Venetian Blinds Are Not Really Venetian

And yet, hundreds of them were in use in Venice and across the Continent several decades before the Prince of Wales became Regent. Even before the Regency, these sophisticated window coverings had taken on certain political and economic meanings in one of Britain’s former colonies. Which may be one of the reasons that Venetian blinds were not used as widely in homes in Britain as they were on the Continent during the early nineteenth century. Wherever they were installed, most of the Venetian blinds used during the Regency were much more elegant and stylish than those we use today.

Venetian blinds through the Regency . . .

The term "blind," in terms of window coverings, is defined in English as something which obstructs the view into or out of a window or reduces the amount of sunlight which is allowed to enter through the window. The basic characteristics of Venetian blinds are that they are made up of a series of slats which are suspended horizontally by cloth strips, usually called tapes. A group of cords runs through each set of blinds which is used to raise or lower the blinds, or rotate the slats from a flat to an upright position. Thus, they can block any amount of sunlight, and/or obstruct the view into or out of a window, no matter where that window might be.

Horizontal blinds made up of a series of reed slats and cords are known to have been invented and used by the ancient Egyptians. Blinds of a similar style were also in use in the Middle East for centuries. This type of blind is believed to have been more fully refined in Persia, where it had become an efficient and popular window covering. And it was in Persia that these blinds were first encountered by traders from Venice, in the mid-eighteenth century. Willing to buy and sell just about any commodity, these Italian traders soon shipped examples of these Persian blinds back to their home port. And it was not long before clever craftsmen in Venice developed an even more elegant and sophisticated version of these blinds which were soon in vogue among the upper classes across Italy and then the Continent.

Throughout Italy, and most of the rest of Europe, in the mid-eighteenth century, these fashionable new blinds came to be known as "Venetian blinds," since those who distributed them in those countries assumed they had originated in Venice. That choice of name may also have been influenced by the fact that Venice in the eighteenth century was still considered to be one of the most elegant and refined cities in Europe, having a significant influence on art, as well as architecture and interior decor. Therefore, "Venetian blinds" would have been particularly popular with most affluent Europeans seeking fashionable new window treatments. Despite their introduction into Europe by Venetian merchants, along with the sophisticated cachet of the "City of Bridges," this type of window blind has always been known in French as "Les Persienes," that name derived from its original country of origin. This choice of name may be due to the ongoing rivalry for fashion leadership between Italy and France, with the French unwilling to assign an Italian name to these fashionable new window coverings.

Because there were no standard sizes for windows until well into the middle of the nineteenth century, all Venetian blinds during this period had to be custom-made to fit the specific window for which they would be used. Though today, most Venetian blinds are made with plastic or metal slats, such was not the case during the eighteenth century and well into the Victorian era. The slats for these early Venetian blinds were made of thin strips of wood, typically about two inches wide and long enough to fit the window frame for which they were made. These wooden slats were often shaped using steam to achieve the slightly convex profile with which we are familiar. Both walnut and mahogany were the woods most commonly used to make these early blind slats, though other hardwoods were sometimes employed. Through the turn of the nineteenth century, the slats of most Venetian blinds were simply polished or varnished, as the fine, dark grain of woods like walnut and mahogany were considered quite fashionable. However, even as the nineteenth century opened, lighter colors and painted woods had gained much popularity. Therefore, Venetian blinds made in the early nineteenth century, including the Regency period, were more likely to be made of pale woods, or painted white or very pale colors.

The tapes which supported the wooden slats of Venetian blinds were typically made of sturdy woven linen bands. They could be two inches wide or more, since they had to carry the weight of the many wooden slats. The cords which operated these Venetian blinds were usually made of hemp, though cords made of other materials were sometimes used, including cotton and even silk. However, the mechanism which made it possible to adjust the angle of the slats in a set of Venetian blinds was not developed until 1841, in the United States. During the Regency, Venetian blinds could only be used with the slats flat, or turned fully upright.

In more affluent and fashionable homes, it became increasingly common, from the latter decades of the eighteenth century, to decorate the surface of the blind tapes which faced into the room with embroidered designs. In some cases, the embroidery patterns on the early Venetian blind tapes were done en suite with the bell pull in that same room. In other cases, the designs were inspired by the general interior decor in the room in which they were installed. Floral patterns were the most common, though other small or linear designs might occasionally be incorporated. In order to be able to reuse these embroideries, it became the practice to work the embroidered patterns on a strip of cloth, most often linen, though both cotton and even silk were sometimes used. These richly embroidered strips of cloth were then carefully stitched to the front of the Venetian blind tapes. Thus, when the blind tapes themselves wore out and had to be replaced, the embroidered strips could be removed from the old tapes and applied to the new tapes.

From the mid-1760s, Venetian blinds became a popular windows treatment across Europe, including Great Britain. This new form of window covering was also carried across the Atlantic, where they soon became very popular in the American colonies in the years before the American Revolution. Due to the high costs of textiles, which at that time could only be imported from Great Britain, and were highly taxed, once the war began, the American colonists preferred to use Venetian blinds in their windows as a way to show their defiance of the mother country. Even the windows of Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was debated and signed, were hung with Venetian blinds rather than curtains. After the war was over, Venetian blinds remained very popular in the United States, particularly in the southern states, where they were very useful in deflecting the summer sunlight and its accompanying heat. Not to mention helping to exclude unwanted insects in a time before window screens had been invented. For those same reasons, Venetian blinds also became very popular in the British West Indies and remained so right through the Regency.

