Trends in High Places: History of the Ladder

Among all the tools in a handy person's arsenal, the ladder has perhaps the widest range of applications (and interpretations). To subscribers of superstition, a ladder conjures thoughts of danger and really bad luck.

To firefighters, it is a lifesaving tool. As children, we all knew ladders as routes to fun — a tree house, a bunk bed or a jungle gym. But to tradespeople and homeowners, a ladder simply represents accessibility.

Ladders are downright omnipresent, which makes tracing the origins of these ancient yet basic structures such a challenge. They have no recorded beginning or single inspiration. The first models were merely the natural outcome of people’s ability to problem-solve. Need to reach the fruit on top of that tree? Climb the tree. Need to scale a high ledge in your cave? Cut the tree, crop its branches and prop it against the rock. Need stability? Try using two limbs with sticks strapped across them. According to ancient cave art, that's how it's done.

For centuries, tree parts lashed together to form two rails with some cross members offered adequate footing. For more complex climbing needs (constructing towers and cathedrals, etc.), builders devised scaffolding and longer ladders – initially of wood or bamboo. As milled lumber became available, people made ladders out of boards – a bit less crude and more stable than stick ladders.

Until the end of the 19th century, only homemade and site-built ladders existed, so the commercial production of ladders is a relatively new development. At 110 years old, Michigan Ladder Co. claims it's this country's oldest ladder manufacturer. Of course, its ladders were originally constructed of wood. The first company to manufacture aluminum ladders was born of a request from Oslo, Norway: That city's fire department asked the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) to develop an alternative to its heavy — and combustible — wood ladders. (Imagine the strength required to maneuver a 50-ft. wood ladder!) ALCOA declined the offer, but Sam Carbis, an employee of the company, thought the idea was viable. He resigned and formed the Aluminum Ladder Co. in the 1930s. Both it and the Michigan Ladder Co. are still operating today.

The aluminum extension ladder was a lifesaving advance in firefighting; its strength, light weight and water-resistance made it ideal for industrial use as well. However, rationing of aluminum during World War II caused a setback in production, until the postwar housing boom, which drove ladder sales and design to new heights.

Despite aluminum's advantages over wood, it has one big drawback: It’s a keen conductor of electricity. The search for a safer alternative led Louisville Ladder to introduce a fiberglass stepladder in 1946. Durable, lightweight and nonconductive, fiberglass ladders are climbing in popularity among homeowners and contractors.

In response to safety guidelines and customer needs, manufacturers have stepped up design and engineering of all types of ladders. Having evolved from simple sticks to hinged models that contort for versatility (think Little Giant), today’s ladders meet elevated standards to help us climb high safely.