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October 17, 2022

The History of Spiral Staircases

The History of Spiral Staircases

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There’s a lot of focus these days on emerging technologies and cutting-edge developments in the sciences, but great minds have been thinking up innovative tools that make our lives easier and richer for as long as we have records — and many of them have stood the test of time and become essential parts of our homes and cities.

For example, rope was invented about 28,000 years ago, bread is about 14,500 years old, and the oldest surviving artifact displaying what we now call a spiral staircase is a terracotta pot discovered in China that dates back to 5,378 BC. There are also references to a structure that sounds a lot like a spiral staircase in the Old Testament (though the word ‘winding’ is used instead of ‘spiral’). The First Temple of Solomon, built circa 990 BC, was said to contain two winding staircases that led to a sacrificial altar.

For thousands of years, cultures across the globe have appreciated the space-saving efficiency of this elegant solution to the age-old problem of maximizing the use of a building.

Smart Designs Survive

The first, primitive spiral staircases were carved directly into mountain sides and stone walls, but all spiral staircases, even the ancient ones, share several features. They all have a central pole or support (sometimes called a newel) to which treads or steps are attached for climbing the staircase. Wider spirals can accommodate more and larger treads. Narrower spirals are quite steep and can be more challenging to navigate, but make access possible in slender structures like lighthouses, bell towers, steeples, and even iconic monuments like the Statue of Liberty.

It’s not entirely clear when exactly the spiral staircase was invented, but the ancient Romans are generally credited for popularizing them. The upper classes of the Roman Republic (509 BC to 27 BC) were the first to see spiral staircases adorning their houses of worship and the buildings of other lofty institutions. Spiral staircases would also grow in popularity during the Roman Empire (31 BC to 476 AD) and become a major component of ecclesiastic architecture during the rise of Christianity in the region.

Constructed around 480 BC, the remnants of a famed spiral staircase from antiquity was found at site dubbed Temple A in Selinunte, an ancient Greek colony that existed in what is now Sicily. The oldest still standing spiral staircase can still be found in Rome right now at Trajan’s Column, a towering war monument built in 113 AD. 185 steps still transport tourists up the 115-foot stone structure to the scenic overlook at its peak.

Spiral Stairs From the Middle Ages to the Present

During the medieval period in Europe (roughly 500 AD to 1400 AD), the kingdoms of the continent built massive fortifications and stone castles, most of which featured spiral staircases. A common misconception among historians claimed for years that medieval castles employed spiral staircases that required moving clockwise when climbing them because it was thought to impede invading forces (which would mostly be right-handed and hence carrying their weapons on the right side).

Later investigations have shown this was likely not the case. Many castles have spiral staircases that require moving counterclockwise when climbing, and modern historians now believe that spiral staircases were not primarily defensive structures, but rather, they were employed for many of the same reasons that we still do today. Namely, they were convenient, efficient, attractive, durable, and architecturally sound.

By the 16th Century, spiral staircases were no longer found just in castles and cathedrals. A growing and wealthy merchant class began incorporating the design in their homes. The Chateau de Chambord, a paragon of French Renaissance architecture, for example, is noted for its spectacular double-helix staircase which served as the centerpiece of the home. The two spirals descend three floors but never physically connect. None other than renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, who lived nearby at the time, is the staircase’s reputed designer, though that provenance has never been officially established.

In the Victorian era of Britain in the 19th Century, advancements in metallurgy greatly improved access to steel, which was quickly realized to be an excellent building material for compact but strong spiral staircases. Since that time, the popularity of spiral staircases has only continued to grow. They can now be found in locations of all types, all over the world.

Simultaneously ancient and modern, spiral staircases are still prized for their ability to harmonize beauty and functionality in one ingenious design.

The Iron Shop manufactures beautiful, thoughtfully-designed, and easy to install spiral staircases that will make any building more functional and attractive. That’s why we have been the leading name in spiral staircase kits since 1931.