Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
Category: Home Life in Colonial Days

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When the first settlers landed on American shores, the difficulties in finding or making shelter must have seemed ironical as well as almost unbearable. The colonists found a land magnificent with forest trees of every size and variety, but they had no sawmills, and few saws to cut boards; there was plenty of clay and ample limestone on every side, yet they could have no brick and no mortar; grand boulders of granite and rock were everywhere, yet there was not a single facility for cutting, drawing, or using stone.

These homeless men, so sorely in need of immediate shelter, were baffled by pioneer conditions, and had to turn to many poor expedients, and be satisfied with rude covering. In Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, and, possibly, other states, some reverted to an ancient form of shelter: they became cave-dwellers; caves were dug in the side of a hill, and lived in till the settlers could have time to chop down and cut up trees for log houses. Cornelis Van Tienhoven, Secretary of the Province of New Netherland, gives a description of these cave-dwellings, and says that "the wealthy and principal men in New England lived in this fashion for two reasons: first, not to waste time building; second, not to discourage poorer laboring people." It is to be doubted whether wealthy men ever lived in them in New England, but Johnson, in his _Wonder-working Providence_, written in 1645, tells of the occasional use of these "smoaky homes." They were speedily abandoned, and no records remain of permanent cave-homes in New England. In Pennsylvania caves were used by newcomers as homes for a long time, certainly half a century. They generally were formed by digging into the ground about four feet in depth on the banks or low cliffs near the river front. The walls were then built up of sods or earth laid on poles or brush; thus half only of the chamber was really under ground. If dug into a side hill, the earth formed at least two walls. The roofs were layers of tree limbs covered over with sod, or bark, or rushes and bark. The chimneys were laid of cobblestone or sticks of wood mortared with clay and grass. The settlers were thankful even for these poor shelters, and declared that they found them comfortable. By 1685 many families were still living in caves in Pennsylvania, for the Governor's Council then ordered the caves to be destroyed and filled in. Sometimes the settler used the cave for a cellar for the wooden house which he built over it.

These cave-dwellings were perhaps the poorest houses ever known by any Americans, yet pioneers, or poor, or degraded folk have used them for homes in America until far more recent days. In one of these miserable habitations of earth and sod in the town of Rutland, Massachusetts, were passed some of the early years of the girlhood of Madame Jumel, whose beautiful house on Washington Heights, New York, still stands to show the contrasts that can come in a single life.

The homes of the Indians were copied by the English, being ready adaptations of natural and plentiful resources. Wigwams in the South were of plaited rush or grass mats; of deerskins pinned on a frame; of tree boughs rudely piled into a cover, and in the far South, of layers of palmetto leaves. In the mild climate of the Middle and Southern states a "half-faced camp," of the Indian form, with one open side, which served for windows and door, and where the fire was built, made a good temporary home. In such for a time, in his youth, lived Abraham Lincoln. Bark wigwams were the most easily made of all; they could be quickly pinned together on a light frame. In 1626 there were thirty home-buildings of Europeans on the island of Manhattan, now New York, and all but one of them were of bark.

Though the settler had no sawmills, brick kilns, or stone-cutters, he had one noble friend,--a firm rock to stand upon,--his broad-axe. With his axe, and his own strong and willing arms, he could take a long step in advance in architecture; he could build a log cabin. These good, comfortable, and substantial houses have ever been built by American pioneers, not only in colonial days, but in our Western and Southern states to the present time. A typical one like many now standing and occupied in the mountains of North Carolina is here shown. Round logs were halved together at the corners, and roofed with logs, or with bark and thatch on poles; this made a comfortable shelter, especially when the cracks between the logs were "chinked" with wedges of wood, and "daubed" with clay. Many cabins had at first no chinking or daubing; one settler while sleeping was scratched on the head by the sharp teeth of a hungry wolf, who thrust his nose into the space between the logs of the cabin. Doors were hung on wooden hinges or straps of hide.

