Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Post About Posts

“Do you know where my coat is?” I called to Kate. “It’s hanging on the newel post,” she called back. “Wtf is a newel post?” I responded. Actually I didn’t, but I thought it. Upon politely enquiring what a newel post was, Kate took delight in pointing out to me, someone who regularly looks into the meaning and origin of things in Bytes, that a newel was the main post at the end of the staircase banister. 

Ever since then I have had the newel post hanging over my head, like a staircase sword of Damocles. If I get a good score against Kate in Words with Friends she will look at me and slowly, smilingly say in precise tones, “Newel post!” Explain to her politely why her directions when navigating were incorrect, I hear “Newel post.” 

So as a service to husbands everywhere, I make the following comments about newel posts, in the hope that they will not suffer the same purgatory that I go through . . .

  • A newel, also called a central pole, is an upright post that supports the handrail of a stair banister. In most cases it is the main post at the foot of the staircase but newel posts can also be intermediate posts and at the top of a staircase: 
  • Newels have often been adorned and decorated and can be constructed in various architectural styles: 
The Downton Abbey staircase showing newel posts. 

The Titanic's Grand Staircase 

Jacobean newel 

"In the early American colonies, simple lathe-turned posts, often similar in profile to the balusters of the railing, or simple tapered square posts were used. Later, in the Georgian period, the turned posts were formed similar to classic architectural columns and then became thinner and delicate in the Federal period. Around 1840, posts began to appear similar to the Greek Revival columns seen on the exterior of buildings, popular at that time. In the third quarter of the 19th century, the newel posts became heavier and broader, as the stair and banister assemblies of that period have massive proportions in the details. Towards the end of that century and into the first quarter of the 20th, square, panelled or faceted posts were popular, often with large caps, heavy mouldings and carvings." 
- Bill Kibbel, Old House Blog 
  • Where the newel post is large, it was often hollow. That hollow space has, so it is claimed, been used by some homeowners for retention of documents, often the house plans, and for concealment of valuables. (If I was a bad guy engaged in breaking and entering and I saw a large newel post, that would be the first place I would now look). 
  • Some different newel posts:
Carved newel posts by artist Lueb Popoff: 

Squirrel and fox newels 

Raccoon newel 

Bear and squirrel 

Rabbit and squirrel 

Chainsaw sculpted newel posts by Brian Richter, wood sculptor 

You call that a newel post? This is a newel post! 
Paris Opera Theatre staircase (remember the Masquerade number in Phantom of the Opera?
  • And speaking of chainsaws and newels, there is a scene in Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation where Chase’s character, Clarke Griswold, loses it. As Clarke, dressed as Santa and carrying a chain saw, walks past the newel post that has an annoying lose cap on it he cuts the whole top off and cheerfully calls out “Fixed the newel post.” 
See it at: 

  • One final item: 
It has sometimes been said that the button on top of the newel post cap is known as the mortgage button and that it signifies that the house mortgage had been paid. The document was rolled up and placed in the hollow post. This is an urban myth, see: 

Nonetheless, ornate mortgage buttons can be purchased:

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