Sunday, October 12, 2014

Michigan House Detective

A recent book by Fred Peterson Homes in the Heartland describes the evolution of the balloon-frame farmhouse in the upper Midwest.  Peterson identifies one characteristic of many, first generation  farmhouses: an eclectic nature where they were built in stages with several additions.  

When immigrants settled in the Midwest one of their first priorities was shelter.  This might be a log cabin or a small, hastily built frame house.  As the family became established in their new home, earned some money and had more children, their original home no longer was sufficient.  Some abandoned their old log house and used it as a barn or shed.  Others built additions onto their simple home and added fashionable Greek Revival or Victorian ornament to display the family's growing prosperity.  Indeed, many Midwestern log cabins and first generation claim shacks survive to this day cocooned in siding and surrounded by later additions.

This presents us with many opportunities to play "house detective" and attempt to determine the history of a particular building.  Consider this example: A Greek Revival farmhouse built somewhere in Michigan.  Take a look at the photo below and try to be a house detective yourself.  How many additions do you see?  Which section is the oldest?  In what order were they built?   See what you can figure out and then continue reading to see if you agree with me
A ca. 1905 photograph showing a proud Michigan family and their Greek Revival farmhouse.
    I can identify three different sections: 1) the story-and-a-half, Greek Revival house on the right 2) A middle section with wide siding 3) The section to the left with narrow clapboard siding. 


Which section is the oldest?  It it impossible to say with absolute certainty, but I believe the section to the right is the oldest.  The Greek Revival was an early building style popular towards the middle of the 19th century, suggesting it was likely built first around the time of the Civil War.  The multi-paned, nine-over-six window glazing is characteristic of the style as are the the fancy gable returns and frieze boards.  This section likely had a hall-and-parlor layout with two rooms on the first floor with an entrance situated at the center of one of the sides.  

Nine-over-six window
glazing.
Typically, the first addition to a simple farmhouse was a kitchen.   This is the middle section. I believe it is likely a kitchen due to the brick chimney built on the left wall.  Many Midwestern farmhouses are configured this way and are called an upright-and-wing or gable-and-wing. Some were built this way at the beginning while others, like this example, were built this way in stages.  


How do I know that the house wasn't built this way originally?  Because of the kitchen's wide siding. Although the builder added some Greek style molding along the eaves along with decorative posts on the wash porch, the wide siding suggests it was built at a different time.  Furthermore, since there is some wide siding on the story-and-a-half section, this suggests that original, narrow clapboards were removed when the kitchen addition was built.   When the new entrance door was added at the right corner they used the new kitchen siding on the older section of the house. The original, centrally located entrance door became the interior door leading to the kitchen addition.  Since the kitchen window is also a multi-paned, this time six-over-six, I suspect the kitchen was added fairly early in the house's history. 

This leaves us with the section to the left.  It is distinct from the kitchen addition due to the narrow, clapboard siding.  Although the builder again continued the band of molding across the front and added gable returns, the plain, one-over-one window glazing suggests this was a much later addition.  In fact, I suspect this addition was rather late since six-over-six sashes were long out of style and one-over-one sashes common in the 1880s or later.  Although it is possible that the window is a replacement of an original, the very simple casing around it suggests a later date.
One-over-one window sashes with
simple casing.
There are other ways to date additions, although they are difficult with photographs such as this.  Square nails were commonly used until 1880s when wire nails (also called French nails) became prevalent.  Another easy way is to look at the foundation.  Early foundations were often made out of rubble stone picked out of the fields.  By examining the type of stones, blocks, brick and mortar you can often identify the order in which additions were built.


So, how did I do?  Do you agree with me?  If not, post a comment and let me know!

The next time you are driving about in the country, look around and see if you can identify an early farmhouse.  Then try your hand at house detective and discover a bit of a family's history.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ca. 1879 Prepared Paint Colors

Graphic from a ca. 1879 Van Duzer catalog. 
In a previous post I described the importance of the paint can in the history of house painting.  Rather than having to mix white lead, oil, pigments and driers in a bucket at the job site, painters and homeowners alike were able to buy cans of prepared and tinted paint. This not only made painting easier but it ensured the uniformity of color and quality.

