Chronicles of America 

Colonial Houses

It is well worth while for us at this point to look more in detail at the colonial towns to see the houses in which our ancestors dwelt and to note the architecture of their public edifices, for these men had a distinctive style of building as characteristic of their age as skyscrapers and apartment houses are of the present century. The household furnishings have also a charm of their own and in many cases, by their combination of utility and good taste, have provided models for the craftsmen of a later day. A brief survey of colonial houses, inside and out, will serve to give us a much clearer idea of the environment in which the people lived during the colonial era.

The materials used by the colonists for building were wood, brick, and more rarely stone. At first practically all houses were of wood, as was natural in a country where this material lay ready to every man's hand and where the means for making brick or cutting stone were not readily accessible. Clay, though early used for chimneys, was not substantial enough for house building, and lime for mortar and plaster was not easy to obtain. Though limestone was discovered in New England in 1697, it was not known at all in the tidewater section of the South, where lime continued to the end of the era to be made from calcined oyster shells. The seventeenth century was the period of wooden houses, wooden churches, and wooden public buildings; it was the eighteenth century which saw the erection of brick buildings in America.

Up to the time of the Revolution bricks were brought from England and Holland, and are found entered in cargo lists as late as 1770, though they probably served often only as ballast. But most of the bricks used in colonial buildings were molded and burnt in America. There were brick kilns everywhere in the colonies from Portsmouth to Savannah. Indeed bricks were made, north and south, in large enough quantities to be exported yearly to the West Indies. As building stone scarcely existed in the South, all important buildings there were of brick, or in case greater strength were needed, as for Fort Johnston at the mouth of the Cape Fear River or the fortifications of Charleston, of tappy work, a mixture of concrete and shells. Brick walls were often built very thick; those of St. Philip's Church, Brunswick, still show three feet in depth. Chimneys were heavy, often in stacks, and windows as a rule were small. The bonding was English, Flemish, or "running," according to the taste of the builder, and many of the houses had stone trimming, which had to be brought from England, if it were of freestone as was suggested for King's Chapel, Boston, or of marble as in Governor Tryon's palace in New Bern.

Buildings of stone were not common and were confined chiefly to the North, where this material could be easily and cheaply obtained. As early as 1639 Henry Whitfield erected a house of stone at Guilford, Connecticut, to serve in part as a place of defense, and in other places, here and there, were to be found stone buildings used for various purposes. It has been said that King's Chapel, Boston, built in 1749-54, was the first building in America to be constructed of hewn stone, but this is not the case. Some of the early houses in New York as well as the two Anglican churches were of hewn stone. The Malbone country house near Newport, built before 1750, was also "of hewn stone and all the corners and sides of the windows painted to represent marble. " There were many houses in the colonies painted to resemble stone, and some in which only the first story or the basement was of this material, while in many instances there were broad stone steps leading up to a house otherwise constructed of wood or brick. Stone for building purposes was therefore well known and frequently used.

Travelers who visited the leading towns in the period from 1750 to 1763 have left descriptions which help us to visualize the external features of these places. Portsmouth, the most northerly town of importance, had houses of both wood and brick, "large and exceeding neat," we are told, "generally 3 story high and well sashed and glazed with the best glass, the rooms well plastered and many wainscoted or hung with painted paper from England, the outside clapboarded very neatly." Salem was "a large town well built, many genteel large houses (which tho' of wood) are all planed and painted on the outside in imitation of hewn stone." By 1750 Boston had about three thousand houses and twenty thousand inhabitants; two-thirds of the houses were of wood, two or three stories high, mostly sashed, the remainder of brick, substantially built and in excellent architectural taste. The streets were well paved with stone, a thing rare in New England, but those in the North End were crooked, narrow, and disagreeable. Worcester was "one of the best built and prettiest inland little towns" that Lord Adam Gordon had seen in America. The houses in Newport, with one or two exceptions, were of wood, making "a good appearance and also as well furnished as in most places you will meet with, many of the rooms being hung with printed canvas and paper, which looks very neat, others are well wainscoted and painted. " New London with its one street a mile long by the river side and its houses built of wood, seemed in 1750 to be "new and neat. " New Haven, which covered a great deal of ground, was laid out in nine squares around a green or market place, and contained many houses in wood, a few in brick or stone, a brick statehouse, a brick meetinghouse, and Yale College, which was being rebuilt in brick. Middletown, though one of the most important commercial centers between New York and Boston and the third town in Connecticut, had only wooden houses. Hartford, "a large, scattering town on a small river" (the Little River not the Connecticut is meant), was built chiefly of wood, with here and there a brick dwelling house.

