Go with the flow….Registers and Grilles

A source of confusion to many new buyers of Victorian homes is the difference between a register and a grille. Often the terms become interchangeable along with grates, air returns or covers. However there is a distinct difference of form and function between the two.
Registers are louvered to let air flow into a room (either hot or cold). Cold air registers are usually located on walls and ceilings while hot air registers are located on the floor as heat rises. A typical Victorian or early 20th century house in Ontario would consist of many registers but usually only one return per floor.
Grilles or returns are vents which air is pulled through to be circulated back to the central heating or cooling unit. They do not have any damper and may be located on walls, ceilings or floors.
Most modern registers or grilles from your local big box home improvement store feature function over style. Even their “decorative” examples are generally a clumsy computer generated fretwork which don’t hold a candle over their 19th century versions.
Canadian grille makers can be traced back at least to the mid-19th century. In the 1850’s, John Clare of Preston, Ontario took over a factory established by John Beck. The foundry manufactured products associated with home heating-stoves, furnaces, registers, grilles etc. Eventually the company was passed on to his sons, and the “Clare Brothers” name was solidified. The company thrived and grew with the new wave of immigration and they branched out to make other domestic equipment such as stoves. The company was eventually bought out in 1999 by Carrier.
Finding an original Clare Brothers grille might be tricky as many registers and grilles were not stamped with the manufacturer’s name. However, luckily there are lovely examples of 19th century returns and registers to be found. Square and rectangular ones being the most common, large circular ones or horseshoe shapes being more rare. Patterns can include scrolls, geometric shapes or floral accents. The most common material used was cast iron, but grates made from brass, nickle and porcelain over enamel can sometimes be found.
Even if you don’t have a specific opening for a register or grille, they can be used in other methods. Fitted LED lights behind a register or grille can make a dramatic wall sconce, smaller ones can be used for trivets and more detailed and intricate ones can be treated like art and displayed on a wall or shelf. They can also be sunk into a table or garden gate to add a decorative flair. A Victorian, Art Nouveau or Art Deco style register should be appreciated much more than just an air flow vent.