authority housing estates.

After the Second World War, the sash window was probably at its lowest level of popularity. The steel spiral balance began to replace the pulley and weights, which were considered old-fashioned and were expensive to make. With the spreading trend of building large housing estates, steel windows and mass-produced casements became universal. The sash window was now rarely used, although it was to be seen in revived Georgian settings.

The 1950's saw many owners of older houses replacing sash windows with up-to-date steel casements that were hinged for easy cleaning, and by the later 1960's, it became common to replace sash windows, particularly in smaller terraced houses, with plate-glass. The mid 1970's saw the aluminium window, with its sealed glass unit, began to supersede the idea of internal double glazing. By the early 1980's, the process of window replacement had increased rapidly and it became quite usual, not only for the actual sash to be replaced, but for the whole frame to be replaced by a hardwood frame and aluminium double-glazed units. Many 18th and 19th Century houses have been ruined aesthetically by such alterations.

Today, it is possible to walk down Victorian streets and see a selection of replacement windows dating from 1950's, 1960's, 1970's and 1980's with as many as three-quarters of the original sash windows lost. There has developed a growth in interest of the conservation movement, raising public interest and appreciation of the craftsmanship, design and visual worth of Georgian and Victorian houses. Now aware of the damage done by such insensitive replacements, people are now keen to reinstate the traditional style windows to their period properties.

The sash style has therefore proved to be an enduring one and in many cases their survival and also revival, is a testimony to both the materials used and the craft of the men that installed them. Their popularity over several centuries moulds the character of many remaining historic buildings today and the good news is that the skills and craft required to restore or provide from new also still exists with The Sash Window and Door Company Limited.