In the course of colonial history, housing developed from primitive temporary structures to a wide range of styles, materials, and class and regional
differences. The earliest colonial housing was very primitive, in keeping with the poverty of the early colonists.
One common temporary solution to the housing problem in both Virginia and New England in the early seventeenth century was digging a rectangular
hole in the ground about 7 feet deep, walling it with timber, flooring it with planks, and putting a wooden roof over the whole. During the first settlement of
Philadelphia, some people lived in caves dug into the banks of the Delaware River. (These persisted as homes for the very poor or criminals into the
eighteenth century.) This phenomenon of cheap temporary shelters was repeated in the subsequent expansion of the colonial frontier.
Eighteenth-century settlers of the backcountry also built temporary structures. These huts (also called English wigwams) were constructed of animal
skins, bark, or sod. Despite their name, the structures had European, as well as Native American precursors.
The Early American House
Even when more permanent structures began to be built, many colonists did not put much effort into them, perhaps believing that they would have the
opportunity to better themselves by moving again. These were usually one-room buildings, a story or a story and a half high.
Early colonial houses were based on English models, though English houses themselves varied between the different regions that the colonists came
from. The general trend in the first few decades of settlement was for housing patterns to settle down into a few types, as some English types ceased to
More-enduring houses, with waterproof foundations, rather than just posts driven into the ground, began to appear in New England after 1650 and in the
Chesapeake around 1700. Whereas earlier houses were built mostly by those who planned to dwell in them, these houses were more likely built by
specialist craftsmen. The most common construction material in the seventeenth century was America’s abundant wood, particularly oak. (There were only
a dozen or so brick houses in seventeenth-century New England.) To avoid the expense of nails, many houses were held together with dried wooden
pegs known as treenails.
Clapboard houses, common in English-settled areas, were built around four wood posts pounded into the ground at the corners. The standard size of the
single room was around 18 by 20 feet. Walls were wattle and daub, clad on the outside with short planks or clapboards, about 5 or 6 feet long, placed
horizontally. In fact, the common use of clapboards distinguished Anglo-American architecture from that of England, where wood was scarce. Even a small
house required as much as a ton of wood.
The Tate House outside Portland, Maine, exemplifies the center-chimney Georgian style prominent in New England late in the colonial period. The
symmetrically designed exterior was covered with clapboards for warmth. (Library of Congress, HABS, ME, 3-STROWA, 1 8)
Houses in the North developed steeper roofs, which the snow could slide off easily. At first, roofs were often made of thatch or sod, but, eventually, the
use of shingles, which minimized the fire hazard, became common. (Thatch roofs disappeared by about 1670.) White pine and fir were used for shingles,
but cedar, due to its lightness and durability, was the most popular material so popular as to rapidly deplete the stock of cedar trees. The lightness of
cedar shingle roofing contributed to the American tendency to build houses with very thin walls without much load-bearing capacity. Clay tiles nailed to the
roof were also used and, in the eighteenth century, replaced shingles in many areas. They offered still better protection from fire. Benjamin Franklin was
among those who recommended tile roofing for fire protection.
The windows of early colonial houses were slits designed to minimize the loss of heat; sometimes they were covered with translucent paper or cloth rather
than glass. Heat loss was further minimized through the use of shutters. External privies were ubiquitous and chamber pots rare until the eighteenth
Additions to the house, if necessary, often took the form of lean-tos, one-story wooden structures attached to the back of the building. (These were an
American innovation without English precedent.) Lean-tos could be used for cooking or storage. A few houses, belonging to the wealthiest members of
the community, were distinguished by enclosed and gabled two-story porches.
The log cabin, a much snugger and better-built alternative to the clapboard house, was introduced to America by the Swedish colonists of Delaware. It
had little effect on the building practices of Anglo-Americans until the settlement of Pennsylvania, when German and British settlers copied the houses of
their new Swedish neighbors. From there, the log cabin diffused through the settlement of the backcountry in the eighteenth century.
Another local variation in housing was the stone-ender, a form of house common in Rhode Island, which, unlike some other areas in New England, had
access to good stone for building and lime suitable for mortaring. The stone-ender featured a massive stone chimney that furnished most of the wall on
one end of the building. The separation of the chimney from the wooden part of the house meant that stone-enders had considerably less risk of burning
than all-wooden buildings.
The interior layout of most early American houses was simple. The bulk of the ground floor was taken up by a single large, multifunction room, called a
hall. This room was used for cooking, eating, working, and praying, and sometimes for sleep. As people prospered, they added a second room, or parlor.
This room was used for visitors and to provide the master and wife of the household with a separate sleeping area. In eighteenth-century New England,
the parlor became a necessity for all those aspiring to respectability. One-room houses became a mark of poverty, and rooms became more functionally
differentiated. The lean-to also became a more integral part of the house. The combination of the two rooms and the lean-to led to the classic New
England saltbox house, so called because its shape resembled that of a salt container of the time. The one-room house persisted for much longer in the
South, where poor, white, independent farmers thought it no disgrace.
Some of the most shoddily built housing in the colonies was that inhabited by slaves, particularly field workers on plantations, who lived in small groups in
simple wooden huts with dirt floors, close to where they worked. Many slaves, particularly on small farms, lacked any dedicated housing and slept in
barns or tobacco houses. Where African Americans, whether free or enslaved, were able to build their own houses, they often incorporated some African
features, such as central rooms measuring 12 by 12 feet, pounded dirt floors, and palmetto-leaf thatching.
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