A favorite form of a log house for a settler to build in his first "cut down" in the virgin forest, was to dig a square trench about two feet deep, of dimensions as large as he wished the ground floor of his house, then to set upright all around this trench (leaving a space for a fireplace, window, and door), a closely placed row of logs all the same length, usually fourteen feet long for a single story; if there was a loft, eighteen feet long. The earth was filled in solidly around these logs, and kept them firmly upright; a horizontal band of puncheons, which were split logs smoothed off on the face with the axe, was sometimes pinned around within the log walls, to keep them from caving in. Over this was placed a bark roof, made of squares of chestnut bark, or shingles of overlapping birch-bark. A bark or log shutter was hung at the window, and a bark door hung on withe hinges, or, if very luxurious, on leather straps, completed the quickly made home. This was called rolling-up a house, and the house was called a puncheon and bark house. A rough puncheon floor, hewed flat with an axe or adze, was truly a luxury. One settler's wife pleaded that the house might be rolled up around a splendid flat stump; thus she had a good, firm table. A small platform placed about two feet high alongside one wall, and supported at the outer edge with strong posts, formed a bedstead. Sometimes hemlock boughs were the only bed. The frontier saying was, "A hard day's work makes a soft bed." The tired pioneers slept well even on hemlock boughs. The chinks of the logs were filled with moss and mud, and in the autumn banked up outside with earth for warmth.

These log houses did not satisfy English men and women. They longed to have what Roger Williams called English houses, which were, however, scarcely different in ground-plan. A single room on the ground, called in many old wills the fire-room, had a vast chimney at one end. A so-called staircase, usually but a narrow ladder, led to a sleeping-loft above. Some of those houses were still made of whole logs, but with clapboards nailed over the chinks and cracks. Others were of a lighter frame covered with clapboards, or in Delaware with boards pinned on perpendicularly. Soon this house was doubled in size and comfort by having a room on either side of the chimney.

Each settlement often followed in general outline as well as detail the houses to which the owners had become accustomed in Europe, with, of course, such variations as were necessary from the new surroundings, new climate, and new limitations. New York was settled by the Dutch, and therefore naturally the first permanent houses were Dutch in shape, such as may be seen in Holland to-day. In the large towns in New Netherland the houses were certainly very pretty, as all visitors stated who wrote accounts at that day. Madam Knights visited New York in 1704, and wrote of the houses,--I will give her own words, in her own spelling and grammar, which were not very good, though she was the teacher of Benjamin Franklin, and the friend of Cotton Mather:--

     "The Buildings are Brick Generaly very stately and high: the Bricks in some of the houses are of divers Coullers, and laid in Checkers, being glazed, look very agreable. The inside of the houses is neat to admiration, the wooden work; for only the walls are plaster'd; and the Sumers and Gist are planed and kept very white scour'd as so is all the partitions if made of Bords."

The "sumers and gist" were the heavy timbers of the frame, the summer-pieces and joists. The summer-piece was the large middle beam in the middle from end to end of the ceiling; the joists were cross-beams. These were not covered with plaster as nowadays, but showed in every ceiling; and in old houses are sometimes set so curiously and fitted so ingeniously, that they are always an entertaining study. Another traveller says that New York houses had patterns of colored brick set in the front, and also bore the date of building. The Governor's house at Albany had two black brick-hearts. Dutch houses were set close to the sidewalk with the gable-end to the street; and had the roof notched like steps,--corbel-roof was the name; and these ends were often of brick, while the rest of the walls were of wood. The roofs were high in proportion to the side walls, and hence steep; they were surmounted usually in Holland fashion with weather-vanes in the shape of horses, lions, geese, sloops, or fish; a rooster was a favorite Dutch weather-vane. There were metal gutters sticking out from every roof almost to the middle of the street; this was most annoying to passers-by in rainy weather, who were deluged with water from the roofs. The cellar windows had small loop-holes with shutters. The windows were always small; some had only sliding shutters, others had but two panes or quarels of glass, as they were called, which were only six or eight inches square. The front doors were cut across horizontally in the middle into two parts, and in early days were hung on leather hinges instead of iron.

