It would seem that people have been looking for ways to protect themselves from the sun for millennia, and window blinds have been a central part of this historical process. We don’t often consider the rich history behind our attempts to shield our eyes from the sun. But where did window blinds come from, and who invented them? Let’s delve into the history of blinds.
Evidence shows that people have been using window blinds in some form since early 3100 B.C. Nomadic desert tribes moistened pieces of cloth to hang over the entrances to their tents to shield them from heat and sun. Modern blinds were patented more recently, in 1796, by Edward Bevan in England.
The true history of blinds is wrapped in obscurity since few records date back that far. Yet, archaeology has uncovered many artifacts that give valuable insights into how ancient civilizations shielded themselves from the sun’s heat. Let’s look at all the evidence they found and what it can tell us about the history of blinds.
Ancient Blinds – The Nomadic Tribes
We cannot tell the name of the person who invented window blinds since there are no scrolls or cave paintings that tell us that. We know from cave paintings that ancient Neanderthals hung animal skins over entrances and holes to keep the sun from blinding them, but these more closely resemble curtains than blinds, and consequently, they don’t apply to this topic.
For centuries (or perhaps millennia), people covered their windows in a similar fashion or by building permanent coverings into their windows. These mainly were sticks of some kind. But they were also not blinds since you could not open and close them; your window was permanently partially covered.
The first people we know of that used blinds somewhat similar to what we have today were the nomadic desert tribes around Persia and other parts of northern Africa and the middle east, around 3100 B.C. These tribes lived in tents in the desert, making a living as they could through the tiny bit of farming they could do while trading with the towns and cities they encountered on their travels.
Why Nomadic Tribes Started Using Blinds
These desert-dwellers faced a few particular challenges that we are still somewhat familiar with today:
- Heat from the sun can quickly cause your death in the desert. We are not talking about heat as we know it in the western world, where you can tan a bit and maybe get sunburned if you’re out for too long. In the desert, the sun can literally kill you if you’re not careful
- The cold of the night can be just as dangerous in the desert. Deserts have a climate of extremes; as hot as they get during the day, they can get just as cold at night, quickly killing a person who isn’t prepared for it.
- Dust was a significant problem for nomadic desert tribes. As much as we complain about dust always finding its way into our homes, especially in windy seasons, that is nothing compared to the overwhelming clouds of dust that desert-dwelling people encounter daily.
- Sunlight is also inconvenient in the desert. In fact, in some parts of the Sahara, sunlight can be downright blinding. Because these tribes would not always travel during the day, sometimes spending days or weeks in one area, they would want to shade themselves from the bright sunlight as much as possible.
How They Solved The Problem
It’s unclear who created the perfect solution, but some brilliant nomadic desert-dweller found that you could place pieces of cloth over the openings in your tent. These strips of cloth had a few distinct advantages over full curtain-like coverings:
- They kept out most of the sunlight. While in your tent, you would not be blinded by the bright midday sun reflecting from the sand of the desert.
- You could still see outside. Unlike full coverings like curtains, blinds allow some of the light from outside to enter your tent. This way, you could still see some of what’s happening outside.
- It’s easy to part the strips of cloth to peek outside. If you wanted to see your surroundings more clearly, you didn’t have to clear the opening entirely; you could simply move one or two pieces of cloth and get a clear view.
- The strips of cloth kept out a lot of the dust. Though these cloth strips may not be as effective at blocking the dust as a full cover, like animal skins, they were better than having no cover.
- The tribes also found that moistening the cloth strips could keep the dust out more effectively. As a bonus, this also kept the tent cool, creating an ancient form of air conditioning.
We can see these cloth strips as the first instance of people using blinds that vaguely resemble our own, but without the mechanisms we use today to open and close our blinds.
Nomadic tribes found cloth quite quickly. Of course, they could use animal skin strips, which they likely did initially. But through their travels and the trades they did when visiting the large cities of the time, they got their hands on many types of cloth and fabric that they could use to cover the openings of their tents.
Ancient Egyptian Blinds
The next step in the history of window blinds was the ancient Egyptians. This is also where we find the first historical records of window blinds being used. Large Egyptian cities, like Memphis, Thebes, and Alexandria, were popular stops on the nomadic tribes’ travels since they could find abundant food and different items to trade.
Egypt is known for being ahead of the times in terms of technology and luxury. The tombs of the pharaohs show us that the people of ancient Egypt invested all their energy into ensuring that their pharaohs were comfortable, even after death; this would have been even more true while they were alive.
So, it is not surprising that the strips of cloth that nomadic tribes used to cover their tent openings drew the Egyptians’ attention. They had found a better way to keep their pharaohs, priests, and other important people cool and comfortable.
