widow's walk

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widow's walk

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Mar 03, 2015 6:43 am

I was reading through the ‘Best Properties on the Market’ section of the magazine The Week, which usually features about 5 or 6 homes, with description, price, and real estate agent. The homes are usually in excess of a few million dollars (housing on the cheap!). But they do always have one ‘Steal of the Week,’ whose low price they consider a good buy.

Here’s an example of a ‘Steal of the Week’:
Galveston Texas. This four-bedroom house is the second-oldest home in the city. Built in 1839, the William Tucker house was built by Samuel May Williams, a founder of the city and a land agent of the Austin Colony. The home was framed in Maine and shipped to Texas by boat. Details include high ceilings, wood floors, two fireplaces, and a cupola with a widow’s walk. $400,000. Tom Schwenk, the House Co., (409) 763-8030
[[You could buy a McMansion out my way for that price!]]

I’ve heard this expression several times over the years and always for some reason thought it was British, but I never gave it much thought –- perhaps the final walk to the cemetery at a funeral, perhaps the path that a lonely widow followed near or around the outside of her house. However, here, ‘cupola’ kind of gave things away for me. But I thought this might be a good time to look it up and see exactly, what, where, and when.


WIDOW’S WALK noun: Chiefly North American a rectangular balustraded platform (characteristic of New England architectural styles in the 18th and 19th centuries) built on top of the roof of a house, especially for providing an unimpeded view of the sea (see quote 1978). [[also known as a widow's watch, roofwalk, or Captain’s Walk]]

OED Quotes (all 3 of them):
<1939 “Variously termed a ‘Captain's Walk’, or the ‘Widow's Walk’, it is just ‘The Walk’ in Nantucket.”—Nantucket (Massachusetts) by S. Chamberlain, page 25>

<1961 “The fine old house . . . his great-grandfather's . . . with . . . Adam decorations and a widow's walk on the roof.”—Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck, i. page 14>

<1978 “The name widow's walk derived from romantic tales of those loyal women who continued to keep watch for a ship that had long since gone to the bottom of some coral sea.”—Chesapeake by J.A. Michener, page 463>

WIDOW’S WALK noun (from various sources):

a) [1935-1940] American: A platform or walk atop a roof, as on certain coastal New England houses of the 18th and early 19th centuries: often used as a lookout for incoming ships. (Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary (2010))

b) A railed, rooftop platform typically on a coastal house, originally designed to observe vessels at sea. (American Heritage Dictionary (2011) [[Notice that this definition requires ‘railed’]]


Etymology [1930s] (from various sources):

1) With reference to its use as a viewpoint for the return of a seafaring husband. [[possibly lost at sea]] (Oxford Dictionaries).

2) There is little or no evidence that widow's walks were intended or regularly used to observe shipping. ‘Widow's walks’ are in fact a standard decorative feature of Italianate architecture, which was very popular during the height of the Age of Sail in many North American coastal communities. The widow's walk is a variation of the Italianate cupola. The Italianate cupola, also known as a ‘belvedere,’ was an important ornate finish to this style, although it was often high maintenance and prone to leaks. (Wikipedia) also offers pictures and an introductory paragraph to this etymology.)

Widow’s Walk produced about 212,000 Google hits at my space-time coordinates and was used in a wide range of topics many of which make you wonder why. From the name of an ice cream parlor, to the name of a song, to a bicycle rental shop, to the title of a book, ‘Widow’s Walk’ is there.

The following are some of the quotes I found on the Web and in archived sources. Authentic ‘Widow’s Walk’ architecture is mainly found on the U.S. New England East coast, but copycats can be found all over. It sounds quaint, offers some drama, and perhaps pays homage to some local architecture.