This makes us wonder what colors of prepared paint were available.  A ca. 1879 catalog of the wholesaler S. R. Van Duzer  of New York City has a comprehensive list of colors which could be purchased in one gallon cans.  The list includes:

Inside White                                       Green Gray                                               
Outside White                                    Flesh Color
Yellow Stone                                       Light Brown
Free stone                                            Flaxen Gray
Stone Color                                         French Gray
Buff Color                                            Light Drab
Light Gray                                           Dark Drab
Lavender                                              Light Lead
Silver Gray                                           Dark Lead
Pearl Color                                           Fawn
Yellow Gray                                         French Ochre
Flaxen Yellow                                      Venetian Red 
Azure Blue                                            Brown
Pure Gray                                             Peach Color
Subdued Green                                   Vermillion
Red Gray                                               Chrome Yellow
Permanent Green                                Pea Green
Lilac                                                        Black
Light Blue                                              Dark Blue

This list of colors is actually quite large and varied.  It includes the natural stone, buff, gray and brown colors advocated by Andrew Jackson Downing and popular in 1840s through the 1860s.  It also has many of the greens and reds which were becoming popular during the 1870s.   

Although it is nice to have a list of paint colors, the real trick is determining what each actually looked like.  We can do this by looking at contemporary paint recipes, sample paint chips, advertising and even artistic representations such as paintings.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A few ideas for keeping your Victorian home tidy

During the last half of the 19th century popular literature often focused on proper housekeeping and home maintenance. Pamphlets, magazines, almanacs and advertising emphasized the necessity of maintaining a neat and clean home where the family could thrive in an orderly environment.  This sort of literature was particularly popular for rural families as it provided a link to trends in "scientific housekeeping" and household management current in large cities back East.

One example of this sort of literature is this 1890 receipt book distributed by the D. Ransom, Son & Co. of Buffalo, NY. These receipt books were a common sort of advertising that included both useful household recipes (the 19th century term for a recipe was receipt) as well as testimonials for the sponsor's products. The Ransom company produced a number of medicinal products, including the King of Blood, which they claimed cured cancers and tumors, and various "magnetic" balms and ointments for treating whooping cough, dysentery and bowel complaints. 

Although the medical advice found in this pamphlet is certainly quite suspect, there are a few recipes and tips that might interest someone studying Victorian architecture.    

Painting, Etc.

House painting.  This should be done early in winter or spring when it cold and no dust flying.  To mix paint for different coats: Outside, 1st, 2d and 3d coats, mix the lead to proper consistency with boiled oil, allowing time between to dry hard.  Inside: 1st coat coat, mix lead and paint in mixture one-half  boiled oil, one-half turpentine.  2d, one fourth oil, three fourths turpentine.  3d, mostly turpentine with a little oil to hold color.  No dryer required.  Inside paint must have light.

Best Painter's Size: Heat raw oil in a pan till it emits a black smoke; set it on fire and, after burning a few minutes, cover the pan over to put out the blaze; pour the oil while warm into a bottle in which some pulverized read lead and litharge have been introduced.  Stand the bottle in a warm place for two weeks, shaking often, It will then be ready to decant and bottle.

Black and Green Paint: - Durable and Cheap - Black - Grind powdered charcoal in linseed oil with sufficient litharge as dryer; thin for use with well-boiled linseed oil.  Green - Add yellow ochre to above and an excellent green is obtained, preferable to the bright green, for garden work, as it will not fade.

Red Wash for Bricks: To remove the green that gathers on bricks, pour over them boiling water in which any vegetables, not greasy, have been boiled.  Repeat for a few days, and green will disappear. For the red wash melt one ounce of glue in one gallon water, while hot add alum, size of egg, one-half pound Venetian red, one pound Spanish brown.  Try it; if too light, add more red and brown.  If too dark, water.  

Common Oil Varnish: Three pounds resin, one-half gallon drying oil, melt together and add, when removed from fire, two quarts warm oil of turpentine.

One of the challenging parts of reading these old receipts is the vocabulary.  Here are some definitions of a few words:

Litharge: Lead carbonate, also commonly called white lead.  Used in paint to make it opaque and works as a drier.

Alum:  Aluminum and potassium sulfate.  The same stuff we have in our spice cupboards today.

Size: Any substance such as glue used as a filler or glaze to help paint adhere to a surface.

Drier: A substance used to accelerate the hardening of oils used in paint.

Red Lead: A lead oxide used in paints intended for metal.  Also has some drying qualities when mixed in oil.  

Here are a couple of other recipes I found in the pamphlet that I thought you might find rather tasty or convenient for someone not feeling well:

Pickled Oysters: Scald the oysters in their own liquor, boil one pint of vinegar; season with salt and pepper; pour over the oysters.  Serve with celery.