In the upper half of the door were two round bull's-eyes of heavy greenish glass, which let faint rays of light enter the hall. The door opened with a latch, and often had also a knocker. Every house had a porch or "stoep" flanked with benches, which were constantly occupied in the summer time; and every evening, in city and village alike, an incessant visiting was kept up from stoop to stoop. The Dutch farmhouses were a single straight story, with two more stories in the high, in-curving roof. They had doors and stoops like the town houses, and all the windows had heavy board shutters. The cellar and the garret were the most useful rooms in the house; they were store-rooms for all kinds of substantial food. In the cellar were great bins of apples, potatoes, turnips, beets, and parsnips. There were hogsheads of corned beef, barrels of salt pork, tubs of hams being salted in brine, tonnekens of salt shad and mackerel, firkins of butter, kegs of pigs' feet, tubs of souse, kilderkins of lard. On a long swing-shelf were tumblers of spiced fruits, and "rolliches," head-cheese, and strings of sausages--all Dutch delicacies.

In strong racks were barrels of cider and vinegar, and often of beer. Many contained barrels of rum and a pipe of Madeira. What a storehouse of plenty and thrift! What an emblem of Dutch character! In the attic by the chimney was the smoke-house, filled with hams, bacon, smoked beef, and sausages.

In Virginia and Maryland, where people did not gather into towns, but built their houses farther apart, there were at first few sawmills, and the houses were universally built of undressed logs. Nails were costly, as were all articles manufactured of iron, hence many houses were built without iron; wooden pins and pegs were driven in holes cut to receive them; hinges were of leather; the shingles on the roof were sometimes pinned, or were held in place by "weight-timbers." The doors had latches with strings hanging outside; by pulling in the string within-doors the house was securely locked. This form of latch was used in all the colonies. When persons were leaving houses, they sometimes set them on fire in order to gather up the nails from the ashes. To prevent this destruction of buildings, the government of Virginia gave to each planter who was leaving his house as many nails as the house was estimated to have in its frame, provided the owner would not burn the house down.

Some years later, when boards could be readily obtained, the favorite dwelling-place in the South was a framed building with a great stone or log-and-clay chimney at either end. The house was usually set on sills resting on the ground. The partitions were sometimes covered with a thick layer of mud which dried into a sort of plaster and was whitewashed. The roofs were covered with cypress shingles.

Hammond wrote of these houses in 1656, in his _Leah and Rachel_, "Pleasant in their building, and contrived delightfull; the rooms large, daubed and whitelimed, glazed and flowered; and if not glazed windows, shutters made pretty and convenient."

When prosperity and wealth came through the speedily profitable crops of tobacco, the houses improved. The home-lot or yard of the Southern planters showed a pleasant group of buildings, which would seem the most cheerful home of the colonies, only that all dearly earned homes are cheerful to their owners. There was not only the spacious mansion house for the planter with its pleasant porch, but separate buildings in which were a kitchen, cabins for the negro servants and the overseer, a stable, barn, coach-house, hen-house, smoke-house, dove-cote, and milk-room. In many yards a tall pole with a toy house at top was erected; in this bird-house bee-martins built their nests, and by bravely disconcerting the attacks of hawks and crows, and noisily notifying the family and servants of the approach of the enemy, thus served as a guardian for the domestic poultry, whose home stood close under this protection. There was seldom an ice-house. The only means for the preservation of meats in hot weather was by water constantly pouring into and through a box house erected over the spring that flowed near the house. Sometimes a brew-house was also found in the yard, for making home-brewed beer, and a tool-house for storing tools and farm implements. Some farms had a cider-mill, but this was not in the house yard. Often there was a spinning-house where servants could spin flax and wool. This usually had one room containing a hand-loom on which coarse bagging could be woven, and homespun for the use of the negroes. A very beautiful example of a splendid and comfortable Southern mansion such as was built by wealthy planters in the middle of the eighteenth century has been preserved for us at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.

Mount Vernon was not so fine nor so costly a house as many others built earlier in the century, such as Lower Brandon--two centuries and a half old--and Upper Brandon, the homes of the Harrisons; Westover, the home of the Byrds; Shirley, built in 1650, the home of the Carters; Sabin Hall, another Carter home, is still standing on the Rappahannock with its various and many quarters and outbuildings, and is a splendid example of colonial architecture.

