If the word “garage” can be defined simply as a place to store wheeled devices, then the history of the garage and garage door spans millennia. |
Storage of early wheeled vehicles
Evidence points to wheeled vehicles in the 4th millennium B.C., with the first pictures of such devices dating between 3500 to 2250 B.C. Carriages and chariots are mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey written in the 8th Century BC. Chariot racing was a significant event of the ancient Olympic Games which began in 776 BC.
As the use of wheeled vehicles increased, storage of such vehicles became a necessity. In Old Testament times around 450 B.C., entire cities—including Jerusalem—were devoted to chariot storage during peace times. Wheeled south-pointing chariots used in ancient China were stored in gatehouses of government workshops, as mentioned in writings during the Jin Dynasty between 265 and 420 AD.
If Chinese gatehouses can be compared to European castles, then it may not be too far a stretch to claim drawbridges may have been garage doors’ predecessors. Centuries ago, chariots, carriages, buggies and coaches entered through castle gatehouses and drawbridges. Carriage houses of the 18th and 19th Centuries
As time went on, more and more carriage houses were built to store wheeled vehicles. In America, carriage houses were built in early colonial times. Carriage houses were rarely attached to homes and castles, in contrast to homes today with attached garages. The function of the carriage house, sometimes called a coach house, translated into today’s garage.
Carriage house doors can be seen in carriage houses near castles throughout the world ranging from the Culzean Castle in Scotland built in the late 1700s to the Dundurn Castle in Canada built in 1835.
Openings to Victorian-era carriage houses were typically covered with double bi-parting doors hung on strap hinges that opened outward. To keep carriage house doors from sagging on the ends, Z and X designs were incorporated.
Storing the automobile
Automobiles using a gasoline engine came onto the scene in the late 1800s, and Henry Ford began mass producing vehicles in America in 1913.
At first, automobiles were kept in carriage houses next to the horses. Some car owners preferred paying a monthly fee for space in large parking garages, some publicly-owned and some privately owned. As more and more people began owning cars, there arose a need for “a new type of outbuilding” closer to home.
The word “garage” didn’t appear in the English dictionary until 1902. The word is derived from the French verb “garer,” which means to cover or shelter.
In 1908, the Sears Roebuck catalog offered a portable garage and mail-order garage kits. Carriage house garage doors
Doors on early garages were much like the doors on carriage houses or barns, double doors on strap hinges opening outward. Snow accumulated on the ground often proved a barrier to easily opening such doors. Also, daily wear and tear that exercised hinges and pulled out screws quickly antiquated the design. “There were a number of problems with these doors. They were hard to open in heavy snow, they tended to wear out quickly and come off their hinges, and they were just a plain a hassle to deal with in many ways.”
Sliding tracks for bypassing doors were a fix, as long as there was enough room for the door to be moved to the left or right of the doorway. Space-saving designs needing less clearance quickly became available.
Overhead type garage doors
As early as 1902, American manufacturers—including Cornell Iron Works of Chicago, Illinois, and likely Thimble—published catalogs featuring a “float over door,” perhaps the first sectional door.
Evidence of an upward-lifting sectional overhead door can be found in the first Sweet’s Catalogue of 1906. The Sweet’s Catalogue began that year as an annual reference directory detailing building products, suppliers, and manufacturers. In 1906, Variety Manufacturing Company was touting their “cross horizontal folding door” featuring a single counterbalance weight. Glass sashing, iron framework, wood, galvanized iron coverings, and terra cotta fireproofing were all available options for the doors. Variety Manufacturing Company also featured the “cross compound slide-up door” available in wood and iron construction that required more headroom above the opening than the folding door described above. Both of Variety’s doors were built in two sections. The catalog entry mentions that these doors were large enough to be used for “locomotive round-house purposes.” The doors could be operated “with one hand without any undue exertion” using a network of chains, hoists, counter weight and pulleys.
Sweet’s Catalogue of 1906 also features the overhead “Cross Horizontal Folding Doors” offered by George N. Cole of Cross Warehouse Doors in New York City. These two-section doors fold up vertically. Categorized under warehouse doors, the company advertised their doors as appropriate for garages, stables, freight houses, express rooms, platforms, piers and warehouses. The catalog entry notes that the company was installing such doors to replace rolling steel doors.
Many sources point to C.G. Johnson as the inventor of the electric garage door opener in 1926. In 1936, Leno Martin invented one of the first one-piece overhead type garage doors. Martin’s invention consisted of the first T-iron pivot hardware. These new doors were more convenient and required less operating room than the swing-out carriage house doors and even sliding tracks of the past.
Rolling steel garage doors
Cornell Iron Works began making cast iron building fronts in New York City in the 1830s and 1840s, when merchants began asking for secure outdoor window and door coverings. In 1854, John Black Cornell took out the United States’ first “coil up” door patent. This slat door was counterweighted and connected by vertical rows of rivotted hinges.
Clark Bunnett, of England, had his own interlocking slat design and started selling a spring balanced rolling shutter and door in America in the 1870s. The product was less expensive and easier to install than Cornell’s because it didn’t need space for a counterweight. In response, Cornell took up manufacture of the cheaper door, as did J.G. Wilson, an Englishman who originally arrived in America with Bunnett. Wilson started his own firm circa 1880. W.R. Kinnear also began manufacturing rolling steel doors in the late 1800s, taking advantage of new methods and machines to create interlocking rolling slat doors in wider widths.
Materials used for garage doors changed over time as well. Like drawbridges and carriage house doors of the past, early garage doors were made of wood. Galvanized steel doors insulated with polystyrene foam were put into use in the 1970s. Fiberglass, composites and vinyl-covered aluminum followed.
Despite the innovative strides of the garage door over the ages, nostalgia has lead to modern designs that reflect carriage house door styles of the past. Many manufacturers of today offer sectional doors that have the look of swing-out carriage house doors of the past.
Wikipedia. “Odyssey.” Mike Hanlan, “The Chariot – history’s first personal transport concept,” Gizmag, October 6, 2008. Wikipedia. “South-pointing chariot.” Jenne Joy. “Historical Carriage House – What is It?” March 13, 2009. OCS Doors. “Garage Doors as Architectural Elements.” 2010. About.com. “The History of the Automobile: The First Mass Producers of Cars – The Assembly Line.” Gareth Marples. “The History of Garage Doors – The Search for the Perfect Carriage House.” September 11, 2008. Dictionary.com. “Garage.” Guide to Garage Door Repair. “The History of Garage Doors.” Andrew Cornell, interview 9 February 2012. Andew M. Shanken (2005). “From the gospel of efficiency to modernism: A history of Sweet's catalogue, 1906-1947.” Design Issues. 21(2), 28-47. Sweet’s Catalogue, 1906, “Variety Manufacturing Company, doors, shutters, etc.” 242-244. Available online from the Columbia University Libraries. Sweet’s Catalogue, 1906, “George N. Cole, M.E. Cross Warehouse Doors,” 247. Emma Heuton. “Modern Doors: Know the Benefits of Garage Doors.” Milton L. Cornell. “Rolling Steel Door Manual for Sales Representatives” circa 1940.
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