Jib-Doors Through the Regency

Though you may not know the term, many of you may have seen a jib-door in a historic house, even if you did not know its proper name. You may have also seen a jib-door without even knowing it was a door. However, though jib-doors are sometimes difficult to see, they are not actually hidden or secret doors. Rather, they were usually installed for aesthetic, or sometimes, snobbish purposes. Regency authors will want to know the difference between the two types of doors, should they choose to make use of a jib-door in an upcoming story.

Jib-doors through the Regency . . .

First, of course, the origin of the name must be addressed. According to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the source of the term jib-door is unknown. In English, the word jib has several meanings. It can be a type of sail used on some large sailing ships, the arm of a crane, or a cranky horse that refuses to move. However, by the eighteenth century, in Scotland, to jib meant to squeeze the last of the milk from a cow’s udder, or to pilfer someone’s very last possessions. Perhaps that last, less than honest, Scottish usage was the source of the name of the partially concealed jib-door, which also originated at about that same time, though there is no documentary evidence to that effect.

The most common spelling of the name if this special type of door in Britain during the Regency was "jib-door." However, from the eighteenth century, right through our favorite period, the name of this type of door had other spellings. It was common to see the spellings "jibb-door," "gib-door" and "gibb-door" all occasionally used to refer to this type of door. This carefully disguised door also had another name, being called a blind door by some of those who installed or used one, since it did not look much like the usual doors of the times.

Regardless of the source or spelling of the name, the jib-door became a common feature in many of the country houses and town houses built in Britain during the Georgian era, which includes the Regency period. Essentially, a jib-door is a door which is set flush with the surface of the wall of a room. There is no obvious or visible door frame and the front surface of the door is disguised in such a way as to appear to be part of the wall. Such a door might be slightly smaller than a more obvious door, but it is not so small as to qualify as a wicket door, that is, the type of small door which is set into a much larger door. A jib-door is typically about the same dimensions as a regular door and allows people of average height to pass through its doorway without the need to bow their head or stoop down to avoid hitting the upper door jam. It might also be slightly narrower than a regular door, but not so narrow as to make it difficult to pass through the opening.

The hinges of a jib-door were usually installed on the back side of the door so that they could not be seen from the front side. For that reason, a jib-door typically opened into the room which its front side faced. However, there were alway at least a few exceptions, so that a jib-door did sometimes open into the space at its back side. In addition, a jib-door generally had no door handle, lock or other hardware visible on its front side. Instead, the front surface of the door was usually decorated in exactly the same way as the wall into which it was set, so that it did not interrupt or spoil the appearance of that wall or its decorative effect on the room.

The decorative treatment given to a room, or just the wall into which a jib-door was set, was the same decorative treatment given to the side of the door which faced that room. If the wall was painted, the door was painted in the same way, with the same colors or patterns as the surrounding wall. If the walls of the room were covered with paper-hangings, then so was the jib-door, in such a way as to match the paper-hangings on either side, and above, in order to better obscure the door and maintain the design over the full plane of the wall. In rooms, such as a dining room with a chair rail, or a drawing room with decorative moldings on the wall, those decorative features would also be applied to the jib-door, just as if there was no opening in the wall into which it was set. Even the baseboard moldings were continued over the base of the jib-door.

There were two primary purposes to be achieved with the installation of a jib-door. The first was driven by architectural aesthetics. With the rise of the Palladian or Neo-Classical style of architecture in Britain during the eighteenth century, balance and symmetric harmony had gained great significance. Therefore, any architect or designer who held those architectural principles would not want to interrupt the symmetry of a room by disfiguring the pleasing line of a wall with the insertion of a traditional door and door frame. But there were instances when a door was necessary in a certain position. The solution was the installation of a jib-door. Such a door would give access to a room where it was needed, but could be decorated in exactly the same manner as the wall into which it was set, so as not to spoil the harmony of the design of that room. The use of jib-doors also had the effect of increasing the visually perceived space in a room, thus making it appear larger than its actual square footage.