New York, with two or three thousand buildings and from sixteen to seventeen thousand people in 1760, was very irregular in plan, with streets which were crooked and exceedingly narrow but generally pretty well paved, thus adding "much to the decency and cleanness of the place and the advantage of carriage. " Many of the houses were built in the old Dutch fashion, with their gables to the street, but others were more modern, "many of 'em spacious, genteel houses, some being 4 or 5 stories high, others not above two, of hewn stone, brick, and white Holland tiles, neat but not grand. " A round cupola capping a square wooden church tower rising above a few clustering houses was all that marked the town of Brooklyn, while a ferry tavern and a few houses were all that foreshadowed the future greatness of Jersey City. Albany was as yet a town of dirty and crooked streets, with its houses badly built, chiefly of wood, and unattractive in appearance.

Southward across the river from New York were Elizabeth, New Brunswick, and Perth Amboy, the last with a few houses for the "quality folk," but "a mean village, " albeit one of the capitals of the province of New Jersey. Burlington, the other capital, consisted "of one spacious large street that runs down to the river, " with several cross streets, on which were a few "tolerable good buildings," with a courthouse which made "but a poor figure, considering its advantageous location." Trenton, or Trent Town, was described in 1749 as "a fine town and near to Delaware River, with fine stone buildings and a fine river and intervals medows, etc. "

Philadelphia had 2100 houses in 1750 and 3600 in 1765, built almost entirely of brick, generally "three stories high and well sashed, so that the city must make (take it upon the whole) a very good figure. " The Virginia ladies who visited the city were wont to complain of the small rooms and monotonous architecture, every house like every other. The streets were paved with flat footwalks on each side of the street and well illumined with lamps, which Boston does not appear to have had until 1773. Wilmington on the Delaware was a very young town in 1750, "all the houses being new and built of brick. " Newcastle, the capital, was a poor town of little importance. There were but few towns in Maryland. Annapolis, the capital, was "charmingly situated on a peninsula, falling different ways to the water . . . built in an irregular form, the streets generally running diagonally and ending in the Town House, others on a house that was built for the Governor, but never was finished." This "Governor's House" afterwards became the main building of St. John's College. A majority of the residences were of brick, substantially built within brick walls enclosing gardens in true English fashion.

Across the Potomac was Williamsburg, the capital of Virginia and the seat of William and Mary College, built partly of brick and partly of wood, and resembling, it seemed to Lord Adam Gordon, a good country town in England. Norfolk, which was built chiefly of brick, was a mercantile center, with warehouses, ropewalks, wharves, and shipyards, while Fredericksburg, at the head of navigation on the Rappahannock, was constructed of wood and brick, its houses roofed with shingles painted to resemble state. Winchester in the Shenandoah Valley was described in 1755 as "a town built of limestone and covered with slate with which the hills abound. " It was the center of a settled farming country and its inhabitants enjoyed most of the necessities but few of the luxuries of life and had almost no books. It is described as being "inhabited by a spurious race of mortals known by the appellation of Scotch-Irish. " In all of these towns were one or more churches, the market house, prison, and pillory, and in the chief city at the usual place of execution was the gallows of the colony.

