The history of the staircase

Ned Browne 24 May 2021

Ever wondered what the first staircases looked like? Take a dive into the history of the staircase with this compelling guide by Ned Browne 

The origin of stairs is uncertain, but it is certain that humans have been carving steps in mountains for millennia. In the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, for example, built 4,500 years ago in Pakistan, there are examples of stone stairways. Around 2000 BC the Egyptians started to build stairs leading up to temples. The Romans were fans too, and staircases often featured in their theatres, basilicas and amphitheatres.

How were early stairs constructed?

Saint Vincent Church, in the medieval village of Les Baux de Provence, France

The earliest surviving stairs were made of stone, but that may be more due to the durable nature of the material. Nowadays most stairs are made of wood, although this depends on the type of staircase. Other materials that are commonly used are iron, steel and concrete.  Indeed, reinforced concrete has allowed architects to design seemingly gravity-defying staircases.

Why were stairs invented?

A row of Georgian Houses in West London

A row of Georgian houses in a West London street

Stairs were born out of necessity, but often design and form work hand in hand. In Georgian houses, the staircase was frequently a statement, indicating wealth. Broad, sweeping, winding staircases often greet a visitor as they walk through the front door.  At the other end of the spectrum, simple stairs found in dwellings across the world are often made with just two chunky stringers—the sides of the stairs—with the treads hung between them.

Types of stairs

Victorian staircase

Most stairs have a wall on one side and a handrail on the other, or will be boxed in with a wall on each side. In more modern structures, from the Victorians onwards, most houses have been fitted with pretty austere staircases. The exception being bespoke luxury properties. This is a shame, as stairs can be beautiful, and some can make a property.

Open tread stairs


 

Cards on the table, I am a huge fan of these, and I have installed more than one. Put simply, as there are no risers, you can see directly through the stairs. This creates a feeling of space and light.

Spiral staircases
 

There are numerous stone gothic spiral staircases across Europe, and few experiences beat climbing such stairs to the top of an ancient building. More common are metal spiral staircases, which are great for saving space, but less practical. Forget, for example, taking a large piece of furniture upstairs.

Helical or circular stairs


These are similar to spiral staircases but do not have a central pole. This means that there’s a handrail on both sides, which does make them less perilous.

Floating stairs


Stairs are said to be floating if there is nothing underneath the treads. This effect is usually achieved by removing the risers and one of the stringers. One way to achieve this is to build the treads into an adjoining wall.

Alternating treads
 

This design is used where space is very tight. Effectively, each step is either for your left or right foot. It does take time to get used to this—climbing such a staircase feels alien at first.

Stairs to nowhere

Despite being born from necessity, perhaps the most famous staircase is one that leads to nowhere—the Penrose Stairs. Also dubbed the impossible staircase, it was created by Oscar Reutersvärd in 1937. Later Escher discovered the Penrose Stairs and made his Klimmen en dalen (Ascending and Descending) lithograph in March 1960.

To end, an interesting fact

Spiral staircases in castles always ascend in a clockwise direction. This is unlike most traditional spiral staircases, which travel in the opposite direction.  As 90 per cent of people are right handed, this made sense. The defender coming down the stairs would then have an advantage, as their sword hand would have more room to swing.  Moreover, the attacker, ascending clockwise, would have to expose more of their body in order to get to their sword.

So, next time you’re in a castle, check this out. But, if you’re competitive, choose the role of defender!

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