How The Ancient Egyptians Improved Blinds
The ancient Egyptians used blinds in such a way that they resemble the Venetian blinds we have today. One of the immediate changes they made to the design was to stop using cloth strips.
If there’s one thing that ancient Egypt had in abundance, it was reeds. Reeds were so common in Egypt that they even used them to develop papyrus scrolls, the forerunner of paper. With reeds being so common, it made sense for the Egyptians to replace the cloth strips with reeds.
The second crucial factor that the Egyptians changed was implementing the first rudimentary blind mechanisms. Some nameless but brilliant Egyptians found that you could bind the reeds together with woven cords at the ends and then use them to roll the blinds up and down to open and close them.
The Benefits Of Ancient Egyptian Blinds
The ancient Egyptian blinds had a few advantages identical to those offered by the blinds of the nomadic tribes. Still, their use of reeds also offered some additional benefits:
- There were narrow openings between the reeds, so you could lower the blinds to block out sunlight while allowing a breeze to filter through, keeping the room cool.
- It was easy to open and close the blinds, instantly switching between complete visibility and total privacy.
- Reeds, being so common, were a cheap material to use, much cheaper than some types of fabric that many considered a luxury in ancient times.
- The fact that people could roll the blinds up and down made them useful not only as window coverings but also to cover doorways.
How Blinds Developed In Asia
Interestingly, blinds seem to have developed separately, on opposite sides of the world, at almost precisely the same time. While nomadic desert tribes in upper Africa started using strips of cloth to cover their tent openings around 3100 B.C., nomadic tent-dwelling tribes in Asia were doing the same thing.
These tribes traveled over the wastelands of China and the surrounding areas, farming and trading to survive. Though the conditions might not have been as harsh as those in the desert, China is also known for its hot regions. Nomadic tribes lived in tents, not permanent buildings, so they had to find creative ways to shield themselves from the sun and dust.
Nobody knows if it’s a coincidence that tribes in entirely different places discovered the cloth-strip blinds simultaneously or if some people traveled that far from one place to the other and introduced the other tribes to the concept. But the fact remains that two groups of people who lived almost 4000 miles apart started using cloth strips simultaneously.
Like the Egyptians, the Chinese also discovered the cloth strips that local nomadic tribes used and found ways to improve the design. Unlike the Egyptians, though, China did not have an abundance of reeds but of bamboo, and since bamboo is much more durable than reeds, the Chinese used bamboo to make stronger and sturdier blinds than those the Egyptians made.
The concept was similar to Egyptian blinds in many ways since the ancient Chinese also bound the bamboo strips together with a woven cord that they could use to raise and lower the blinds.
The most significant difference, apart from using bamboo instead of reeds, is what they used the blinds for. Rather than using them to cover windows, the Chinese primarily used bamboo blinds to cover their doorways to ensure privacy.
Despite confusion stemming from the name, Venetian blinds were not invented in Venice. Most scholars believe that the concept of Venetian blinds comes from the ancient Persians, which would make sense since they would have been exposed to blinds as the nomadic tribes and Egyptians made them.
One significant difference is that reeds were not as common in Persia as in Egypt, where the Nile is known to provide the perfect growing grounds for reeds. For this reason, the Persians started splitting the reeds into slats, then binding these slats, instead of full reeds, with cords.
The result was a blind that worked similarly to Egyptian blinds. Still, the thinner reed strips could partially overlap, closing the opening more completely, affording the owner more privacy, and blocking out even more sunlight.
Before blinds arrived, Persians used drapes and shutters to close their windows. This was effective, of course, but slightly inconvenient to open and close. They also didn’t allow much of a breeze when they were closed, unlike blinds, so blinds had the effect of keeping rooms cooler than they were with drapes.
Meanwhile, the Chinese made the same realization about using slats and started stripping their bamboo into thin strips to make their blinds. This method held a few advantages:
- You required fewer materials than with the older style of blinds.
- The blind was thinner and lighter, making it easier to fit over your windows or doorways.
- The overlapping slats blocked out even more sunlight.
- These slatted blinds offered more privacy.
- They looked more elegant since the slats could appear more evenly spaced than the rough and uneven reeds or bamboo.
Even though we are still dealing with ancient times when we talk about Roman blinds, many centuries passed between the invention of Venetian blinds and the creation of Roman blinds.
The fundamental reasons why the Romans invented their variation of blinds are different from the history of other forms of blinds. Of course, as the Roman empire expanded, Romans were exposed to all kinds of technologies and inventions from different countries and regions, so it’s not surprising that they knew about these strange ways of covering windows.
Interestingly, the actual reason why Romans started using blinds was not so much to block out the sunlight and heat. Instead, they wanted to block dust.
The Roman empire is known for building elaborate road networks across the ancient world (many of which remain today) to connect all the different countries and cities and make them easily accessible.