The older towns of North Carolina, Edenton, Bath, Halifax, and New Bern, were all small, and in 1760 were either stationary or declining. Their houses were built of wood and, except for Tryon's palace at New Bern — an extravagant structure, considering the resources of the colony — the public buildings were of no significance. Brunswick, too, was declining and was but a poor town, "with a few scattered houses on the edge of a wood, " inhabited by merchants. Wilmington was now rapidly advancing to the leading place in the province, because of its secure harbor, easy communication with the back country, accessibility to the other parts of the colony, fresh water, and improved postal facilities. In 1760 it had about eight hundred people; its houses, though not spacious, were in general very commodious and well furnished. Peter du Bois wrote of Wilmington in 1757: "It has greatly the preference in my esteem to New Bern . . . the regularity of its streets is equal to that of Philadelphia and the buildings are in general very good. Many of brick, two or three stories high with double piazzas, which make a good appearance. "

Charleston, or Charles Town as the name was always written in colonial times, was the leading city of the South and is thus described by Pelatiah Webster, who visited it in 1765: "It contains abt 1000 houses with inhabitants 5000 whites and 20,000 blacks, has eight houses for religious worship . . . the streets run N. & S. & E. & W. intersecting each other at right angles, they are not paved, except the footways within the posts abt 6 feet wide, which are paved with brick in the principal streets. " According to a South Carolina law all buildings had to be of brick, but the law was not observed and many houses were of cypress and yellow pine. Laurens said in 1756 that "none but the better class glaze their houses. " The sanitary condition of all colonial towns was bad enough, but the grand jury presentments for Charleston and Savannah which constantly found fault with the condition of the streets, the sewers, and necessary houses, and the insufficient scavenging, leave the impression on the mind of the reader that these towns especially were afflicted with many offensive smells and odors. The total absence of any proper health precautions explains in part the terrible epidemics, chiefly of smallpox, which scourged the colonists in the eighteenth century.

Taking the colonial area through its entire length and breadth, we find individual houses of almost every description, from the superb mansions of the Carters in Virginia and of the Vassalls in Massachusetts to the small wooden frame buildings, forty by twenty feet or thereabouts, "with a shade on the backside and a porch on the front," and the simple houses of the country districts or the western frontier, hundreds of which were small, of one story, unpainted, covered with roughhewn or sawn flat boards, weather-stained, with few windows and no panes of glass, and without adornment or architectural taste. One traveler speaks of the small plantation houses in Maryland as "very bad, and ill contrived, there furniture mean, their cooks and housewifery worse if possible, "(Eddis. Letters, 1769-1777.) and another says that an apartment to sleep in and another for domestic purposes, with a contiguous storehouse and conveniences for their live stock gratified the utmost ambition of the settlers in Frederick County. (Birket, Cursory Remarks, 1750.) Many a colonist north of the Potomac lived in nothing better than the "crib " or "block" house which was made of squared logs and roofed with clapboards. In contrast to the typical square-built houses of New England, the Dutch along the Hudson and even to the eastward in Litchfield County, Connecticut, built quaint, low structures which they frequently placed on a hillside in order to utilize the basement as living rooms for the family.

The better colonial houses were wainscoted and paneled or plastered and whitewashed, and the woodwork — trim, cornices, stair railings, and newel posts — was often elaborately carved. Floors were sometimes of double thickness and were laid so that "the seam or joint of the upper course shall fall upon the middle of the lower plank which prevents the air from coming thro' the floor in winter or the water falling down in summer when they wash their houses. " Roofs were covered with tile, slate, shingles, and lead, though much of the last was removed for bullets at the time of the Revolution. Flat tiles, made in Philadelphia and elsewhere, were used for paving chimney hearths and for adorning mantels, and firebacks imported from England were widely introduced. Among the Pennsylvania Germans wood stoves were generally used, but soft coal brought as ballast from Newcastle,

Photograph by H. P. Cook, Richmond, Va.

Liverpool, and other ports in England and Scotland was also for sale. Stone coal or anthracite was familiar to Pennsylvania settlers as early as 1763, but until just before the Revolution was not burned as fuel except locally and on a small scale. Wood was consumed in enormous quantities and we are told that at Nomini Hall there were kept burning twenty-eight fires which required four loads of wood a day. (Fithian, Diary, 1767-1774.)

