Types of Old-Fashioned Elevator Designs

Customers conceiving a plan for a custom elevator often wonder, “How can I get that old-fashioned, classic look?” This type of project materializes as a birdcage elevator with modern operation, but the design itself comes after over a century of innovations.


The first system resembling a modern passenger elevator is said to have been created in the 18th century for King Louis the XV, who lived in Versailles. Unlike 20th century operation, however, this elevator was controlled manually by men raising it with ropes.

The 1800s brought more innovations, such as a steam-powered design introduced by architects Burton and Hormer in 1823. Not far after that, architects Frost and Stutt added a belt and counterweight system. This latter design created the framework for elevator operation into the 20th century.

That’s not to say other alternatives weren’t considered. In fact, the 19th century did see hydraulic elevators created, but the amount of space needed at the time prevented it from being practical in buildings and skyscrapers.

What eventually made elevators safer was the brake, introduced by Elisha Otis in the 1850s. This allowed the pulley system to firmly and clearly stop the cab on a higher floor.

Stemming out of this, electric power in the century’s last few decades finally made elevators more practical for commercial use. Growing out of this, architects could incorporate these systems within taller buildings, hence giving rise to more and more skyscrapers in urban centers.

The 20th century resulted in refining this design. Gearless traction elevators emerged, eventually equipped with multi-speed motors. Elevator operators – someone you might have seen in one of those old-fashioned birdcage elevators – controlled this aspect with a handle. Moving the handle in one direction raised the elevator; the opposite lowered the system. Applying more pressure made the elevator move faster.

During this period, more automatic designs emerged, although manual operation remained the standard until World War II.


Along with power and operation, design further evolved over the years.

Older elevators often were nothing more than a platform, while the 19th and 20th centuries brought the now-familiar birdcage form. At the time, this featured a manual scissor gate to protect users from falling within the hoistway.

Since the mid 20th century, elevators have incorporated solid doors. Commercial options may include a cascading telescopic configuration, which opens wider and allows for more interior room. Two panels meet at the midpoint of one side, each operating on independent tracks.

Smaller elevators use what’s called a “slab” door. With this setup, a panel slides to the left or right, covering a single side. Home elevators tend to feature this option.

Interested in creating an elevator with an old-fashioned birdcage design? Work with Artisan to make your vision a reality. Browse our gallery today, and then contact us to request a quote.

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