Stories from the Big House

22 April 2015

Room to Breathe

 By Tricia Kelly

Occasionally, a visitor to the Mansion will point at a small window suspended over a door and ask, “What is that, and what’s it for?”  It’s called a transom, and it was once an essential feature in Victorian homes.  Why?  Air.
Victorian families were very diligent in adhering to the way they presented themselves to the public, but they were just as dedicated to their privacy.  There were lots of rules—written and unwritten—about how one should host a ball or a dinner party or a garden tea.  But once the party was over, it was time to retire for the night.  Family members and overnight guests alike followed another set of rules, including one cardinal rule:  bedroom doors were to be closed.
It was not the custom, even in wealthy homes, to light fires in the bedroom fireplaces at night.  If the house had tall ceilings or drafty windows, the rooms could be especially chilly.  
Doors were kept closed to retain whatever heat was already in the room from wafting out into the hallway.  At night, windows were almost never left open; Victorians feared the night air was loaded with miasmas, or dangerous vapors.  These miasmas were believed to be the cause of such ailments as tuberculosis, cholera, and measles.
Worse, in the absence of electric lighting the household staff would ascend the stairs shortly before the family in order to set the gas lamps and light the candles.  With the windows to the outside closed, and the doors closed as well, it wasn’t long before candles extinguished themselves as the gas lighting consumed the room’s oxygen at a rapid rate.  Into these rooms the family would retreat.  In short order, many would-be sleepers found themselves wide awake with racking headaches and difficulty breathing.
To solve the problem, transoms were installed.  They provided a functional and decorative way of allowing oxygen into the rooms without compromising one’s privacy.

The Hegeler Carus Mansion bedrooms have beautiful cut glass transoms; each one is unique.  Bedroom floor guided tours are scheduled and donors at the Fiedler level and above are invited.  To become a donor or for more information, please visit our website at today!

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