There were few professional architects, for colonial planters and carpenters did their own planning and building. What is sometimes called the "carpenters' colonial style" was often designed on the spot or taken from Batty Langley's Sure Guide, the Builders' Jewel, or the British Palladio. Smibert, the painter and paint-shop man of Boston, designed Faneuil Hall and succeeded in creating a very unsuccessful building architecturally. The first professional architect in America was Peter Harrison, who drew the plans for King's Chapel, the Redwood Library, the Jewish Synagogue, and Brick Market at Newport, yet even he combined designing with other avocations. In truth there was no great need of architects in colonial days. Styles did not vary much, certainly not in New England and the Middle Colonies, and a good carpenter and builder could do all that was needed. There were scores of houses in New England similar to Samuel Seabury's rectory at Hempstead, — a story and a half high in front, with a roof of a single pitch sloping down to one story in the rear, low ceilings everywhere, four rooms with a hall on the first floor, a kitchen behind, and three or four rooms on the second story.

The brick houses were more elaborate and were sometimes built with massive end chimneys, between which was a steep-pitched roof with dormers and a walk from chimney to chimney many feet wide. Other houses, made of wood as well as brick, had hipped roofs with end chimneys or roofs converging to a square center and a railed lookout. All the nearly 150 colonial houses still standing in Connecticut conform to a common type, though they differ greatly in the details of their paneling, mantels, cupboards, staircases, closed or open beamed ceilings, fireplaces, and the like. Some had slave quarters in the basement, others under the rafters in what was called in one instance "the Black Hole. " Many of even the better houses were unpainted inside and out; many had paper, hung or tacked (afterwards pasted) on the walls; and in a few noteworthy cases in New England the chimney breasts were adorned with paintings. The floors were usually bare or covered with matting; rugs were used chiefly at the bedside, but carpets were rare.

Philadelphia, which was famous for the uniformity of its architecture, must have contained in 1760 many houses of the style of that built for Provost Smith of the College of Philadelphia. In addition to a garret this dwelling had three stories respectively eleven, ten, and nine feet high. The brick outside walls were fourteen inches thick and the partition walls, of the same material, nine inches. There were windows and window glass, heavy shutters, a plain cornice, cedar gutters and pipes. The woodwork, inside and out, was painted white, and all the rooms were plastered. No mention is made of white marble steps, but there may have been such, for no Philadelphia house was complete without them.

The Southern houses, both on the plantations and in the towns, varied so widely in their style of architecture that no single description will serve to characterize all. Such buildings as the Governor's palace at Williamsburg, Tryon's palace at New Bern, and the Government House at Annapolis were handsome buildings provided with conveniences for entertainment, and that at New Bern contained rooms for the gathering of assembly and council. The most representative Southern plantation house was of brick with wings, the kitchens on one side and the carriage house on the other, sometimes attached directly to the central mansion and sometimes entirely separate or connected only by a corridor. In the Carolinas and Georgia, however, there were many rectangular houses without wings, built of wood or brick, with rooms available for summer use in the basement. The roof was often capped with a cupola and commanded a wide prospect.

The dwelling houses of Charleston were among the most distinctive and quaint of all colonial structures. Some of them were divided into "tenements" quite unlike the tenements and flats of the present day, for, in addition to its independent portion of the house, each family had its own yard and garden. Overseers' houses were as a rule small, about twenty feet by twelve, with brick chimneys and plastered rooms. A typical Savannah house had two stories, with a handsome balcony in front and a piazza the whole length of the building in the rear, with a bedroom at one end and a storehouse at the other. The dining room was on the second floor, and everywhere, for convenience and comfort, were to be found closets and fireplaces. Among the gentry in a country where storms were frequent, electrical rods were in use, and in 1763 one Alexander Bell of Virginia advertised a machine for protecting houses from being struck by lightning, though what his contrivance was we do not know.