Venetian blinds were installed in some of the more fashionable houses in Great Britain in the later decades of the eighteenth century, but they never became as popular there as they had in Europe. This may be due to the fact that the majority of windows in England were sash windows, a window type particular to Britain. A feature of most of these sash windows was their exterior shutters, which were intended primarily for use in the summer. These shutters consisted of a frame into which were set a series of louvers, typically set at an angle. These shutters would be closed over the windows on a summer day to exclude much of the sunlight, while allowing the air from a breeze to pass into the room. These same shutters would also block the entrance of birds and reduce the number of insects which might enter the room. Since these louvered shutters were in some respects similar to Venetian blinds, that may explain why they did not become as popular in Britain as they were on the Continent. Some in Britain may have chosen not to install them since they represented defiance of Britain in the former American colonies.

However, houses which did not have sash windows with louvered exterior shutters might have found Venetian blinds a useful substitute for such shutters. In both Britain and America, these blinds were often known as "Venetian Sun blinds" or "Venetian Sun shades," which suggests that they were particularly useful in blocking sunlight. The slats of the blinds would have served similar purposes to louvered shutters in the summer by admitting air, but excluding sunlight and wildlife. By the Regency, the number of Venetian blinds still in use in British homes seems to have been relatively low. Some older houses, which had Venetian blinds installed in the latter eighteenth century, might still have them during the Regency, if the decor and furnishings of the house had not been updated since the blinds were installed. But new homes, or those with updated decor were less likely to have Venetian blinds, at least in the more fashionable rooms of the home. Older Venetian blinds might still be in use in the less public rooms of an old house during the Regency. Venetian blinds were also used to cover the windows of many offices and other commercial premises, in preference to cloth curtains and shades, which would show wear much more quickly. It must be noted that these blinds hung in the windows of business offices were seldom decorated with embroidered tapes. Such blinds were still in use during the Regency in a wide array of commercial premises.

However, windows in a house or office were not the only windows where Venetian blinds were installed in Regency England. From the late eighteenth century, smaller-scale Venetian blinds had become favored as an option for window coverings in large, covered carriages and coaches. Sturdy and durable, they were ideal for blocking prying eyes and maintaining privacy for the passengers as a coach traveled along. Unlike cloth shades or curtains, which might be blown up or to one side when the vehicle was moving at a brisk pace, Venetian blinds would stay in place over the window, protecting the privacy of those inside. The slats of the blinds could be moved to the flat position to admit light and air, while still partially obstructing the view into the coach. Or, when privacy was not necessary, the blinds could be fully raised to allow the passengers to enjoy the view out of the unobstructed coach windows.

The slats of Venetian blinds made for carriages and coaches were also made of wood, often the same types of wood as that used for household blinds, but these slats were usually narrower than those made for homes and offices. The length of the slats was also less, since they only had to cover the narrower windows of a vehicle. Cords were also shorter, since the drop of a Venetian blind in a coach would be abbreviated. The tapes might also be a bit narrower, in keeping with the smaller scale of Venetian blinds for coach windows. There is no surviving documentation on whether or not the tapes might be embroidered as many household Venetian blind tapes often were, but it is possible that some did have such luxurious ornamentation. For example, an affluent and aristocratic family might have their coat of arms or family crest embroidered on the tapes of the Venetian blinds they used to cover the windows in their coaches and carriages

During the Regency, as had been the case in the decades before, Venetian blinds were most often purchased through an upholsterer. These tradesmen provided the majority of interior furnishings for the majority of upper- and middle-class households and commercial premises. Upholsterers functioned rather like general contractors for interior decor and could make, or arrange to have made, just about any furnishing item that was wanted. A coach-maker probably contracted with an upholsterer when they needed to have Venetian blinds made for a coach or carriage they were building. An upholsterer could also arrange to have a professional embroiderer stitch an elegant design on the tapes of the Venetian blinds they procured for their clients, unless the client made it clear that they would be doing the embroidery work themselves.

Though Venetian blinds were not commonly used in Great Britain by the Regency, they were still in wide use across the Continent during that time, particularly in France and Italy. British travelers in Europe would have encountered them in many places during their visits. Some of these tourists mentioned Venetian blinds in their letters home, many finding them a very efficient and convenient window covering. One place in which Venetian blinds were nearly ubiquitous was in the windows of that quintessential vehicle of Venice, the gondola. In August of 1818, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote to his wife about the Venetian blinds which hung in the windows of the gondola on which he traveled through the canals of Venice. He found the cabin of the gondola particularly comfortable, and appreciated the privacy which was provided by the Venetian blinds which hung in the windows. Venetian blinds were also very popular in the British plantations in the Caribbean, so any travelers to that area from England would have seen them in many homes there. British travellers to Europe, America or the West Indies may have seen Venetian blinds in any of those places and decided they wanted some in their windows at home.

Dear Regency Authors, though Venetian blinds might seem a trivial thing, there are instances when they could make an interesting addition to a story. Perhaps the hero, after having made his fortune in the British West Indies, returns to Britain, where he has Venetian blinds installed throughout his new home. How will his neighbors react to something they may consider either old-fashioned, or strange and exotic? Will the heroine defend him, and how will she then be treated? Mayhap the heroine is helping the hero track the movements of French spies in Britain. She is allowing him to work in disguise, as her coachman. Therefore, it is safe and convenient for her to leave small notes for him, hidden in the tapes of the Venetian blinds in her coach. Perhaps the heroine is a professional embroiderer and is employed by the hero’s mother to come to the family’s country home for the summer to embroider tapes for the Venetian blinds which hang there. Are there other ways in which Venetian blinds can be used to embellish a tale of Regency romance?

Advertisements

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Household Maintenance and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Venetian Blinds Are Not Really Venetian

  1. some ingenious plot bunnies there. I will at some point have a heroine from the West Indies so it’s to think about

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I do hope you will be able to work in some Venetian blinds. I always love stories where small things turn out to have some importance. Please do post a link to it here when it is published.

      Regards,

      Kat

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s