Most of these roads ended up neatly cobbled, but this was not the case initially. The first roads were wide dirt paths, and as anyone who lives next to a dirt road knows, these roads cause massive dust clouds. With all the traffic from pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages that traveled these ancient Roman roads, dust was something that travelers had to get used to.
The dust was a problem for travelers and people who set up residences and businesses next to the Roman roads. Eventually, they found that they could use the old inventions they discovered in Persia and Egypt to block out the dust, and thus, the Romans started using blinds. By the last century B.C., roadside buildings and carriages could be commonly found with blinds in their windows.
How Were Roman Blinds Different?
Romans were far more concerned about appearances than the nations around them, evident from the elaborate ways in which ancient Romans decorated their homes with mosaics and frescoes. Such typical reed slats would not look nearly impressive enough for a contemporary Roman home, particularly where people were trying to impress others with their wealth and social standing.
Due to the Roman trading network, wealthy Romans could obtain expensive pieces of fabric, which were status symbols back then. Replacing the bamboo or reed slats with these expensive fabrics that could be seen inside and outside their homes or carriages would have been a symbol of their importance and wealth.
This also allowed them to create elaborate decorations for their blinds, making for an even more impressive display and adding to the character of their homes. This quickly became a fashion trend, and people began installing these expensive fabric blinds in their homes, even if they lived in cities with no dirt roads nearby.
The Practicality Of Roman Blinds
We can see that Roman blinds served a purpose, but the Romans used them more for appearances than for purpose. They did have a few uses, though:
- Since they were made of cloth and fabric, Roman blinds could close a window or doorway entirely, offering complete privacy.
- Like drapes, they blocked out sunlight entirely when closed unless the fabric was thin.
- Because of how completely the fabric could close a window, Roman blinds were efficient at keeping the dust out of wealthy Roman homes.
- The fabric offered countless ways to decorate Roman homes by mixing different colors and even painting decorations on them, and thus they became a fashion statement and status symbol.
Venetian Blinds Spread Around The World
As mentioned, Venetian blinds were not invented in Venice but (probably) in Persia. So, where did Venetian blinds get their name from?
Throughout the Middle Ages and even up to the early Renaissance, from the 11th to the 18th centuries, traders from Venice began to travel far and wide in ships, carrying precious goods like spices and other unique items from different parts of the world to Europe, where there was an active trade in these rarities. Among other things, this included the old-style Persian blinds.
Evidence suggests that the merchants bought the blinds more for their own comfort than to trade with them. They traveled for weeks or, more often, months at a time, often with blinding sunlight and heat glaring down on them in their ships. The typical Roman blinds, made of fabric, would get wet and mildewy in the moist ocean air, so they were an impractical solution.
However, blinds made of solid materials like reeds or bamboo would handle the harsh ocean conditions much better while allowing more of a breeze to pass through, so they were the logical solution to the sailors’ problems.
Only in the early or middle 1700s, at the dawn of the industrial era, Venetians began to manufacture these slatted blinds and sell them. During this time, they also experimented with different materials and manufacturing methods and found that certain types of wood and metal made the blinds more robust and durable.
Venetian blinds spread far and wide, even as far as the United States, through the merchants that traveled the world in those days. One notable example is St. Peter’s Church, located in Philadelphia in the USA, which covered its windows with Venetian blinds as far back as 1761. The wooden slats of the blinds created a warm atmosphere inside the church.
Thus, since Venetians were known as the people who brought these blinds into Europe and started manufacturing and distributing them around the world, most countries settled for naming them “Venetian blinds.” One notable exception is the French, who still refer to Venetian blinds as “Les Persiennes,” thereby honoring the blinds’ origins.
The Modern Era Of Blinds Begins
Only now do we start to move out of the mists of obscurity and into the more modern history of blinds, where we have exhaustively documented evidence to show how things progressed over the last four centuries.
The First Venetian Blind Patents
Venetian blinds remained more or less the same except for a few tweaks here and there over the centuries. The Venetian manufacturers made a few slight changes to their designs, but none of these were game-changers. Some manufacturers also applied for patents during the 1700s, but none of these were considered unique enough to be patented.
That changed in 1796 when an English gentleman named Edward Bevan successfully filed a patent for a unique new pulley system. This system would be used with Venetian blinds but be almost entirely out of sight, thereby removing the old ribbon-type system that was known to ruin the appearance of Venetian blinds.
Bevan’s patent is considered the first significant leap forward in Venetian blind design in centuries. His design was so effective and popular that most blind pulley systems remain very similar today, even in other types of blinds.
The second Venetian blind patent was filed by an American man named John Hampson in 1841. Mr. Hampson was enamored with trains and railway systems and would reportedly spend hours watching the locomotives rush by in his hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana.