The town halls and courthouses generally followed English models, with public offices and assembly rooms on the upper floor and a market and shops below. The Southern courthouses were at first built of wood and later of brick, with shingled roofs, heavy planked floors, and occasionally a cupola or belfry. Those of the eighteenth century either included the prison and pillory or were connected with them. The inadequacy of jail accommodation was a cause of constant complaint. Not only did grand juries and newspapers point out the need of quarters so arranged that debtors, felons, and negroes should not be thrown together, but the occupants themselves protested against the nauseating smells and odors. In some of the prisons, it is true, a separate cage was provided for the negroes, and in North Carolina prison bounds, covering some six acres about the building, were laid out for the use of the prisoners, an arrangement which was not abolished till the nineteenth century.

In all the cities of the North and South stores and shops were to be found, occupying the first floor, while the family lived in the rooms above. As a rule, a shop meant a workshop where articles were made, a store a storehouse where goods were kept. But in practice usage varied, as "shop" was in common use in New England for any place where things were sold, and "store" was the usual term in Philadelphia and the South. An apprentice writing home to England in 1755 and trying to explain the use of the terms said: "Stores here [in Virginia] are much like shops in London, only with this difference, the shops sell but one kind or species of wares and stores all kinds. " Some of these stores, particularly in Maryland and Virginia, were located away from the urban centers, in the interior near the courthouses at the crossroads, along the rivers at the tobacco inspection houses, or wherever else men congregated for business or public duty. They were often controlled by English or Scottish firms and managed by agents sent to America. They received their supplies from Great Britain and they sold, for credit, cash, or tobacco, almost everything that the neighborhood needed.

Varied as were the architectural features of colonial houses, they were paralleled by an equal diversity in the household effects with which these dwellings were equipped. It is impossible even to summarize the information given in the thousands of extant wills, inventories, and invoices which reveal the contents and furnishings of these houses. Chairs, bureaus, tables, bedsteads, buffets, cupboards, were in general use. They were made of hickory, pine, maple, cypress, oak, and even mahogany, which began to be used as early as 1730. From the meager dining room outfit of only one chair, a bench, and a table, all rough and homemade, we pass to the furnishings of the richer merchants in the Northern cities and of the wealthier planters in Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas. But we cannot take the establishments of Wentworth, Hancock, Vassall, Faneuil, Cuyler, Morris, Carter, Beverley, Manigault, or Laurens as typical of conditions which prevailed in the majority of colonial homes. Some people had silver plate, mahogany, fine china, and copper utensils; others owned china, delftware, and furniture of plain wood, with perhaps a few silver spoons, a porringer, and an occasional mahogany chair and table; still others, and these by far the largest number, used only pewter, earthenware, and wooden dishes, with the simpler essentials, spinning wheel, flatirons, pots and kettles, lamps and candlesticks, but no luxuries. There was in addition, of course, the class of the hopelessly poor, but it was not large and need not be reckoned with here.

The average New England country household was a sort of self-sustaining unit which depended little on the world beyond its own gates. Its equipment included not only the usual chairs, beds, tables, and kitchen utensils and tableware but also shoemakers' tools and shoe leather — frequently tanned in the neighborhood and badly done as a rule, — surgeon's tools and apothecary stuff, salves and ointments, branding irons, pestle and mortar, lamps, guns, and perhaps a sword, harness and fittings, occasionally a still or a cider press, and outfits for carpentering and blacksmithing. The necessary utensils for use in the household or on the farm were more important than upholstery, carved woodwork, fine linen, or silver plate. Everywhere there were hundreds of families which concerned themselves little about ornament or design. They had no money to spend on  non-essentials, still less on luxuries, and from necessity they used what they already possessed until it was broken or worn out; then, if it were not entirely useless, they repaired and patched it and went on as before. Economy and convenience made them use materials that were close at hand; and in many New England towns a familiar figure was the wood turner, who made plates and other utensils out of " dish-timber " as it was called, a white wood which was probably poplar or linden, but not basswood. Yet economical as these people were, even the unpretentious households possessed an abundance of mugs and tankards, which suggest their one indulgence and their enjoyment of strong drink.

In Pilgrim Hall. Plymouth. Mass.

