Courtesy BTHL

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

Whether the focal point of an entryway or lobby, the means for a swift exit in an emergency, or merely an access point for attic or basement storage, the staircase often serves as a centerpiece of design while facilitating its fundamental function of vertical circulation.

For both residential and commercial interiors, designers in the 19th and 20th centuries selected the placement and form of staircases, but often relied on manufacturer catalogs for stair details. Ornamental metal manufacturers and woodwork companies marketed stair designs through component systems or complete designs. Newell posts, stair treads, balusters, and handrails could be selected from a variety of motifs while design examples that show appropriate combinations of stylistic elements made it easy for the designers or builder to assemble.

Some of the most elaborate catalogs, such as those of Winslow Bros. of Chicago, are virtual monographs of significant staircase designs in major commercial buildings across the U.S. Meanwhile, at the most functional level of design, fire escapes and attic stairs represent systems where aesthetics took a back door to economy and efficiency—though some brands distinguish themselves in this market offering distinctive “exit systems.”

With catalogs ranging from the 1890s until 1963, the BTHL chronicles over one century stair designs.

Illustrated catalog of Mouldings, Architectural & Ornamental Wood Work, Roberts & Co., New Orleans, 1891
This ornamental woodwork catalog features an extensive selection of stair designs with elaborate woodwork that can be “fitted together, marked, and then taken apart … so that any good carpenter can put them together and finish the building.”

Common-Sense Stair Building and Handrailing, Fred T. Hodgson, Chicago, 1903
This publication is a virtual textbook on stair and handrail design providing details on construction methodologies and proposed geometries. Primarily for residential wooden stairs, designs demonstrate popular architectural styles for handrail construction, which required complex detailing to connect continuous and curving wood elements.

Harris System Portable Fire Escapes, Harris Safety Co., Philadelphia, c. 1900
The fire escape was an unusual example of a ”roll out” ladder designed for easy installation in a window.

Ornamental Iron & Bronze, Winslow Bros. Co., Chicago, 1910
A prominent national metalwork company, the Winslow Bros. Co. published this monograph-like catalog of staircases in prominent commercial buildings across the country. This is the second of two Winslow Bros. catalogs on the BTHL, with an earlier version from 1894.

Architectural Interior and Exterior Woodwork Standardized, Curtis Companies, Clinton, Iowa, c. 1920
This extensive catalog features woodwork for various residential applications, including stairways and stair parts. This section highlights Colonial, English, and “western”—today considered Craftsman—styles with various baluster, brackets, and rail options.

Standard Spiral Slide Fire Escapes, Standard Conveyer Co., North St. Paul, Minn., 1924
The spiral slide fire escape is a rare emergency exit system that was specifically designed for schools.

Ornamental Wire & Iron Work, Badger Wire and Iron Works, Milwaukee, c. 1925
This catalog features stair and railing options made from steel or wrought iron with a list of recent projects across the upper Midwest region. Milwaukee had several metalwork companies that were major suppliers of stairs in the early 20th century.

The Bessler Disappearing Stairway Co., Akron, Ohio, 1935
The retractable attic stair is a great example of design efficiency, requiring only a 2.5-square-foot aperture for installation in a hallway.

Colonial Stairwork, Coffman Stair Co., Washington Court House, Ohio, 1940
Coffman Stair advertises their stair components as “neat, attractice, yet not expensive for today’s well design home.” Featured in primarily Colonial designs, stair component options include interchangeable railings, newel posts, starting steps, wall rail crooks, and balusters.

Stairwork Manual and Catalog of Morgan Stair Parts, Morgan Co., Oshkosh Wis., 1951
This catalog advertises stairways “staunch simplicity and graceful sweep” based on the designs of “superb workmanship of outstanding 17th and 18th century American woodcarvers.” The catalog also features extensive technical information on stair planning, design, and installation methods.