When the Normans crossed the English Channel in 1066, the greatest gift they brought with them was the plethora of Viking words which continue to add beauty and rhythm to the language we speak today; take for instance the old Norse word “vindauga”, literally “the eye of the wind”. From it comes our word “window”, a word we throw around so carelessly, we miss the magic which must have inspired its invention by those bearded, sea-faring Norsemen, whose vessels were probably among the first to touch our own shores centuries before the Pilgrims.
As I pondered over how I should begin this column, I sat watching a Spring snow squall ride the winds whistling across the large north-facing window which frames Mt. Kinisava and Zion’s West Temple, visible from any point in our great room, and I recalled how the placement of that wall-of-glass dictated the very design of the home we built here. In fact, in the midst of construction, we altered the roof overhanging our front porch, when we discovered it threatened to compromise a small bit of that view. The window gave meaning to almost every other feature of the home we planned to spend the rest of our lives in.
The old New Jersey home I was born into three quarters of a century ago was three stories high, not counting the underlying basement level. It had a lot of windows, each numbered in my father’s notebook so that the “storm windows” which went up in October and came down in April could be quickly matched. On the main floor, a set of “bay” windows vaulted outward from both the east and west ends, separated by the home’s two largest rooms. Their respective images are writ large in my storehouse of memories for at least two reasons. At the age of four, I managed to plunge my right arm through a pane of glass while running back and forth between the two, producing a twelve-inch long scar which is still visible to this day, an event by the way which invokes another borrowed word meaning window, “fenestre” from the Latin. I had inadvertently carried out the act of “defenestration”.
In a more profound way, the east-facing bay became my private “reading room” for a decade of those growing-up years, and I learned to love books and reading in that protected alcove, from which I could look out in all kinds of weather, while traveling the world on the magic carpet of the written word.
THE INFAMOUS WINDOW TAX
Toward the end of the 17th century, the British Empire found its coffers running “dry” after years of expensive wars and a foundering economy. The term “income tax” was a political no-no at the time, so Parliament, under King William III decided to go after the upper, moneyed class (sound familiar?) through the back door - or actually through the front window. They levied a tax on the owners of homes having more than six windows, the rate increasing for each one over that number. Since windows were emblematic of one’s status and wealth, such citizens were an obvious target. There was a way though, to avoid the new tax; one could brick up some of those windows, but it had to be a “permanent” alteration to pass the tax agent’s inspection. For the next 55 years, the onerous levy influenced English architecture, and today bricked-up windows can be seen throughout the British Isles.
For one year of my life, I shared a windowless squad tent with nine other G.I.s, the only illumination coming from a single suspended 60 watt light bulb so valuable it had to be hidden whenever we were all on duty and absent at the same time (along with a roll of bathroom tissue which was even more vulnerable to theft). For all the foregoing, perhaps I can be forgiven for a compulsion to admire and even photograph windows as I travel.
A weather-worn seaside cottage sports a pair of windows aglow with floral color.
“How much is that doggie in the window?” A Chinese Shar pei puppy looks out from behind glass panes whose heirloom origins can be seen in the flow lines still present.
I counted 179 bottles in this window in historic Oysterville, Washington, outlined by reflections from Wilapa Bay. Founded in 1841, the entire town is a U.S. Historic Landmark.
In 1899 Brigham J. Lund built his hotel in the railroad town of Modena, Utah on the Nevada border. Today, only an empty window looks out on the ghostly history of the long-gone days of steam.