old grille
Amy R. Hughes Kristine Larson
"Man's own breath is his greatest enemy," proclaimed engineer and self-styled health expert Lewis W. Leeds in his landmark 1866 book, Lectures on Ventilation. It sounds kooky, but his alarmist decree, coupled with the tools of the Industrial Revolution, helped spawn important 19th-century innovations in home heating and ventilation. "Victorian-era Americans thought that exhaled air caused sickness," says historian Dan Holohan. "So those who could afford it heated their homes with a constant supply of warmed, fresh air." Air was drawn in from the outdoors through ducts into basement boilers or furnaces, where it was heated, and then carried through more ducts into rooms through fanciful heat registers mounted in walls and floors.

Like radiators of the era, these molded cast-iron, bronze, or brass grates were part of a new invention and were therefore designed with architectural flourishes like scrollwork and floral or geometric patterns in their filigree. "The average Victorian home had only fireplaces for warmth, and then all of a sudden you have this central heat, and that's something you really wanted to show off," says Holohan.

Old registers had louvers attached to the back to control airflow. These worked like window shutters, opening and closing with a lever or wheel on the front. Grates without louvers are called grilles. These also delivered warmed air, but the louvers to control flow were located within the ductwork. In home heating systems that relied on recirculated air, as opposed to air drawn solely from outside, grilles were used as returns, sucking—with gravity's help—cooled inside air back into the boiler or furnace for reheating.

Around the turn of the 20th century, manufacturers sold both registers and grilles in a large variety of sizes, decorative patterns, and finishes, including "japanned" lacquer, porcelain enamel, ­nickel, even gold plate. Among a collection of original catalogs that Rejuvenation, a Portland, Oregon, hardware and lighting company, uses to inspire its new designs is an 1882 issue from Tuttle & Bailey of New York City. "They were the Gustav Stickley of registers," says Bo Sullivan, the senior designer and histo­rian at Rejuvenation.

Molded registers and grilles were popular throughout the Art Deco period of the 1920s and '30s, but by the end of World War II, their designs were simpler and the materials and methods for making them inferior. "Materials shortages led to a break from tradition, and factories were now stamping plain, bent-fin registers out of sheet metal," says Sullivan. Air-conditioning and electric baseboard heating in mid-century split-level and ranch-style houses also contributed to their decline.
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