The History of window screens

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My parents went camping in Alaska during the summer one year. Waking up in the middle of the night, they observed that the screen on the tent had developed fur. The “fur” turned out to be thousands of mosquitoes sticking their stingers through the screen mesh.

The first attempts to increase air circulation while keeping bugs out was the utilization of cheesecloth. Cheesecloth is a thin cotton cloth used primarily in the cheese making process (what a surprise!). The problem with this material as a window screen is it damages very easily.

In the 1830s, most Americans used sieves to make meal for cooking. A Connecticut company, Gilbert and Bennett, had been making horsehair sieves for many years before they decided to experiment with materials that might sieve better than horsehair. They found success using a weaving loom and fine metal wire. This new wire mesh was used to make cheese and meat safes, ox muzzles, and other quaint inventions well suited to a time before electricity and refrigeration.

When the Civil War started in 1861, the Gilbert and Bennett Company lost all of its customers in the south and ended up with a large screen surplus. An inventive employee (name lost to history) applied a protective paint to the mesh and sold it as insect screening. This invention quickly became popular and coincided with the rise of freight trains and the telegraph, creating economies of scale and new distribution options. Soon families could sleep inside screened in porches during hot weather. For better or worse, the confederate states were initially locked out of the window screen market.

Up until the turn of the last century, most people still believed in the Miasma theory of disease, which says that most diseases are caused by bad air. This led many people to keep windows and doors shut for fear of invading Miasmas. In 1900 Dr. Walter Reed successfully proved that Malaria was caused by mosquitoes carrying the disease, rather than bad air or contact with infected persons. This changed things dramatically from a public health standpoint, leading to the near eradication of parasitic disease in the United States by the 1950s.

The Panama Canal was originally a French undertaking but during the 13 years they were in Panama, most of their workers died of Malaria or Yellow Fever and the rest fled in terror. The United States took over and quickly ran into the same problems with disease. Luckily Colonel William Gorgas was appointed as the chief sanitation officer and he was aware that mosquitoes were the problem, not Miasmas. Congress disagreed but fortunately President Roosevelt was intelligent and gave Gorgas the necessary funding. In addition to poison and pesticide, all buildings and beds were outfitted with screens.

There are many types of screening and screen materials available today but most are not terribly concerned with the prevention of disease. The two most common materials are fiberglass and aluminum. Aluminum is tougher than fiberglass but oxidizes and becomes brittle over time. Fiberglass is still quite strong though, kick a screen in the middle and the frame will bend while the fiberglass stays intact. Black screen is better than grey in the sun because black absorbs while grey reflects. Sunscreen is (you guessed it!) meant to reduce glare from the sun. Pet screen is thick vinyl that allows cats to climb up window screens for a better look at nearby birds and squirrels. Brass or copper screens are mainly for aesthetic purposes but they also don’t oxidize and will therefore last a very long time.

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