As the traveller came north from Virginia through Pennsylvania, "the Jerseys," and Delaware, the negro cabins and detached kitchen disappeared, and many of the houses were of stone and mortar. A clay oven stood by each house. In the cities stone and brick were much used, and by 1700 nearly all Philadelphia houses had balconies running the entire length of the second story. The stoop before the door was universal.

For half a century nearly all New England houses were cottages. Many had thatched roofs. Seaside towns set aside for public use certain reedy lots between salt-marsh and low-water mark, where thatch could be freely cut. The catted chimneys were of logs plastered with clay, or platted, that is, made of reeds and mortar; and as wood and hay were stacked in the streets, all the early towns suffered much from fires, and soon laws were passed forbidding the building of these unsafe chimneys; as brick was imported and made, and stone was quarried, there was certainly no need to use such danger-filled materials. Fire-wardens were appointed who peered around in all the kitchens, hunting for what they called foul chimney hearts, and they ordered flag-roofs and wooden chimneys to be removed, and replaced with stone or brick ones. In Boston every housekeeper had to own a fire-ladder; and ladders and buckets were kept in the church. Salem kept its "fire-buckets and hook'd poles" in the town-house. Soon in all towns each family owned fire-buckets made of heavy leather and marked with the owner's name or initials. The entire town constituted the fire company, and the method of using the fire-buckets was this. As soon as an alarm of fire was given by shouts or bell-ringing, every one ran at once towards the scene of the fire. All who owned buckets carried them, and if any person was delayed even for a few minutes, he flung his fire-buckets from the window into the street, where some one in the running crowd seized them and carried them on. On reaching the fire, a double line called lanes of persons was made from the fire to the river or pond, or a well. A very good representation of these lanes is given in this fireman's certificate of the year 1800.

The buckets, filled with water, were passed from hand to hand, up one line of persons to the fire, while the empty ones went down the other line. Boys were stationed on the _dry lane_. Thus a constant supply of water was carried to the fire. If any person attempted to pass through the line, or hinder the work, he promptly got a bucketful or two of water poured over him. When the fire was over, the fire-warden took charge of the buckets; some hours later the owners appeared, each picked out his own buckets from the pile, carried them home, and hung them up by the front door, ready to be seized again for use at the next alarm of fire.

Many of these old fire-buckets are still preserved, and deservedly are cherished heirlooms, for they represent the dignity and importance due a house-holding ancestor. They were a valued possession at the time of their use, and a costly one, being, made of the best leather. They were often painted not only with the name of the owner, but with family mottoes, crests, or appropriate inscriptions, sometimes in Latin. The leather hand-buckets of the Donnison family of Boston are here shown; those of the Quincy family bear the legend _Impavadi Flammarium_; those of the Oliver family, _Friend and Public_. In these fire-buckets were often kept, tightly rolled, strong canvas bags, in which valuables could be thrust and carried from the burning building.

The first fire-engine made in this country was for the town of Boston, and was made about 1650 by Joseph Jencks, the famous old iron-worker in Lynn. It was doubtless very simple in shape, as were its successors until well into this century. The first fire-engine used in Brooklyn, New York, is here shown. It was made in 1785 by Jacob Boome. Relays of men at both handles worked the clumsy pump. The water supply for this engine was still only through the lanes of fire-buckets, except in rare cases.

By the year 1670 wooden chimneys and log houses of the Plymouth and Bay colonies were replaced by more sightly houses of two stories, which were frequently built with the second story jutting out a foot or two over the first, and sometimes with the attic story still further extending over the second story. A few of these are still standing: The White-Ellery House, at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1707, is here shown. This "overhang" is popularly supposed to have been built for the purpose of affording a convenient shooting-place from which to repel the Indians. This is, however, an historic fable. The overhanging second story was a common form of building in England in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and the Massachusetts and Rhode Island settlers simply and naturally copied their old homes.

The roofs of many of these new houses were steep, and were shingled with hand-riven shingles. The walls between the rooms were of clay mixed with chopped straw. Sometimes the walls were whitened with a wash made of powdered clam-shells. The ground floors were occasionally of earth, but puncheon floors were common in the better houses. The well-smoothed timbers were sanded in careful designs with cleanly beach sand.

