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

The use of architectural devises to shield us from the sun has an ancient history, from its ancient origins in the Middle East to the Romans using linen and an extensive framing and support system inspired by sail-making and rigging to create operable fabric shades for the Colosseum. In the 19th century, window coverings and canvas awnings for commercial storefronts found widespread use, first in fixed exterior frames, and later as retractable systems. The documents in the BTHL largely tell the story of modern solar control in two phases, starting with fabric awnings and then shifting to metal shades and louvers starting in the mid 20th century. Canvas awnings were often manufactured and sold by companies that also sold tents, another type of temporary shelter that has seen a nationwide growth spurt as we've embraced outdoor eating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Awnings, Tents, Camp Furniture … White Canvas Wagon and Stack Covers, Murray & Baker, Chicago, circa 1880
This is the earliest catalog on exterior protection in the BTHL. In addition to the typical awning and tent offerings, the catalog also includes camp furniture and canvas covers for buggies and wagons, including the iconic Conestoga wagon of the pioneers. The products were made from “cotton duck, white, and water-proofed” canvas in weights of 8, 10 and 12 ounces.

Awnings Tents, Covers…, Anchor Supply Co., Evansville, Ind., 1912
The Anchor Supply Co.'s noteworthy, patented roller awnings system had a center support that reduced sagging, a technology that evolved in the late 19th century.

Illustrated Catalogue: Baptiste Tent and Awning Co., Bapiste Tent & Awning Co., St. Louis, 1913
The Baptiste Tent & Awning Co. had a relatively small line of awnings and an extensive line of tents for everything from camping to circuses. While it still sold wagon covers, the company opens its catalog with a new kind of cover—one for the automobile.

Modern Store Fronts Need Modern Awnings, Fanner Manufacturing Co., Cleveland, 1939
“The purpose of this catalog is to show the architect examples of modern store fronts in which awnings have been made an integral part of the design…”

Hettrick Presents Leadership in this $100,000,000 Market, Hettrick Manufacturing Co., Toledo, Ohio, 1950
The Hettrick Mfg. Co. offered an extensive line of window awnings in solids and stripes.

Leigh Building Products, Leigh Building Products, Coopersville, Mich., 1954
The traditional appearance of the canvas awning could be reproduced in metal. The “striped” awnings were sold in pieces, which were then attached to a fixed metal frame. Leigh also offered a line of “one-piece permanent metal awnings” that could be “installed in a matter of minutes.”

Multi-Park, Geo. L. Mesker Steel Corp., Evansville, Ind., 1950s
The Multi-Park is “a sectional all-steel parking shelter of modernistic design.”

Flexalum Aluminum Awnings, Bridegeport Brass Co., New York, 1959
Flexalum Aluminum Awnings were available in both fixed and roll-up types. The development of roller-operated metal awnings evolved from the use roller shutters and doors and was a major innovation..

Extruded Aluminum Louvers, Louvered Penthouses, Solar Canopies, Extruded Louvre Corp., Newark, N.J., 1959
Manufacturers promoted “solar canopies” instead of awnings for air-conditioned buildings to reduce solar heat gain.

Caltron Solar Control Louvers, Weiss Sheet Metal Co., Los Angeles, 1961
This exterior louver system featured operating louvers that users could adjust for the best solar shading or maximum lighting.

Louvers in Extruded Aluminum, Construction Specialties, Cranford, N.J., and Escondido, Calif., 1961
This company offered an extensive line of fixed and operating louvers for architectural and industrial applications.

Silver-top: The Awning that can Easily Grow, Silver-Top Manufacturing Co., White Marsh, Md., 1962
“The Silver-Top Bridge-Braced Curved Aluminum Awning is … the easiest, safest, best-looking way to expand your living area.”