However, in a number of great houses, the purpose for installing a jib-door was much less artistic and significantly more unfeeling and petty. Though a substantial number of servants were required in order to keep a great house running smoothly, there were some householders who did not care to have those servants in evidence any more than necessary. Therefore, jib-doors were installed in the family spaces of some homes primarily in order to obscure the means by which servants entered those areas to do their work. The front sides of those jib-doors were decorated to match the room to which they gave access, but they were installed more often to disguise the portals used by the servants than to maintain the artistic balance and symmetry of a given room. Typically, jib-doors which were installed to disguise a doorway to the servant’s area would be covered on the back side of the door with green baize. This was done in order to muffle the sounds from the servants’ area which might disturb the family on the other side.

Most jib-doors were installed to maintain the balance and symmetry of the design elements in a room by disguising the presence of a doorway. But few, if any, of those doors were so well concealed that they could be called hidden. In most cases, there was at least a very narrow space around the door, between it and the wall into which it was set, so it was possible to distinguish the opening, particularly in a painted wall. Of course, those jib-door which were set into a wall covered with paper-hangings were easier to conceal, particularly if the paper-hangings had a bold pattern. Special features were sometimes added to some jib-doors in order to make them appear less door-like. Jib-doors set into a wall with moldings or other applied decoration might be given additional decoration in order to make them look even less like a door. In some houses, a painting or a looking glass was hung on the surface of the jib-door to make it look even more like just a wall. The finished fronts of some of these doors might be hung with wall sconces to hold candles. Others might be hung with bracket shelves on which some ornamental items might be placed. Since the door would move, in most cases, the ornament was typically attached to the shelf on which it stood.

There was one type of jib-door which could be installed and decorated in such a way as to make it nearly, if not completely, invisible. This was a jib-door which was installed in a library or book room. A number of these jib-doors were set into walls which were lined with bookshelves. The jib-door itself was then hung with a matching set of shelves, causing it to appear to be just another bookcase in the row. In some cases, the shelves on these jib-doors contained real books. However, the weight of the books would require a very strong set of hinges to support the door. Therefore, in some cases, if such hinges were not available, the shelves on the jib-doors were filled with false books, often just a chip board box of book size with a faux book spine. Another option was to create a length of board which fit each shelf, to which would be applied faux book spines. One such jib-door was installed in the library at Oxburgh Hall, in Norfolk. The shelves of the door are decorated with real book spines, many of which are given tongue-in-cheek titles that make some reference to some of the people or events which were important in Oxburgh’s history.

Another option for decorating a book room or library jib-door was that the front side was painted in the trompe-l’œil style of hyper-realistic painting to make it look like a book case. One of the most clever of those painted jib-doors was installed in the library of Killerton Park, in Devonshire, in the late eighteenth century. This jib-door was installed in order to allow access to a private study next to the library. Either Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, or the artist who was commissioned to paint the jib-door, had a sly sense of humor. A number of the titles to be found on these painted book spines included Trap on Fictitious Entries, Friend’s Right of Entrance, Continuation of Chambers, Treatise on the Law of Partitions, and Snug’s the Word, by a Clerk of the Closet. The titles on the spines of the books which were located near the hinge side of the door included Squeak on Openings, Bang on Shuttings and Hinge’s Orations. Only those who knew it was a jib-door and bothered to read the titles of the painted books on those painted shelves would get the joke.

Despite the fact that most jib-doors had their hinges installed on the back side so that they would not be visible from the front, most still had to have some means by which to open the door from the front side. One method was to use a type of spring lock by which someone could press the door in to release the catch and then the door would swing open. Thus, no hardware would be visible on the front side of the door. In those cases where the jib-door had some applied decoration, the mechanism by which the door could be opened might be hidden by that decoration. The main problem with any of these options was that if the door was opened by someone with soiled hands. they might leave a mark on the door. If this was done repeatedly, in time, the area where the door opener was operated would become stained and therefore, quite obvious to anyone in the room.

