kid sliding down a railing

Banister, baluster, balustrade, newel post. Are those strange words to you? They’re actually familiar words to me; however, in preparing this column, I’ve discovered I might’ve been misinformed about some of them and their respective definitions.

If you live in a ranch house, you get a free pass on the above question, as all four of those words are related to the railing systems for stairways. Maybe a better question would be, “Whatever made you think of those words, Sue?”

The simple answer would be that I live in a circa 1850s farmhouse which has four levels — basement, first floor, second floor and attic. One of our home’s attractions is that it has a stairway that starts in a central hallway just inside the front door and winds all the way up to the attic door. It’s often referred to as an “open stairway,” because, if you look up, you can see all the way up through from the first-floor hallway to where the stairs end two floors above.

The description “open stairway” seems a bit contradictory. It implies that it might be part of an “open floor plan,” where there are few walls and one has a clear, open view throughout most of one level, as in from the living room, you have an uninterrupted sight line through to the dining room, kitchen and family room.

Let me hasten to add that the floor plan in our farmhouse is anything but open. There is a doorway with a door separating each room in our home. In the wintertime, all those doors are kept closed, to retain heat inside those rooms; in the summer, all those doors are thrown open to facilitate air circulation throughout the house. I just counted 11 separate doors lead off our center stair hallway. Only the stair hallway itself is “open” from bottom to top.

When I was a child growing up here, my mother talked about the hallway “banister.” I always thought (and still did until a few minutes ago when I pulled out a dictionary) she was referring to the top of the railing that runs continuously from the first floor to the third. One of the things I liked to do when I was a little girl was to slide down the banister.

I assumed (and apparently so did my mother) that the banister was the shiny mahogany piece that forms the top of the railing on the stairs. I also remember her calling that same piece the “baluster” or “balustrade.”

Obviously, neither of us had studied architectural terms.

I looked up all three of those words for this column in Webster’s New World Dictionary because I wasn’t sure how to spell them. When I read their respective definitions, I was surprised. A banister is defined as “a baluster.” A baluster is defined as “any of the small posts of a railing, as on a staircase.” And “balustrade” was described as “a row of balusters supporting a rail.” We’d always called those balusters “spindles.”

I went online to get a “second opinion” to see if I was as wrong as it seemed. At Merriam-Webster.com, I found a bit of consolation. Its banister definition read: “A handrail and its supporting posts.” Of course, I looked up baluster, too. It read: “An upright, often vase-shaped support for a rail,” while “balustrade” was defined as “a row of balusters topped by a rail.”

Are you confused yet? I know I am. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to use the term “stair rail” to define what I’ve really wanted to talk about from the start. When I was a little girl — and when the stair door from the kitchen (where my mother spent most of her day) into the stair hall was closed — I loved to climb to the top of the first flight of stairs, throw one of my legs over the stair rail like I was mounting a horse, and take a swift ride down that shiny mahogany railing until I reached a bumpy landing on top of the newel post — which formed the bottom end of that stair rail.

This misdeed was both extra-tempting and made possible because of how my mother kept that mahogany railing shiny — which made for a slick ride, and a quick one. I’d tried going down the railing facing forward, but that never ended well. It was much more fun to slide down facing backward — and if the rail was especially slick, I might zoom right off the newel post and land on my feet.

With company expected recently, I noticed that the stair rail was not shining; there were even some dirty handprints on it, which I found an embarrassing reminder of how I’d neglected this classic architectural feature. That led me to give the whole lengthy stair rail a thorough dusting, following by a wipe down with Murphy’s oil soap in water. I topped that off with a good polishing using extra moisturizing furniture polish.

Now the stair rail is gleaming once again — and I’m fighting the temptation to take a “slide down the banister” again for old time’s sake.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.

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