Chicken Jelly: Half a raw chicken, pounded with a mallet, bones and meat together, plenty of cold water to cover it well, about a quart.  Heat slowly in a covered vessel, and let it simmer until the meat is white rags and the liquid reduced one-half.  Strain and press, first through a colander, then through coarse cloth.  Salt to taste, and pepper, if you think best;  return to the fire, and simmer five minutes longer.  Skim when cool. Give to the patient cold - just from the ice - with unleavened wafers. Keep on the ice.  You can make into sandwiches by putting the jelly between thin slices of bread spread lightly with butter.

For Lye Poisoning:  Give freely of oil or warm lard and white of egg, followed by warm water and mustard, or ipecac.

Check back again soon.  More recipes to follow!!!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Victorian Trades: The Carpenter, House Joiner and Cabinet Maker.

I enjoy doing demonstrations for local historical organizations and civic groups where I show people how furniture and millwork were made during the 1800s.  Visitors who watch my demonstrations usually use several different words to describe me, including carpenter, wood carver, wood worker or wood wright.  Since I never want to sound argumentative, I usually don’t correct them or suggest an alternative.  However, in the 19th century there were many specialized craftsmen working with wood who made particular things with their own special tools.  Each craftsman and craft had a name that identified them and their trade.

Three trades which were particularly important are carpenter, joiner and cabinet maker. Depending on the event and what I’m making, I usually describe myself as a cabinet maker or joiner.  I’m never a carpenter.  So, what is the difference?

The Carpenter:  In his 1837 book The panorama of professions and trades Edward Hazen wrote: 

“It is the business of the carpenter to cut out and frame large pieces of timber, and then join them together, or fit them to brick or stone walls, to constitute them the outlines or skeleton of buildings or parts of buildings.”

In short, a carpenter builds buildings.  He frames the walls and roof using heavy timbers and mortise and tenon joints or dimensioned lumber and nails.  He shingles, builds scaffolds and trusses and sheaths the frame.  He works on the jobsite using heavy tools such as large augers, saws, wooden sledges and chisels.    In Hazen's time this did mean timber framing, but later in the century this could have meant balloon framing or platform framing too. 

A crew of carpenters building a barn about 1895 using the timber
framing technique.  Note the heavy, sawn timbers.
Three men and a helper around 1910.  They have been framing a house using
dimensioned lumber and nails.  By this date they are likely using platform framing rather than balloon framing. 
 The House Joiner:  Hazen wrote:


“The joiner executes the more minute parts of the wood-work of edifices, comprehending, among many things, the floors, window-frames, sashes, doors, mantles &c.”

It was the joiner who made all the special, wooden bits built into a building.  He made the decorative molding, window sash and trim, doors and casing, mantelpieces, built-ins such as shelves and cabinets and all sorts of ornament like corbels and crests.  He worked at a bench either on the jobsite or in a shop using smaller tools like molding planes and carving gouges. Unlike the carpenter, the house joiner was also skilled at finishing his work with stains and varnish.  

An engraving from A panorama of professions and trades by Edward Hazen (Philadelphia, 1837).  Although purporting to show carpenters, this looks to be three house joiners working in their shop. 
There was overlap between the carpenter and house joiner as some of their work was quite similar.  Indeed, many men did both jobs.  

Hazen noted that: 

"Carpentry and joinery, however, are so clearly allied to each other, that they are commonly practised by the same individual."

There were more opportunities for tradesmen to specialize in house joinery and develop their skills to the highest degree in larger cities with many high-style homes. Furthermore, the trades were regulated according to English guild traditions in large cities like Philadelphia or Boston during the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. These inherited guild regulations required specialization and adhering to one's practiced trade, meaning joiners joined, carvers carved, turners turned (that is. used a lathe to make spindles) and carpenters built buildings.  Later, as the demand for buildings grew and the country was flooded by trained immigrants, many of these regulations were ignored and tradesman worked wherever doing whatever they could to earn a living. 

The Cabinet Maker:  Hazen tell us:

"It is the business of the cabinet-maker to manufacture particular kinds of household furniture, such as tables, stands, bureaus, sideboards, desks, bookcases, sofas, bedsteads, &c., as well as a certain description of chairs made of mahogany and maple.  Many of the operations of this business are similar to those of the carpenter and joiner, although they require to be conducted with greater nicety and exactness."