Another difficulty with most jib-doors was that it was not usually possible to lock them from the front side. Most locking mechanisms on that side would be visible, thus defeating the purpose of the jib-door. Typically, if there was a lock, it was installed on the back side of the door. It might be a simple as a metal hook which could be dropped into an eye bolt, or it might be as complex as a full lock mechanism with a key. Again, if there was any applied decoration on the front surface of the jib-door, it could be used to conceal a keyhole which operated a locking mechanism set into the door. Quite a number of jib-doors were used in bedchambers in order to obscure the entrance to a dressing room, or in libraries or book rooms to conceal the door to a private study. In those cases, the door was usually only locked when the dressing room or study was occupied, in order to ensure the occupant’s privacy in their personal space.

It is important to remember that jib-doors are not generally true hidden doors. Though their purpose as a door might be obscured by some type of decoration, if one looked closely, one could usually discern the outline of the door in the wall in which it was set. A truly hidden door would be completely invisible, even in the room into which it opened. Quite a few hidden doors were constructed so that they did not even look like a door, in order to ensure they remained hidden from anyone who did not know their secret. Many might be part of the paneling in a room and had to be opened by a secret catch. Such doors were often used to conceal the entrance to a priest hole or a secret internal walkway in a large old house and had no decorative purpose, unlike most jib-doors.

Dear Regency Authors, would a jib-door provide access to a special scene in an upcoming story of romance? Mayhap the heroine, a newly-hired governess in a great house, is trying to find the nursery, or the house-keeper’s room. She is unaware that access to those rooms can only be gained through a jib-door, an architectural feature she has never before encountered. Will it be the hero who comes to her aid and helps her navigate her new surroundings? Perhaps the hero, an agent for the crown, has a jib-door in his bedchamber which gives access to his dressing room. Will he slip behind it when he hears someone entering his room through the window, suspecting they wish to do him harm. As he stands quietly in the next room, will the villains reveal their wider plan to do damage to Britain. Then again, perhaps the heroine, a young lady visiting a great country house, is perusing the books on the shelves in the library, seeking something to read. Will she come upon titles similar to those which were found on the jib-door at Killerton, and realize she has found a well-concealed jib-door. Chuckling, will she figure out how to open the door, only to find the dour owner of the house, who has the reputation as an ignorant man, deep in research on an important topic? What will happen next? How else might a jib-door open up a tale of Regency romance?

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.
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10 Responses to Jib-Doors Through the Regency

  1. pennyhampson2 says:

    A really interesting article, Kathryn.

  2. so many opportunities for domestic skulduggery. how many plots and how much blackmail material might be garnered by a servant on the wrong side of a jib-door….

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I would never have thought of the backside of a jib-door as a clandestine listening post. But it makes perfect sense, since most jib-doors intended for the use of servants only had green baize on the backside. Typically, the home owner was only interested in muffling the sounds of the servants’ area, they were too arrogant to think that any of their servants might eavesdrop on them.

      As you say, so many plots . . .

      Regards,

      Kat

      • also the opportunity for a loyal servant overhearing a heroine talking to her pet dog about some terrible misunderstanding to play cupid and to tell the hero that he has it all wrong …

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          OOoooohhhhh!!! I like that even better! I have a soft spot for romantic misunderstandings, so long as they do not go on to the point of stupidity. That sounds like a wonderful way to resolve the issue.

          =^..^=

          • Looks like this writer has an appointment with architecture

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              It occurred to me that that plot bunny might include two romances. It could be that the heroine’s maid is in love with the hero’s valet, so, rather than going directly to the hero, she goes to the valet, who then relates the truth to the hero. With any luck, the story will end with a double wedding and double happiness.

              =^..^=

  3. Catrin says:

    There’s also a cracking jib-door at Osterley Park House — an actual bookcase, made to look like all the other built-ins!

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