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Why Do Some Houses Have Fences Around the Chimney?

A fence surrounds a chimney on the roof of a historic home.
Chuck Wagner/Shutterstock.com

When you think of historic homes, you probably imagine the gables of a Queen Anne or the pitched roofs of Tudor styles. But one feature of some historic homes is a bit different—a fence around the chimney. While it might look like an odd balcony, it’s actually not, and it once had an important purpose.

The railing is known as a widow’s walk, and it’s particularly popular in coastal towns in the eastern United States. But don’t worry. It’s not as sad as it sounds.

The railings become popular with the rise of the whaling industry, and they were given the name because many wives were left at home when their sailor husbands went to sea. Essentially, they were an overlook spot. But they had more functions than just a good view.

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Using fires for warmth and cooking was common during this time, but that, unfortunately, meant more chance for house fires—some of which would originate in the chimney. Widow’s walks housed buckets of sand or water that were poured down the chimney to help put out fires.

While eventually they were phased out as a way to put out fires, they remained popular as status symbols and can still be seen around the United States, particularly on the East Coast.

If you have ever seen this unique home feature and wondered what it was, the widow’s walk is a little piece of history that has stuck around.

Shea Simmons Shea Simmons
Shea Simmons is the Assignments Editor at LifeSavvy. Previously, she worked as a freelance writer with a focus on beauty and lifestyle content. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Allure, and Hello Giggles. Read Full Bio »
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