The cabinet maker makes furniture (sometimes called movables, or things that can be moved from room to room or house to house).  The cabinet maker works at a bench in a shop and makes the finest work using smaller saws, chisels and gouges, moulding planes and other special tools.  He often finishes and sometimes upholsters his work,  although in larger cities these operations were frequently done by other tradesmen specializing in these crafts.  


Three cabinet makers working in their shop.  Note the figured veneer
on the wardrobe's doors.  The man standing next to the wardrobe appears
 to be polishing the finish with sharkskin or glasspaper.  
Although the distinctions between these trades might seem clear, it can be a bit muddled depending upon when we are speaking.  During the settlement period in North America there weren't cabinet makers, but only joiners.  During the 1600s furniture was simpler and made using mortise and tenon joints. The joiner was the craftsman who made things using these basic techniques.  To see the work of a modern-day joiner working at the Plimoth Plantation historic site using these ancient methods, take a look at Peter Follansbee's blog.

During the 18th century craftsmen began making stylish furniture using exotic woods such as mahogany, rosewood and satinwood along with figured veneers.  They also began building casework (or furniture such as sideboards made from various box-like components ) using new joinery techniques such as dovetails. This distinguished the work of the new cabinet maker from the common joiner. In fact, the French work for cabinet maker is  ébéniste, or a worker making high-style furniture using exotic ebony. 

Thereafter, the craftsman who made basic furniture and other pieces from pine and common wood species was called a joiner, the craftsman who made decorative pieces for buildings as well as doors and windows was called the house joiner, and the elite craftsman who made high-style furniture from mahogany and veneer was the cabinet maker.  These distinctions were somewhat blurred in the United States (especially for the common joiner) where the absence of a strict guild system prevented craftsmen from protecting their distinct trades from encroachment of other wood workers. However, these distinctions are illustrative of some of the different types of wood workers and how their trades were practiced in the 19th century.  

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Wall Street Journal and This New Old House

An article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal by design editor Dale Hrabi caught my attention.  Titled “This New Old House”, the article’s lead claims that:

“Americans fed up with over-sized, over-designed McMansions are finding saner shelter in dwellings inspired by historic models on the outside – but full of walk-in closets and modern kitchens within.”

Whenever I read about trends in fashion, food or architecture I often wonder if they will turn out to be fads that will quickly pass from memory.  Anyone recall brass fixtures and hardware, sconces, floral wallpaper borders or the crystal chandelier in the foyer?   It seems the mavens of style are often more interested in expressing a desire for novelty rather than an appreciation for long-held ideas about form, proportion, color or taste.  While I believe I can appreciate innovation, fashion and new cultural phenomena, I also appreciate those timeless principles of design, aesthetics and proportion which distinguish the beautiful from the banal.  It seems to me that the rush to create things that are “now and wow” often neglects proven principles that can leads to questionable expressions in architecture, fashion and art.  In domestic architecture this has resulted in the McMansion.


The McMansion.  Proportion? Taste? Style?  Who cares!!!  It is big and expensive!!!

As I read this article I wondered if this interest in traditional design might be another fleeting trend or if it represents a real shift in the way architects design, builders build and people appreciate their homes.  The fact that this article needed to be written suggests that principles of design remain poorly appreciated and that this new trend might be an expression of nostalgia rather than a fundamental change in the way people look at design. Hrabi quotes architectural designer Linda Connor of Connor Homes in Middlebury, VT , who says:

“People think it’s all about molding and detailing, but the most important thing is scale and proportion.  If you get that right the rest falls into place.”

To which I say “Well, no kidding!!!!”  I would hope this would be apparent to anyone who has thought about architecture and design.  However, the fact that we have been building McMansions for years while remaining oblivious to such a fundamental concept makes me question whether people are indeed interested traditional design or simply affected by another trend.  If so, I wonder if this trend will lead to a new understanding of design or will prove to be a passing fad for nostalgia which will result in pastiche rather than thoughtful design.

I must admit I can be a bit of a cynic.  However, I can be an optimistic too.  Let's hope this trend does represent a new way of thinking about how we design our homes!   

