1400’sThis brings us to the very beginning of the history of closets. Let’s travel back to the Middle Ages where closets served a completely different purpose than they do now. Imagine, it’s the mid 1400’s, the Renaissance is in full swing, and having a bedroom is a privilege reserved for the upper class. Unless you are incredibly wealthy, chances are you sleep on the floor of a great manor or you live in a singular room that serves as your kitchen, bathroom, dining room, and bedroom. Since only members of the upper class had bedrooms, the bedroom served as a work space and a place to entertain guests. If your room is being used to entertain guests, where could you go to have some privacy? The closet!
The word “closet” originated from Latin clausum meaning “closed space, enclosure, confinement.” The closet was arguably the most private place in the house and served a variety of purposes. It was not only a place to store your belongings, but also a place to for reading, thinking, writing, and praying. Although these multipurpose spaces were technically walk-in closets, they lacked many modern storage options like hanging rods and drawers. We still have quite quite a few developments in the history of closets until we reach the modern walk-in closet.
Overtime, closets began to disappear from European homes. Homes grew bigger and more rooms created additional private spaces which defeated the purpose of a closet. But, the Puritans brought the idea of the closet to America as a place for storage. These closets were much smaller and harder to find than modern closets. It was rare to find a home with multiple closets because most people stored their clothes in a chest or armoire.
1600’sChests were a popular option in the 1600s since attics and closets were not readily available and cellars were often damp and bad for storing clothing. By the 1680’s, most chests were made entirely of drawers with three long drawers of varying depths topped by two smaller drawers side by side. By the mid 18th century, chests had developed past simple storage and were being created in increasingly complex designs. Within the history of interior design, this marks a rise in beveled corners and chinoiserie, or Chinese-style fretwork (decoration consisting of small straight bars intersecting one another at right or oblique angles).
There is an increasingly popular myth that closets were rare in American homes since they were taxed as additional rooms of a home. However, research done by Colonial Williamsburg found no “closet tax” in any of the thirteen colonies. So, why were closets so rare at the time? To put it simply, most people had less stuff than we have today and therefore they did not need as much storage.
1800’sIn 1870, the first hanging rods were starting to be used for the first time in the history of closets with the invention of the hanger. There is some dispute over who invented the hanger but many credit Albert J. Parker. The story claims that one day Parker got to work to find that all of the coat hooks were in use, so he took a wire and bent it into a hanger to hang his coat on. However, today’s most-used hanger, the shoulder-shaped wire hanger, was inspired by a coat hook that was invented in 1869 by O. A. North of New Britain, Connecticut.
In 1880, the luxurious apartment building The Dakota in New York City featured one of the nation’s first reach-in closets meant for clothes. Although small by today’s standards (two and a half feet deep by six feet wide) these closets were an attempt to market apartment living as a luxurious experience.
1900’sIt wasn’t until 1930 when a small group of New Yorkers got a taste of the big closet life. 740 Park Avenue in Manhattan is one of the first documented building with luxury walk-in closets. These closets had many features we put in our closets today. “The master-bedroom closets had built-in electrical outlets, built-in shoe shelves; every apartment contained a locking cedar closet,” said Michael Gross, who documented the building’s history. He even quotes a doorman marveling, “The closets were bigger than my room.”
This was the beginning for modern closets walk-in closets and homeowners quickly fell in love with the idea of extra home storage. The demand for storage continued to increase over time. The National Homebuyer Report of 1938 and every year following all the way through 2017 reported “not enough storage” as a major concern for potential homebuyers.
2000’sThe early 2000’s mark an unexpected turn in the history of closets. Luxurious closets become a crucial part of pop culture. Mariah Carey gave a tour of her extensive closet for ABC News and popularized the idea of a boutique closet. Even one of the most iconic scenes in Sex in the City where Mr. Big proposes to Carrie Bradshaw takes place in a walk in closet. Now, we’ve reached modern day contemporary closets. Not only are walk-in closets of today massive compared to in the past, but now closets can even include dressing areas and seating. Contemporary custom closets are an extension of the home rather than a place to simply store clothes. It seems as if the history of closets has come full circle.
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