By 1676 the Royal Commissioners wrote of Boston that the streets were crooked, and the houses usually wooden, with a few of brick and stone. It is a favorite tradition of brick houses in all the colonies that the brick for them was brought from England. As excellent brick was made here, I cannot believe all these tales that are told. Occasionally a house, such as the splendid Warner Mansion, still standing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is proved to be of imported brick by the bills which are still existing for the purchase and transportation of the brick. A later form of many houses was two stories or two stories and a half in front, with a peaked roof that sloped down nearly to the ground in the back over an ell covering the kitchen, added in the shape known as a lean-to, or, as it was called by country folk, the linter. This sloping roof gave the one element of unconscious picturesqueness which redeemed the prosaic ugliness of these bare-walled houses. Many lean-to houses are still standing in New England. The Boardman Hill House, built at North Saugus, Massachusetts, two centuries and a half ago, and the two houses of lean-to form, the birthplaces of President John Adams and of President John Quincy Adams, are typical examples.

The next roof-form, built from early colonial days, and popular a century ago, was what was known as the gambrel roof. This resembled, on two sides, the mansard roof of France in the seventeenth century, but was also gabled at two ends. The gambrel roof had a certain grace of outline, especially when joined with lean-tos and other additions. The house partly built in 1636 in Dedham, Massachusetts, by my far-away grandfather, and known as the Fairbanks House, is the oldest gambrel-roofed house now standing. It is still occupied by one of his descendants in the eighth generation. The rear view of it, here given, shows the picturesqueness of roof outlines and the quaintness which comes simply from variety. The front of the main building, with its eight windows, all of different sizes and set at different heights, shows equal diversity. Within, the boards in the wall-panelling vary from two to twenty-five inches in width.

The windows of the first houses had oiled paper to admit light. A colonist wrote back to England to a friend who was soon to follow, "Bring oiled paper for your windows." The minister, Higginson, sent promptly in 1629 for glass for windows. This glass was set in the windows with nails; the sashes were often narrow and oblong, of diamond-shaped panes set in lead, and opening up and down the middle on hinges. Long after the large towns and cities had glass windows, frontier settlements still had heavy wooden shutters. They were a safer protection against Indian assault, as well as cheaper. It is asserted that in the province of Kennebec, which is now the state of Maine, there was not, even as late as 1745, a house that had a square of glass in it. Oiled paper was used until this century in pioneer houses for windows wherever it was difficult to transport glass.

Few of the early houses in New England were painted, or colored, as it was called, either without or within. Painters do not appear in any of the early lists of workmen. A Salem citizen, just previous to the Revolution, had the woodwork of one of the rooms of his house painted. One of a group of friends, discussing this extravagance a few days later, said: "Well! Archer has set us a fine example of expense,--he has laid one of his rooms in oil." This sentence shows both the wording and ideas of the times.

There was one external and suggestive adjunct of the earliest pioneer's home which was found in nearly all the settlements which were built in the midst of threatening Indians. Some strong houses were always surrounded by a stockade, or "palisado," of heavy, well-fitted logs, which thus formed a garrison, or neighborhood resort, in time of danger. In the valley of Virginia each settlement was formed of houses set in a square, connected from end to end of the outside walls by stockades with gates; thus forming a close front. On the James River, on Manhattan Island, were stockades. The whole town plot of Milford, Connecticut, was enclosed in 1645, and the Indians taunted the settlers by shouting out, "White men all same like pigs." At one time in Massachusetts, twenty towns proposed an all-surrounding palisade. The progress and condition of our settlements can be traced in our fences. As Indians disappeared or succumbed, the solid row of pales gave place to a log-fence, which served well to keep out depredatory animals. When dangers from Indians or wild animals entirely disappeared, boards were still not over-plenty, and the strength of the owner could not be over-spent on unnecessary fencing. Then came the double-rail fence; two rails, held in place one above the other, at each joining, by four crossed sticks. It was a boundary, and would keep in cattle. It was said that every fence should be horse-high, bull-proof, and pig-tight. Then came stone walls, showing a thorough clearing and taming of the land. The succeeding "half-high" stone wall--a foot or two high, with a single rail on top--showed that stones were not as plentiful in the fields as in early days. The "snake-fence," or "Virginia fence," so common in the Southern states, utilized the second growth of forest trees. The split-rail fence, four or five rails in height, was set at intervals with posts, pierced with holes to hold the ends of the rails. These were used to some extent in the East; but our Western states were fenced throughout with rails split by sturdy pioneer rail-splitters, among them young Abraham Lincoln. Board fences showed the day of the sawmill and its plentiful supply; the wire fences of to-day equally prove the decrease of our forests and our wood, and the growth of our mineral supplies and manufactures of metals. Thus even our fences might be called historical monuments.

