More often than not in times past, the gentle buzz of a summer evening led to the furious scratching of a sleepless night. That is, until the Civil War changed everything. Humans have fought the good fight between insects and fresh air with solid shutters, leather door drapes and the misery of sweat-soaked bedding, but science and surplus revolutionized window treatments with the wire mesh screen.
Miasmas and Mosquitoes
Once upon a time, not that long ago, people believed that diseases like yellow fever and malaria were caused by a malign miasma in the air or infected bedding. Dr. Walter Reed, having studied the work of Cuban physician Carlos Finley, and puzzled over the outbreaks he treated in U.S. Army camps, designed an experiment to prove it was a mosquito that transmitted yellow fever. In 1900, he placed volunteers in the same controlled room -- one-half of it screened and the other half seeded with infected mosquitoes. The mosquito-bitten volunteers came down with yellow fever. The case for mosquito-borne infection was made so convincingly that Army doctor William Gorgas was able to finance a massive eradication program in the Panama Canal Zone in 1905 that included the installation of screen windows and doors.
Americans had window screens before the scientific breakthroughs that changed the way people thought about and prevented common, deadly diseases. Windows were covered in cheesecloth to let the air circulate but keep out flying critters and airborne dirt. Cheesecloth wasn't very elegant and it definitely wasn't durable, but it did make a hot summer night bearable. Then the Civil War came. Fine wire mesh was manufactured in the mid-18th century to make flour sieves and screens for cheese manufacture. The Gilbert and Bennett sieve-making company in Connecticut quickly accumulated a surplus of wire mesh because they could no longer sell in the Southern states. But a clever employee slapped some gray paint on the mesh to coat it against rust and started selling it for window screens. And Gilbert and Bennett expanded into a screen window- and door-making company.
The "American Farmer" periodical advertised "wove wire for window screens" as early as 1823, and an 1839 exhibition of two wire window screens at Boston's Quincy Hall was designed to popularize the novel concept. But it wasn't until the Civil War intervened that wire screens were added to most houses and porches. Early 20th-century homes featured removable summer screens for all opening windows, and the screened sleeping porch was a retreat for the whole family when the temperatures rose. Eventually, air conditioning turned the sleeping porch into a quaint artifact, and space-challenged families renovated their neighborly screened porches into enclosed sun rooms. But the window screen survived. It's still an important defense against sharing your space with everything that creeps, crawls, flies and bites when the windows are open.
The earliest window screens were designed for both protection and decoration. In Ming dynasty China, from 1368 to 1644, and in the following Qing dynasty, ornately carved wood latticework covered windows and doors. The lattice screens might feature mythological creatures and show off a family's wealth with gold leaf and painted trim, even though a practical purpose was to limit the real creatures, human and animal, who might be tempted to enter the house. India's Mughal dynasty, in power from 1526 to 1858, created intricately carved wood screens to cover windows and divide interiors, mostly in palaces and mausoleums. The screens cast changing patterns of light and shadow over rooms but offered no protection against insects.