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The I-House

When people think of 19th century houses they often  imagine grand Queen Anne homes with towers, elaborate porches and oodles spindles, brackets and fretwork.  However, if you read through my blog you might have noticed that there isn't much devoted to high-style Victorian homes.  I have, however, written a fair bit about more common houses.  Perhaps this is because none of my ancestors lived in Victorian mansions with stylish appointments, cultured flower gardens and carriage houses.  I suppose it makes some sense that I would have an affinity for the buildings that most American families called home. Today’s post is no exception as I devote a few lines to one of America's most ubiquitous houses: The I-House.

The term “I-House” was coined by the cultural geographer Fred Kniffen who studied vernacular and folk architecture across eastern and southeastern United States.   He used the term I-House because examples were commonly found in Midwestern states such as Iowa, Illinois and Indiana (thus the “I” in I-House) although the house evolved from earlier forms found along the eastern seaboard.  These folk precedents, which had evolved from even earlier English folk forms such as the Hall-and-Parlor and Center Passage, provided the template for many, early house types in colonial and 19th century America such as the Salt Box and Cape Cod.  

Hall-and Parlor houses were built early in the colonies and were direct descendents of English folk houses.  They were rectangular in shape, two rooms wide and one room deep with a gabled roof.  

The Hall-and Parlor floorplan.


The Center Passage form appeared later in the 18th century and was an evolved form of the earlier Hall-and-Parlor.  Instead of the simple two-room footprint of the Hall-and-Parlor, the Center Passage had its two rooms separated by a central passage and stair.  This symmetrical footprint was especially suitable for the classical designs of the Georgian Style commonly built during the last half of the 18th century.  This symmetrical footprint also provided the template for the I-House which appeared during the 19th century in New England, Mid Atlantic and the Tidewater south.

The Center Passage floorplan.
The arrival of railroads and the influx of immigrants spread the I-House form into the old Northwest and across Mississippi Valley.   The design was a favorite form for farmers and town dwellers alike.   The developed form featured side gables, was two rooms in width, one room in depth and two stories in height.  The facade is usually symmetrical although later additions such as kitchens were very common.  Later, when railroads made the distribution of factory-made millwork possible, homeowners often added fashionable details such as brackets, scrolls and molding to the basic form.    

I found this example of an I-House along the old Dodd Road between Kasota and Mankato, Minnesota.  Sometimes the most complete examples of historic building types with the best integrity are abandoned.  When houses are occupied people make changes so that it better suits modern lifestyles and usage.  This means I spend quite a bit of time skulking about on side roads looking for derelict buildings such as this ca. 1875 house. 

Although covered by vines and brush you can easily see the characteristic I-House form. Though the house has been abandoned for some time it remains in good condition, retaining a few of its original 6/6 windows.   This example is quite plain with flat door and window casing and clapboard siding.  The foundation is native Kasota limestone.  Although it might not look like much, this is a representative example of a house type that sheltered many families through the hot midwestern summers and frigid winters.  

The next time you are out for a drive in the countryside, stop for a bit and look around.  I would bet you too will find a few examples of the I-House.

A Minnesota example of the I-House from the front.
Another view.
View showing the side and rear, including the kitchen addition.
One of the original 6 over 6 sash windows.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Diamond in the Rough

For several years I have been driving by a simple little house near St. Peter, MN just across the Minnesota River. It always catches my attention and I have wondered how old it is, who built it, who lived there and how has it survived.  It is a small, simple building that looks to be a typical example of the first generation of houses built during the settlement era in the upper Midwest.  Although houses of this sort used to exist by the thousands in Minnesota, very few have survived unaltered.  This Fall I finally got my courage up and decided I would introduce myself to the owner.  Adjacent to the old house is Nelson Imports, an auto repair shop specializing in Mercedes. I introduces myself to the owner Josh Nelson who graciously showed me his interesting building.

The mystery house near St. Peter, MN. 
As you can see there isn't much to the house. It is in good condition and hasn't been cut up or altered to the point that the original structure can't be easily identified. The earliest part of the house is the section on the right with the front-facing gable.  The addition on the left was added a few years later, most likely as the family grew and separate kitchen space was needed.  Josh knew that the house had been lived in up into the early 1960s and that it has been vacant ever since.  He also had heard that it had been used as the first railroad depot in St. Peter. Since I am fascinated by vernacular architecture like this humble little home and the stories of the people who lived in it, I couldn't help but offer to research the building's history.

Stay posted through the Fall as I start studying this little gem and learn all about its story!  


Plus, if your C Class needs brakes or the "check engine" light keeps coming on, stop by and see Josh at Nelson Imports in St. Peter and he will be sure to take good care of you and your Mercedes.