Mailing List:2003-08-03 04, Early Shelters and Later Dwellings, by Karl H. Schwerin

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Mailing List Archives > 2003-08-03 04, Early Shelters and Later Dwellings, by Karl H. Schwerin

From: karl h schwerin <schwerin -at- unm.edu> Subject: [WHITNEY-L] Early Shelters and Later Dwellings Date: Sun, 3 Aug 2003 15:31:03 -0600 (MDT) __Everyday Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony__, by George Francis Dow, originally published in 1935 by The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, but republished in 1988 by Dover Publications Chapter II. Their Early Shelters and Later Dwellings (pp. 13-27) Despite popular belief, Dow finds no evidence that the early Massachusetts colonists constructed log houses. The only type of log construction in the early days in New England existed in garrison houses built as a protection against the Indians (although some were later used as dwellings. Instead the houses were square, made of thick sawn planks, stayed with oak beams. Dow says that "some half dozen or more seventeenth-century plank houses may yet be seen north of Boston" (ca.1935). In fact, shortly after landing the Plymouth colonists "had dug saw pits and produced boards in quantity suitable for the construction of houses and for exportation," for they were already exporting clapboards and wainscott to England (1988:15). "The first settlers in the Massachusetts Bay brought with them mechanics of all kinds, well equipped with tools, and it is altogether probable that these workmen plied their trades on this side of the Atlantic exactly as they had been taught through long centuries of apprenticeship in England. The houses of that early period, still remaining, all resemble similar English structures. Upon arrival, however, the need for shelter was imperative, and all sorts of rude expedients were adopted" (1988:15-16). Many lived in tents, others constructed wigwams which kept off the short showers, but were penetrated by the longer rains. The English wigwams were copied from the Indian shelter. Small poles were stuck into the ground in an oval shape. They were bent and fastened at the top. Horizontal poles were lashed to the vertical ones to provide strength and stability (a picture of the framework shows these producing about three-foot squares). The framework was then matted with boughs anjd covered with sedge, old mats, sailcloth or bark. English wigwams differed from the Indian in being provided at one end with a fireplace, and having a door with wooden hinges at the other end. "The floors in these English wigwams undoubtedly would be covered with rushes or straw, following the custom in English cottages at that time. The frequent references to the English wigwam seem to indicate that some such temporary construction was usual among many of the colonists at the outset." Other early houses were built of wattle and daub (1988:16-18). Others would dig themselves a cave into a hillside or riverbank. The front was a framing of boards with a door and a window. In some places the early settlers dug cellars in the earth which they spanned with wooden spars and then covered with turf. The earth inside was cased with wood to prevent it from collapsing. These cellars would be partitioned into several rooms according to the size of the family. "The wealthy and principal men of New England, in the beginning of the Colonies, commenced their first dwelling houses in this fashion" (1988:17-18). Early chimneys were built of sticks "laid cobhouse fashion and the whole daubed with clay inside and out." Roof thatch was obtained from thatch banks in the marshes or rye straw was used. Because of the fire hazard, it was very early (1631) forbidden to build a chimney with wood or to use thatch for the roof (1988:19). This, however, did not prevent the common use of thatch in the early days, probably because it was both plentiful and inexpensive. "The earliest frame houses were covered with weather-boarding and this before long was covered with clapboards. The walls inside were sheathed up with boards moulded at the edges in an ornamental manner and the intervening space was filled with clay and chopped straw, and later with imperfect bricks. When roofs were not thatched they were covered with shingles. The window openings were small and were closed by hinged casements Generally the casement sash was wood" (1988:19-20). "The glass was usually diamond-shaped, set in lead 'cames.'" This glass was imported from England and came packed in cribs, but much of it came in sheets already leaded and was cut to size by 'glaziers' upon demand. The poorer cottages and wigwams used oiled paper, which supplied a surprising amount of light. A brickyard was in operation in Salem as early as 1629. Brick was made along the coast wherever suitable clay could be found. "Chimneys were built upon a huge stone foundation. The brick work began at the first floor level and the bricks were laid in puddled clay up to about the ridge line where lime was used as the chimney top became exposed to the weather" (1988:20). "The home of the average New Englander in the late seventeenth century was a wooden dwelling of two stories built around a brick chimney containing large fireplaces. ... The roofs of these houses were covered with wood shingles usually split from pine logs and shaved smooth by hand on a shingle horse. The outside walls of the well made house were covered with clapboards, also smoothed on the shingle horse." Outbuildings and the poorer class of dwellings were covered with 'weatherboards' or plain boarding that overlapped at the edges (1988:20-21). "The settlers in the New England Colonies, unless persons of wealth or possessed of large families, during the early years lived generally in houses having but one room and an entry-way on the ground floor. Above would be a chamber-sometimes only a garret. As the family increased in size and became more prosperous another room would be added to the house on the other side of the entry and chimney, making the structure a so-called two-room house. Still later, with the need for more room, a leanto would be built on the back of the house, thereby supplying three additional rooms on the ground floor with a kitchen in the middle. The earlier kitchen would then become a living-room or 'sitting room'-in the New England phrase. This earlier kitchen was usually called 'the hall' during the seventeenth century and in it centered the life of the family. It was the room where the food was cooked and eaten. There the family sat and there the indoor work was carried on. A loom sometimes occupied considerable space near a window and frequently a bed was made up in a corner, on which the father of the family slept, and there sometime also he died (39-40). The exterior of these early houses was seldom painted, in fact it was well into the nineteenth century before the outside of houses in country towns were usually painted. The exterior of New England houses was probably first painted early in the eighteenth century. The paint was usually of a dark red color called "Indian red." It was a mixture of red ochre and fish oil. By the mid-eighteenth century linseed oil and turpentine were available, along with a much wider range of colors (1988:22-23). The inside of town houses owned by well-to-do people probably was painted at a comparatively early date, at least one or two rooms. But the same did not occur with poorer people, or in the country. Plastered walls were usually whitewashed which was in keeping with the Puritan emphasis on plain living. But by the eighteenth century families of wealth were covering their walls with hangings brought from England (1988:24). "The heavy strap hinges on the doors of the earlier houses were probably wrought by hand at the forge of the nearest blacksmith, but most of the hardware and iron work was imported from England. Before 1650 there was a slitting mill at the Saugus Iron Works, but the principal product of this forge was cast iron manufactures, such as pots and kettles. At a later date, Parliament, at the instigation of the English manufacturers, prohibited by law the setting up of slitting mills and trip hammers, and it naturally followed that the manufactured iron and brass required by the Colonies was brought overseas from Birmingham and Sheffield (1988:25-26). Wooden latches were used on both outside and inside doors in early days and the wooden latch persisted in the back country until comparatively recent times. Karl SchwerinSnailMail: Dept. of Anthropology Univ. of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 87131 e-mail: schwerin -at- unm.edu Cultural anthropology...is valuable because it is constantly rediscovering the normal. Edward Sapir (1949:151)


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