The earliest type of doors constructed in colonial America were almost always “batten” doors, which were quite basic. They were built with vertical wood planks, and were reinforced on the backside with a few horizontal boards that held everything together. These batten-style doors are sometimes also called “plank” doors, for obvious reason, or “frontier doors,” probably since they were used by settlers wherever America was still a frontier — whether 17th century Massachusetts or 19th century Kansas.
However, during the Georgian period (the early 1700s in America), both exterior and interior doors began to evolve to a more stylized & practical design. This new “frame & panel” door was almost the only door style used during the Classical era (Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival), and despite a great amount of variation over the last 150 years, frame & panel doors are still, to this day, the most popular style of door.
A company specializing in reproductions of historic doors, appropriately enough named Historic Doors, points out that the shift to paneled doors included benefits far beyond style:
“Most important, it helped resolve the problem of seasonal expansion and contraction of wood. In frame-and-panel doors, two vertical ‘stiles’ ran the length of the door on either side, connected by horizontal ‘rails’. This frame was then filled in by ‘floating’ panels that fitted into grooves cut into the stiles and rails. The overall effect was a door that minimized the tendency to swell and shrink, thus remaining more air-tight.”
Frame & Panel doors varied a great deal. In Connecticut, I have seen dozens of variations — 2 panel, 5 panel, 6 panel, 3 panel, 8 panel. (The 3 paneled doors usually consist of one large panel, rather than the two smaller panels, on the top or bottom).
But the one configuration that seems to have taken on a bit of a legend is the 6 panel door that has come to be called a “Cross & Bible door” or “Christian door.” I cannot find exactly when this became a popular nickname for this particular style of 6 panel door, but the name seems to have stuck in the Northeast as well as the South.
It is pretty easy to see why the door came to be named “Cross & Bible.” If you look at the photo of the 6 panel door on the left (I worked for hours on the artwork — only the best on Historic House Blog), you can easily see how the framing of the bottom 4 panels resembles a cross. And with perhaps a lot more imagination, you can visualize the 2 smaller panels at the top as the pages of an open Bible. Thus, the “Cross & Bible” or “Christian” door.
UPDATE: 11/17/10 — OK, so almost 2 full years after originally writing this article, I have decided to add a “correct” illustration of a cross & bible door. The comments below make it clear that the consensus strongly favors the cross on top, not the bottom. After having this pointed out to me, it seemed fairly obvious to me, too. The proportions for an actual crucifix-style cross make sense that way, but not so much with the cross on the bottom as I originally drew the illustration. So without further delay, below I redeem myself with a new, skillfully crafted display of the cross & bible you can ‘see’ in a Cross & Bible door.
So, if you hadn’t heard of this name for this very common door style, perhaps you will notice Cross & Bible doors in your historic house listings in the future. This certainly is a fun story to share with both sellers and potential buyers of an historic home that has “Christian doors.”