As conditions of life improved and wealth increased, the number of those who were able to indulge in luxuries also increased. The period after 1730 was one of great prosperity in the colonies owing to the enlarged opportunities for making money which trade, commerce, and markets furnished. Though it was also a time of higher prices, rapid advance in the cost of living, and general complaint of the inadequacy of existing fees and salaries, those who were engaged in trade and had access to markets were able to indulge in luxuries which were unknown to the earlier settlers and, which remained unknown to those living in the rural districts and on the frontier.

In the Northern cities and on Southern plantations costly and beautiful household furnishings appeared: furniture was carved and upholstered in leather and rich fabrics; tables were adorned with silver, china, and glassware; and walls were hung with expensive papers and decorated with paintings and engravings — all brought from abroad. A house thus equipped was not unlikely to contain a mahogany dining table capable of seating from fourteen to twenty persons, and an equal number of best Russia leather chairs, two of which would be arm or "elbow" chairs, double nailed, with broad seats and leather backs. Washington, for example, in 1757 bought "two neat mahogany tables 4 feet square when spread and to join occasionally," and "1 doze neat and strong mahogany chairs, " some with "Gothick arched backs," and one "an easy chair on casters. " About the rooms were pieces of mahogany furniture of various styles, tea tables, card tables, candle stands, settees, and "sophas." On the walls, which were frequently papered, painted in color, or stenciled in patterns, hung family portraits painted by artists whose names are in many cases unknown to us, and framed pictures of hunting scenes, still life, ships, and humorous subjects, among which the engravings of Hogarth were always prime favorites. On the chimney breast, above the mantel, there was sometimes a scene or landscape, either painted directly on the wall itself or executed to order on canvas in England and brought to America. There were eight-day clocks and mantel clocks, and sconces, carved and gilt, upstairs and down. In the cupboard and on the sideboard would be silver plate in great variety and sets of best English china, ivory-handled knives and forks, glass in considerable profusion, though glassware, as a rule, was not much used, diaper tablecloths and napkins, brass chafing dishes, and steel plate warmers. There was always a centerpiece or epergne of silver, glass, or china.

In the bedrooms were pier glasses and bedsteads in many forms and colors, of mahogany and other woods. Frequently there were four-posters, with carved and fluted pillars and carved cornices or " cornishes, " as they were generally spelled. The bedsteads were provided with hair mattresses and feather beds, woolen blankets, and linen sheets, and were adorned with silk, damask, or chintz curtains and valances. Russian gauze or lawn was used for mosquito nets, for mosquitoes were a great pest to the colonists.

On the large plantations there was to be found a great variety of utensils for kitchen, artisan, and farm use, most of which were brought from England, but some, particularly iron pots, axes, and scythes, from New England. For the kitchen there were hard metal plates, copper kettles and pans, pewter dishes in large numbers, chiefly for servants' use, yellow metal spoons, stone bottles, crocks, jugs, mugs, butter pots, and heavy utensils in iron for cooking purposes. For the farm there were grindstones, saws, files, knives, axes, adzes, planes, augurs, irons, hay rakes, carts, forks, reaping hooks, wheat sieves, spades, shovels, watering pots, plows, plowshares, and moldboards, harness and traces, harrows, ox chains, and scythes.

The farmer was thus provided with all the implements necessary for mowing, clearing underbrush, and cradling wheat, and all the other essential activities of an agricultural life. A wheel plow is mentioned as early as 1732, and in 1748 James Crokatt, an influential Charlestonian in England, sent over a plow designed to weed, trench, sow, and cover indigo, but of its construction we unfortunately know nothing. The colonists usually imported such articles as millstones, as large as forty-eight inches in diameter and fourteen inches thick, frog spindles and other parts for a tub mill or gristmill, hand presses, with lignum-vit rollers for cider, copper stills with sweat worms and a capacity as high as sixty gallons, vats for indigo, and pans for evaporating salt. For fishing there were plenty of rods, lines, hooks, seines with leads and corks, and eel pots. In addition to this varied equipment, nearly all the plantations had outfits for coopering, tanning, shoemaking, and other necessary occupations of a somewhat isolated community. Separate buildings were erected in which this artisan work was done, not only for the planter himself but also for his neighbors. Indeed the returns from this community labor constituted an important item in the annual statement of many a planter's income.

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