If you set out to create the worst window you could, you might go about it like this:
First, you’d design it to oppose the pull of gravity, and therefore require a Rube Goldberg contraption of weights and ropes, cables or springs just to keep it from falling shut. You’d also make sure you could never open more than half of it at a time.
Of course you’d arrange the sash so that your view would be blocked by a big dividing bar.
Naturally, you’d also make it hard to maintain and a headache to paint.
Lastly, you’d conceal the operating mechanism to make it fiendishly difficult to repair.
If you managed to fulfill every one of these none-too-admirable goals, the result of your design would probably be a double-hung window.
So much for my hypothetical bad-design contest. In reality, the origin of the double-hung window is British.
Its invention is often attributed to Robert Hooke (1635-1703), surveyor to the city of London and chief assistant to the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren. Hooke assisted Wren during the rebuilding of London following the Great Fire of 1666. Since this catastrophe left most of the city in ashes, it was probably a perfect opportunity to pioneer a new type of window.
And indeed, the oldest-surviving double-hungs date back to English manor houses of the 1670s, such as London’s Ham House. As old as these windows are, their appearance hardly differs from modern examples — they feature the same six-over-six muntin arrangement that’s still popular today.
Naturally, when the English came to the New World, double-hung windows came with them. Although very early American Colonial houses used simple-to-build casement windows, the homes of well-to-do colonists began boasting double-hungs as soon as they became available. They remained an architectural staple throughout the Georgian and Federal periods (the White House, you may recall, has double-hung windows). The emphatically vertical architecture of the later Gothic Revival and Victorian eras — which demanded windows with tall, skinny proportions — meant their popularity only increased.
It was the multitudes of these strangely pinched-looking double-hung windows that the young Frank Lloyd Wright noted with dismay on his walks through Chicago, and which he later dubbed "guillotine windows" in his prose.
The Romantic Revival home styles of the early 20th century briefly challenged the primacy of the double-hung, since their architects preferred the more medieval-looking casement window. But by the time large-scale homebuilding resumed after World War II, double-hung windows made a huge comeback in mass-produced, Colonial Revival-esque tracts such as Levittown. Only the widespread introduction of horizontal sliding aluminum windows during the 1950s finally made a substantial (and lasting) dent in their popularity.
In fairness, there’s no doubt that today’s double-hung windows, while still looking pretty much like their ancestors of the 1670s, have been greatly improved. For one, they use spring counterweights instead of that quasi-comical arrangement of ropes, pulleys and counterweights. They’re also far more energy efficient and easier to maintain than their predecessors.
Still, they don’t make a whole lot of sense as windows. Robert Hooke was a brilliant man, but I guess you can’t win them all.