A Google book search came up with 4,500 hits (with repeats, of course). My advice is don’t write a book with that title – it will get lost in the crowd. (>:)

The following quotes are form the Web and archived sources [Note that the OED's earliest quote is from 1939 (see above) – not to impressive for a 2013 update]:
<1903-1910 [[exact date not known]] “The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad Hospital in Salida, Chaffee County, Colorado, is an ornate brick structure with dormers, widow's walk, chimneys, and a porch and balcony, . . .”—Denver Public Library Digital Collections>

<1926 “Over on the Cape and at New Bedford one of the features was what was known as the ‘widow’s walk.’ It became so named from the fact that high up in the air, outside the room [[cupola] there was a railed, narrow walk of boards laid on the flat roof of the house and surrounding the room. Here tradition has it that when a ship became due the captain’s wife would put in hours up on his walk watching for the return of the ship. As a ship became overdue the hours of feminine vigil became longer, the distracted woman even muffling up her head in her shawl and pacing the walk in the night hours, looking seaward for the masthead light of some ship port bound, that might give her hope that her husband had be delivered from the perils of the deep and be restored to the bosom of his family again.”—Boston Daily Globe (Massachusetts), 1 November, page A7> [[Good start for a sob story!]]

<1983 “The trustees of the Congregational Church promise to replace the ‘widow's walk,’ a decorative rooftop balustrade it removed from its function center last winter without permission of the local historical commission..”—Boston Daily Globe (Topsfield, Massachusetts), 28 September, page 1>

<2001 (real estate)“Widow’s Walk stately Victorian in Revere offers room for large family: The enormous house sits high on a hill and has wrap-around porches with highly detailed arches. A fish scale-tiled slate Mansard roof is topped by a round lookout room [[cupola]] in the center of a widow's walk.”—Boston Daily Globe (Massachusetts), 25 February, page H.1.>

<2008 “‘I was 4 years old in 1912, when my mother took me and my sister Helen to Aunt [Clara Barton]'s house on Charlton Street to help take care of her for the day. She was a very small woman in a great big bed in a very big house. She let us go up to the widow's walk and play. She was so glad we came,’ Mrs. White said.”— Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Massachusetts), 9 July, page A.1.>

<2014 (A novel) The Widow’s Walk by Robert Barclay.> [[“Constance, the heroine, has been haunting her stately home near Bedford Massachusetts for 170 years, ever since she fell off the widow's walk on the same day that her beloved whaler husband was lost at sea near Cape Horn.”— That’s worse than a bad hair day!]]

<2015 (real estate)“The interior of the home features an original wooden mantel over a gas fireplace, 12-foot ceilings, massive pocket doors and a classic wooden banister. On the top floor, visitors can access a widow's walk area that includes outdoor seating overlooking the city”—McClatchy - Tribune Business News (Washington, D.C.) 15 February>

Widows Walk Golf Course —Award Winning – Environmentally Sound. In Scituate, Massachusetts”— widowswalkgolf.com

<“The Widow’s Walk Ice Creamery and Bicycle Rentals” (Clarksville, Indiana)—widowswalkicecreamery.com [[Not much in the way of oceangoing ships coming here, although there is a river.]]

<“The Widows Walk Inn B&B is located in the Historic District of Chestertown, on Maryland's Upper Eastern Shore, only 1 1/2 hours from Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.”—widowswalkinn.com>

Ken G – March 2, 2015

Re: widow's walk

Post by tony h » Tue Mar 03, 2015 11:15 pm

That is interesting.

When I was a young manm I had a friend with who lived in the gate house of a rather grand house. The gate house was positioned far away from the house, to give the best view further down the road whilst still maintaining a line of sight with the main house. One evening, while I was talking with his grandfather whilst looking out of the window down along the road, the grandfather commented that I was on "widow watch".

I didn't think to explore the phrase at the time, but I did so later. Apparently, when the master was away and the mistress was at home, a watch was kept on the approach for the master's carriage. As soon as it was seen, a light was shone at the back to warn the household.
Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

Re: widow's walk

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Mar 04, 2015 4:03 am

Presumably, that provided the mistress with sufficient time to get dressed and hustle her lover out of her quarters before the master had a chance to come in and interrupt their merry-making. (Similarly with the rest of the household.)

Damned useful things, gate houses.

Re: widow's walk

Post by Wizard of Oz » Wed Mar 04, 2015 6:35 am

.. a widow's walk plays a prominent part in the movie Mary Poppins .. although in that case it would be a Captain's walk as it is where Admiral Boom and Mr Binnacle keep watch on the weather and fire the morning and evening cannon shots from ..

WoZ looking for wealthy widows
Signature: "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

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