His obsession with trains led him to notice that blinds, though popular on trains, often had problems on railroad tracks. The slats of the Venetian blinds would shake loose, separate, and fail in numerous ways, leading to frequent expensive repairs and replacements.
With this problem in mind, John Hampson developed a system that would hold the slats in place and generally make the entire system more stable, even when they go through the shaking and rattling motions of trains. But it had an additional benefit: it allowed you to control the angle of the slats.
Thanks to John Hampson’s invention, people could now change the angle of the slats to allow more or less of the sunlight to pass through the blind without the need to open and close the blinds entirely. Many people consider this the most significant change to blinds in its long history.
Mass Production Of Blinds
Up to this point, many still considered blinds to be a bit of a luxury since manufacturing costs were relatively high. This changed considerably after World War II when Henry Sonnenberg and John Hunter’s company, Hunter Douglas, started making blinds in 1946. Initially founded as an aluminum molding company, Hunter Douglas became a mass-producer of aluminum slatted blinds.
The company operated primarily from North America, although it is now headquartered in the Netherlands and was founded in Germany. Nonetheless, the fact that mass production of aluminum Venetian blinds started in the United States led to lower prices and the fast-increasing popularity of blinds worldwide.
Up until this point in the modern history of blinds, the focus was extensively on Venetian blinds since they were the ones that made the most sense in terms of both practicality and price. The problem is that Venetian blinds, especially the aluminum type manufactured by Hunter Douglas, were plain and could easily make a room feel cold or clinical.
During the prosperous years following the Second World War and the great depression, people sought luxury and freedom of choice. Enter Edward and Frederick Bopp.
These two men from Kansas City in the United States filed a new patent in 1951 for Vertical Venetian Blinds. The blinds would be made of sturdy cloth, which could be decorated and printed in various colors. Instead of having horizontal slats, the cloth strips would hang vertically (like drapes), but you could use similar mechanisms to control their aperture or open and close them.
This new patent had the desired effect: people had choices regarding the blinds they bought. If they wanted to add more character and warmth to a room, all they had to do was buy the correct type of window blinds.
The quest to offer people more choices led to even more patents, like the one filed by Sam and Josef Hindel in 1993. The patent was for a type of blind that consists of a piece of cloth with a roller at one end. The mechanism would roll the fabric over the roller to open the blind, and they very creatively called it the roller blind.
Roller blinds are popular in rooms that don’t require much privacy. Because they don’t have slats, you cannot change the angle to allow for more light; you can only open or close roller blinds. But they have the advantage of you being able to print almost any design or photograph of your choice on the blind, making roller blinds a very popular blind to use for decoration.
Nobody can claim a patent for Roman blinds since they were invented long before the concept of patents. But like Venetian blinds, Roman blinds were always around in the background and began to regain popularity during the 1900s when blinds, in general, became popular again.
Roller blinds are often mistaken for Roman blinds, and they are similar in terms of advantages and disadvantages. Roman blinds also don’t give you the option to change the angle of the slats since they don’t have any. But they also offer a multitude of different colors and decorative options, just like they did for the ancient Romans.
Despite being unable to patent Roman blinds, people have found ways to patent improvements to them. Notable examples are the patent for the Safety Roman Blind, which adds a supportive web to the back of the blind to keep it sturdy, and the Solar Roman Blind, which adds solar panels to Roman blinds to harness the power of the sunlight that the blinds block out.
The History Of Blinds Is Far From Over
Our world is surrounded by innovation like never before. Not once in the existence of modern humans have we had as many new technologies and re-designs of existing concepts as we have in the information age. We often think of these innovations in terms of electronics and other tech, but the implications are far more widespread than that, including blinds.
Using Blind Technology For Other Uses
The first significant change is how we are now using the same technology developed for window blinds in other arenas of our lives. For example, awnings use slats and pulley mechanisms similar to Venetian blinds. These same slats are also in our cars’ aircon systems and fans or air conditioners at home.
Integrating Different Technologies With Blinds
Just like it is popular to use blind technology for other purposes, we are also starting to use other technologies to make our blinds easier to use or add functionality to them. One notable example is the Solar Roman Blinds mentioned earlier.
But there are also other, more common examples. Today we have blinds that you can open, close, or even change the angle using electronic remote controls.
This extends even further to the point where you can make your blinds an integral part of your home automation system. You can control these “Smart Window Blinds” through a dedicated remote control, a smartphone app, or even a simple command starting with “Hey Siri.” You can also set a schedule for your blinds to automatically open or close at specified times.
Window blinds are ancient. They are so ancient that it’s impossible to tell precisely who invented them and how they came to be. We can conclude many things through archaeological findings, but much of it remains in obscurity. But one thing is sure: blinds will continue to develop and evolve as humans look for more efficiency and convenience in our everyday lives.