Revisited Myth #41: Stairs were sometimes built with one riser noticeably shorter than the rest, to trip up burglars.

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It makes a great scene, doesn’t it? In the dead of night, a thief breaks quietly into the house. Sneaking up the stairs, he comes down hard on one foot when one of the stair risers is unexpectedly shorter than the rest. Thud! The noise wakes the household and the thief is caught!

Many historic houses have uneven risers in their staircases. The myth of the burglar alarm staircase has been related by docents throughout the country, including . . . I blush to disclose . . . me. Well, geez, I heard it from one of the older tour guides back in the late ’70s and it sounded believable to someone young and inexperienced . . .

The scene of my crime was the back staircase in the 1718 portion of Williamsburg’s Peyton Randolph House house. The staircase has seventeen steps, with the top riser significantly shorter than the rest. A lot of old houses have similarly uneven risers. If this is a myth–and it is–what explains the uneven risers?

Garland Wood, Colonial Williamsburg’s master carpenter, says it better than I; “Building stairs is hard! It’s not natural or intuitive. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century stair building books [yes, people wrote entire books about how to build a staircase] show mathematically precise ways to use modern framing square to lay out the stringers and make the cutouts for the treads and risers. Stairs were laid out so precisely that some were build in workshops offsite and then brought in and installed. But that’s not the way stairs were built in Williamsburg in the colonial era. Most stairs in the Historic Area were built from the bottom up, one riser and tread at a time. Invariably, error creeps in as more treads are installed which leads to the final riser being a little tall or short. What is the carpenter supposed to do? Tear it all down and start over, or simply leave the last set of treads and risers a little out of whack?”

Without the mathematical aides, modern framing squares, and stair building treatises of later years, it took an unusually skilled (or lucky) carpenter to build a stair onsite that comes out perfectly. The average carpenter could build a stair that got you up and down, but not with perfectly aligned treads and risers. Uneven risers could also have been caused by inferior workmanship during subsequent repairs, or by the house settling over time. They were never intentional.

8 Responses to Revisited Myth #41: Stairs were sometimes built with one riser noticeably shorter than the rest, to trip up burglars.

  1. Jean says:

    I give tours of an 1861 Courthouse, sometimes wearing multiple petticoats or a hoop. Uneven stairs are tricky when you can’t see the steps! I explain about the hand tools used to build these stairs, and how repairs & shifting change all structures over the years. I like to challenge folks to put their hand on the railing then walk up the stairs with their eyes closed!

  2. mjtierney1 says:

    I have to admit that I’ve never heard of this myth, but having lived in old houses all my life, and realizing the complex geometry involved in building staircases, I can’t believe that anyone believes this. Just try dividing the distance between two floors by the number of stairs with nothing left over, and you’ll realize how difficult it is!

  3. Kris Fox Brown says:

    well, darn, I just thought people were shorter back then and the risers were shorter to accommodate those little short, squatty legs that everyone had….and the chairs were lower…now this just upsets me no end…I liked the fact that my ancestors were teeny tiny little people who could run under tables and not hit their heads….oh well, I guess I’ll have to live with it….LOLOL!!!!!!! (actually, thanks very much for this site, Mary!! )

  4. I work as a museum interpreter at Bacon’s Castle, completed in 1665. (yes, we are pleased to say we are 350 years old this year!) There is also an 1854 addition with a wonderful staircase, but the 17th century one is another matter! It is steep with narrow steps, leading people to assume people “back then” had really small feet. Would it be appropriate for me to relate this information about not having a set way to construct stairs? We do say that the average man was 5’7″ and the average woman was maybe 5 feet tall, but that is another question for another time!

    • Mary Miley says:

      Certainly, you can explain about construction limitations “back then,” although I wonder what the documentation is that supports those average height measurements.

  5. formertotowa says:

    I find it hard to believe that any carpenter building a stair would not know how to divide a distance without a framing square or “mathematical aid.” All you need is a ruler or tape, and that is all you ever needed. Carpenters use it every day to determine spacing for siding, roofing, and stairs. Very precisely. And every carpenter knows that you never accumulate error on a stair, and instead you measure each step off a common reference (the bottom)

    So I think this is another myth. More likely the odd step is caused by later renovation work changing the height of the floor.

    • Mary Miley says:

      While you are no doubt correct in speculating about “every carpenter” (professional carpenters) today, in an era when most builders were amateurs, men without formal apprenticeship who were building their own homes, sheds, or shops, we can’t assume a high level of skill.

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