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The History of Rain Gutters

There’s a surprisingly fascinating history behind the lowly rain gutter. It’s a story that’s filled with myth and mythology. It’s a narrative that chronicles important technological advances and achievements too. Although the modern rain gutters that you rely on today to divert rainwater off your roof are a relatively new invention, they’re based on a history that dates back thousands of years.

Drains, Drainage Systems and Water Spouts

As early as 3000 B.C., ancient civilizations used stones, bricks and wood to control the drainage of water. Most of these drainage systems, however, focused on moving water from one location to another. The 1st-century Romans are credited with establishing complex drainage systems, including those that drained water away from streets.

Many civilizations of that early era, including the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians, used water spouts perched on the edges of roofs to direct water to the ground. Frequently, the water spouted from the mouth of a stone lion. The Temple of Zeus in Greece, for example, featured 102 marble lion-headed water spouts.

Enter St. Romanus and La Gargouille

Legend has it that during the 7th century, a bishop of Rouen named Romanus saved the city from a fire-breathing dragon known as La Gargouille. The story goes that the only person brave enough to accompany Romanus on his hunt for the dragon was a man already condemned to death. When La Gargouille appeared, Romanus drew the sign of the cross on the fearsome beast, instantly taming him. Using his stole as a leash, Romanus then led the dragon back to town where the serpent was destroyed and the condemned man was pardoned.

Until 1790, Catholic bishops were allowed to pardon one condemned person each year in honor of St. Romanus and his defeat of La Gargouille. Incredibly, the story of La Gargouille may have led to a new type of rain gutter as well: the gargoyle.

Gargling Gargoyles

In Western Europe, gutters did not advance in their development until the Middle Ages when countries began to invest in large-scale structures like cathedrals and palaces. The European stone masons and builders of the Middle Ages took cues from the water spouts of earlier civilizations, but crafted fantastical creatures called gargoyles instead of pagan lions to direct rainwater away the from the buildings.

The word “gargoyle” originates from the French gargouille, perhaps as a nod to the fire-spewing dragon of St. Romanus. The word is also connected to the French word gargariser, which means “to gargle.” In Italy, the gargoyles used to drain water were known as gronda sporgente, which literally means “protruding gutter.”

Around the 12th century, the use of gargoyles on church buildings began to come under question. “What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions and monsters?” St. Bernard of Clairvaux protested. His tirade against gargoyles ended on a pragmatic note: “Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities,” he said, “we should at least regret what we have spent on them.”

Mass-Market Gutters

During the 1200s, wood, lead and clay-tile gutters began to be used instead of the idolatrous gargoyle beasts. The first building thought to have been equipped with downspouts as well as gutters was the Tower of London in 1240, installed as a method to protect the structure’s freshly white-washed walls. The drainage systems turned out to be so popular that soon, gutter disputes became the most common cases heard by authorities in crowded cities throughout Europe.

As lead materials became more available in the 16th century, heraldic designs were incorporated into the gutter systems of grand houses. The increased production of cast iron in the 1800s led to the replacement of lead with the more readily available material. By the 18th century, homes began to be sold with built-in gutter systems crafted to complement the architectural style of the buildings.

Rudimentary metal rain gutters started to appear during the 18th century as well, but it was not until the Industrial Revolution that they began to be mass marketed. Technological advancements achieved during the two World Wars made it possible to produce gutters in an array of materials, from copper to aluminum and from galvanized steel to plastic.

The Seamless Sixties

During the 1960s, a machine was invented that could roll out and form aluminum gutters on site. By that time, aluminum had already become a popular choice for rain gutters, and the roll-form gutters, also known as seamless gutters, put aluminum over the top. Today, more than 70 percent of the gutters installed on homes are seamless aluminum gutters.

Gutters have come a long way since the days of lion-headed spouts and water-spewing gargoyles, but people haven’t forgotten that the functional drainage systems still offer opportunities for architectural style statements as well. Modern rain gutters come in a wide array of designs, shapes, styles and configurations. The broad selection of gutters available today ensures that you’ll find the ideal selection for your modern home-sweet-home.

Here is a picture of the latest in gutter technology, a Gutterglove protected gutter:

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