“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.
If you have a modern forced-air system, you can still take advantage of vintage grilles’ and registers’ good looks and sturdy craftsmanship. Just make sure they are the right size for the duct openings. Most salvage yards have a wide selection of period originals priced between $20 and $350, depending on size, design, metal type, and shape. Rectangular and square registers are common, while those shaped like horseshoes and circles are harder to come by. Most are made of cast iron.
The majority of the old registers and grilles that Stan “The Junk Man” Zaborski of Zaborski Emporium in Kingston, New York, sells are destined for reuse in new houses. “People want something better than that flimsy crap they make them out of today,” says Zaborski. The challenge is finding enough matching old ones to outfit an entire house. And because most are covered in lead paint, there’s also the expense of having them professionally sandblasted and refinished. “But it’s worth the hassle,” says Zaborski, noting the style of 40 matching bronze grilles that he recently rescued from a remodeled hotel in New York City.
Among the more decorative applications for a single salvaged grille is to add an airy centerpiece to a plain wooden table by cutting a hole in the top and inserting the metalwork. You could also attach old wooden porch brackets to the sides of a grille to make a wall-mounted shelf, or backlight one to turn it into a sconce (see how at left).
Not that our 19th-century engineer Lewis Leeds had any of these creative reuses in mind when he was scaring people with all that talk about poisonous bodily gases. But we do have him to thank for inspiring the heating advances that left us these architectural relics that remain so versatile today.
Turn a Grille Into a Light Fixture
When nearly every horizontal surface in my living room was occupied by a scented candle—a holdover from my Deadhead days on Shakedown Street—I knew it was time to rectify the mood-lighting situation. So I put my monthly $40 candle allotment—it really is a sickness—toward the corded light socket, low-heat compact fluorescent bulb, and other parts required to turn an old cast-iron grille into a wall sconce.
- Glue and nail together a wood frame that’s sized to the grille.
- Use a 1/4-inch bit to drill a hole in the frame’s bottom, and snake the cord through (unscrew the socket to disconnect the wires).
- Seat the socket in the frame, using a paddle bit to widen the inner side of the hole.
- Cut a piece of lampshade fabric (find it at lampshop.com), and fit it between the frame and grille to hide the bulb and diffuse the light.
- Using its existing screw holes, secure the grille to the frame with wood screws.
- To hang the sconce, use a salvaged cabinet hinge, or nail D-ring picture hangers to the back of the frame.
Where to find it:
Zaborski Emporium, Kingston, NY
Dan Holohan Associates Inc.
Bo Sullivan, senior designer and historian at Rejuvenation