A few of the old block-houses, or garrison houses, the "defensible houses," which were surrounded by these stockades, are still standing. The most interesting are the old Garrison at East Haverhill, Massachusetts, built in 1670; it has walls of solid oak, and brick a foot and a half thick; the Saltonstall House at Ipswich, built in 1633; Cradock Old Fort in Medford, Massachusetts, built in 1634 of brick made on the spot; an old fort at York, Maine; and the Whitefield Garrison House, built in 1639 at Guilford, Connecticut. The one at Newburyport is the most picturesque and beautiful of them all.

As social life in Boston took on a little aspect of court life in the circle gathered around the royal governors, the pride of the wealthy found expression in handsome and stately houses. These were copied and added to by men of wealth and social standing in other towns. The Province House, built in 1679, the Frankland House in 1735, and the Hancock House, all in Boston; the Shirley House in Roxbury, the Wentworth Mansion in New Hampshire, are good examples. They were dignified and simple in form, and have borne the test of centuries,--they wear well. They never erred in over-ornamentation, being scant of interior decoration, save in two or three principal rooms and the hall and staircase. The panelled step ends and soffits, the graceful newels and balusters, of those old staircases hold sway as models to this day.

The same taste which made the staircase the centre of decoration within, made the front door the sole point of ornamentation without; and equal beauty is there focused. Worthy of study and reproduction, many of the old-time front doors are with their fine panels, graceful, leaded side windows, elaborate and pretty fan-lights, and slight but appropriate carving. The prettiest leaded windows I ever saw in an American home were in a thereby glorified hen-house. They had been taken from the discarded front door of a remodelled old Falmouth house. The hens and their owner were not of antiquarian tastes, and relinquished the windows for a machine-made sash more suited to their plebeian tastes and occupations. Many colonial doors had door-latches or knobs of heavy brass; nearly all had a knocker of wrought iron or polished brass, a cheerful ornament that ever seems to resound a welcome to the visitor as well as a notification to the visited.

The knocker from the John Hancock House in Boston and that from the Winslow House in Marshfield are here shown; both are now in the custody of the Bostonian Society, and may be seen at the Old State House in Boston. The latter was given to the society by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes.

The "King-Hooper" House, still standing in Danvers, Massachusetts, closely resembled the Hancock House. This house, built by Robert Hooper in 1754, was for a time the refuge of the royal governor of Massachusetts--Governor Gage; and hence is sometimes called General Gage's Headquarters. When the minute-men marched past the house to Lexington on April 18, 1775, they stripped the lead from the gate-posts. "King Hooper" angrily denounced them, and a minute-man fired at him as he entered the house. The bullet passed through the panel of the door, and the rent may still be seen. Hence the house has been often called The House of the Front Door with the Bullet-Hole. The present owner and occupier of the house, Francis Peabody, Esq., has appropriately named it The Lindens, from the stately linden trees that grace its gardens and lawns.

In riding through those portions of our states that were the early settled colonies, it is pleasant to note where any old houses are still standing, or where the sites of early colonial houses are known, the good taste usually shown by the colonists in the places chosen to build their houses. They dearly loved a "sightly location." An old writer said: "My consayte is such; I had rather not to builde a mansyon or a house than to builde one without a good prospect in it, to it, and from it." In Virginia the houses were set on the river slope, where every passing boat might see them. The New England colonists painfully climbed long, tedious hills, that they might have homes from whence could be had a beautiful view, and this was for the double reason, as the old writer said, that in their new homes they might both see and be seen.