The History of Gutters and Downspouts
copper eavestroughing see on the exterior of a home

The History of Gutters and Downspouts

Posted: 09/6/17 7:13 PM - Category: Eavestroughs & Gutters

Gutters and eavestoughs do a great job of protecting our homes and businesses from the rainwater that runs down our roofs. The need to protect buildings from this water is nothing new. People have been dealing with these issues for centuries. While there have been some great advances in gutter technology in modern times, the basic concepts go almost as far back as civilization itself.

When you are up there working on repairing or cleaning your eavestroughs, you might have occasion to wonder where these designs and technologies came from. In this post, we are going to take a quick look back at the history of gutters and downspouts.

A Brief History

Archaeologists have found evidence of gutter systems that go back thousands of years. Though somewhat different in their design and intent, the basic ideas were the same: to channel and control the flow of rainwater.

In its earliest forms, the protection of structures was not the concern when building rain gutters. In a time before modern plumbing, people needed to collect the rainwater for uses like cooking, bathing and drinking. The gutters would channel the water, and it could be directed to a collection point.

Move to the days of the early Roman Empire, and engineers were using gutters to maintain the roads. Near the start of the Common Era, you can see roads that are crowned in the middle to allow water and mud to run down to gutters that then directed the water away from the road.

The Romans then took this road building design to Britain around 47CE, and after that, you don’t see much in the way of importance for gutter building and design until after the Norman invasion. With buildings having stone roofs, you start to see gutter systems appearing on the buildings.

In this application, you didn’t have gutters that lead to downspouts. On these old stone buildings, the gutters would terminate at a gargoyle. At the back of the gargoyle, you would find a trough for collecting the water, and the water would then run out to be expelled from the mouth.

One of the earliest known cases of a downspout being used dates back to around 1240CE. King Henry ordered extensions to the gutters on the Tower of London to protect the white exterior of the building. It’s not the first downspout ever developed, but it is the earliest known use of a downspout on a building in Britain.

In the 16th Century, Henry VIII ordered the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This led to an influx of lead as a building material that could then be recycled and used for other building projects. As a result, lead rain gutters became a popular feature on many structures.

At this point, wooden gutters were already starting to appear on many homes. You would find standard wooden gutters that were shaped in a V, and as the use of lead became popularized, you would find wooden gutters that had a lead lining.

Move forward to the 18th Century, and we start to see a shift in the material. Whereas lead and wood were the dominate materials up to this point, the decreasing cost of cast iron started to make it a more popular material for the construction of roof gutters. In addition to that, you also started to see gutters becoming more common on structures in North America.

During the mid 19th Century, you started to see more of a push for not only large buildings to have gutter systems, but it also became a much more common feature on the average home. This was to control many of the health concerns that can come with damp living conditions, and to better manage rainwater in city areas.

With most structures having cast iron gutters with downspouts by the end of the 19th Century, the next big development came in the early 20th Century. Metal rolling machines allowed for the manufacture of the rounded steel gutters that started to become popular in the early part of the century.

In the early 1960s, we then saw the introduction of seamless aluminum gutters. The strength and lightweight nature of the material helped to make aluminum the preferred material for gutters. The seamless design also had the added advantage of eliminating the potential for leaks at the seams. These gutters could be rolled and cut on site to match the specification of the building.

Materials

The use of different materials has offered some of the greatest advances in gutter and eavestrough technology. As we mentioned before, materials like wood and lead were some of the popular materials for the construction of some of the earliest gutter systems. After that, materials like aluminum and steel started to take over.

The move from wood and lead to materials like aluminum and steel were major advances because they were stronger and more durable. Along with that, these materials are easier to work, and that lends itself well to producing gutters that are a better fit for the needs of the specific structure. To this day, aluminum is still the most common material for rain gutters.

The use of copper for the construction of rain gutters is of note. Copper is an ideal material for the production of gutters and downspouts. With copper, you can produce longer, leak-proof joints, and it is a material that has a much longer working life. Even under the harshest conditions, a set of copper gutters should last at least twice as long as gutters made from steel or aluminum. While you will find them on some homes, the additional cost of copper gutters tends to make their use less popular.

As you can see, the use of rain gutters has been around for a long time, and we have come a long way from the beginning. The one thing that has stayed the same is the need to regularly clean your gutters. Even if you have gutter guards, debris can still clog the gutter system, and when that happens, it puts your home at risk for damage.