University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Cheesecloth vs. Wire Cloth for Screening

The Invention of Wire Cloth Leads to Screen Doors and Screen Windows

sod house

Josef Petr sod house, southwest of White River, South Dakota, built 1913, Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, North Dakota State University Institute for Regional Studies.

Before wire cloth or mesh was used for window screens and door screens, people sometimes used cheesecloth to cover their windows to keep out flies and other insects. Cheesecloth is loosely woven and so will allow air to circulate, but it is delicate and easily torn. Wire cloth was woven of fine metal wire, originally for sieves to sift flour and strain food.

During the U.S. Civil War (1861 – 1865), Gilbert and Bennett, a company of sieve makers in Connecticut, had a growing surplus because they could no longer sell in the Southern states. An employee of the company had a new idea: he coated the wire cloth with paint to prevent rust and sold it for window screens. The idea was so popular that the company made wire cloth a major part of its business, and it became a major manufacturer of screens for doors and windows. Later, the company introduced steel wire, which was resistant to rust.

In the beginning, homeowners built wooden window frames or door frames and nailed on the wire cloth. Later, companies sold ready-made screen doors and windows. Even settlers who homesteaded in sod houses in the 1800s could have screened doors for their houses.

In the early campaigns against flies and disease-carrying insects, volunteer groups such as the Boy Scouts used to help communities install and maintain screens. A standard part of getting ready for warm weather for many people, in the past as well as today, is checking and repairing screens on doors and windows.

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