When a Home Wasn't As Much of a Castle

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007

I vont to be alone.

Greta Garbo said she didn't actually speak that line as such, but the sentiment well reflects the nature of how we live in the 21st century. We want to be alone, or at least to have a zone of personal space unknown to earlier generations of Americans. Historian Jack Larkin has an image in his mind of a childless couple with two dogs living in a McMansion where each human and hound "has a couple of thousand square feet of space." Compare that, he says, "to a family of 10 living in 450 square feet clustered around a chimney."

The latter scenario may seem hellish in our pampered and spacious age, but that was how people lived in this country 200 years ago, and they accepted it -- not because they didn't crave more space necessarily, but because they didn't have the means to create it.

Many Americans, certainly, still live in crowded conditions and in substandard housing, but the norm has shifted far indeed. New single-family homes are an average of approximately 2,400 square feet, and 39 percent of them are larger, some much larger. More than 50 percent of new homes have three bedrooms, 37 percent have four or more bedrooms, and the majority more than two bathrooms. The average household size is 2.6 persons.

These may be sterile numbers, but they form a powerful point of reference in reading Larkin's new book, "Where We Lived: Discovering the Places We Once Called Home." The book is the first in a series of titles planned in a publishing venture between the Taunton Press and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Larkin, a museum scholar and historian, has used photographs taken in one difficult age, the Great Depression, to capture life in another, from 1775 to 1840.

In the Federal period, the upper classes may have had palaces of 3,000 square feet and the staff to cook and clean for them, but even the wealthy lived without refrigerators or central heating and with that most horrid necessity, the chamber pot.

Below these opulent homes were those of the upper-middle classes, lawyers and merchants, occupying 2,000 square feet. But these households constituted just one in a hundred. The next stratum consisted of what Larkin calls "comfortable homes for the prosperous" -- 1,000 to 1,500 square feet. The march downward then led to tens of thousands of "modest houses" of 600 to 1,000 square feet. But the predominant type of abode in this pre-industrial age was a tiny home of no more than 500 square feet and as little as 200 square feet or less. The latter might be a one-story log cabin just 10 feet by 20. "At the very bottom of the scale," writes Larkin, "were many thousands of tiny houses that tax assessors didn't even look at, the cabins and huts of slaves." The photos in the book show these slave quarters as "small and 'mean' as the houses of the very poorest free Americans," writes Larkin, "crowded one-room houses with minimal furniture." The book's 400 photos were assembled by architects and photographers in the 1930s under the Library of Congress's Historic American Buildings Survey, established to preserve documentation of old structures, including many since demolished.

To find a vivid account of what life was like in small, crowded quarters, Larkin -- a museum scholar at Old Sturbridge Village in central Massachusetts -- didn't have to stray far from the preserved village of late 18th-century life.

At the start of the Revolutionary War, Edward Parry, a civilian employee of the British navy, was required as an enemy agent to live in Sturbridge with a state legislator and soldier named Timothy Parker. Parker lived in a then-"spacious" 700-square-foot farmhouse but shared the home with his wife, five children, two maids and three laborers. Parry had the luxury of a room to himself, but it doubled as a clothes closet, storage for foodstuffs and a place to keep yarn and linen before it was woven on a cumbersome and noisy loom in the garret above.

Parry feared most the arrival of a guest, who would be directed to bunk up with the Englishman (a common practice in that day). "The crowning indignity came on the night he was asked to share his bed with a social inferior, a traveling shoemaker," writes Larkin.

But the domestic cramming of people may have been enjoyable after a day's solitary work in the field, he suggests. And in all but the bleakest homes, there was a room for forms of pleasure, from singing to storytelling to reading the Bible (by the dim light of a candle).

What have we gained in a couple of hundred years (or perhaps as little as 70 for many Americans who still remember the Depression)? Sanitation, personal hygiene, personal space, a longer, healthier life, and all the comforts and conveniences of technology and industry. If air conditioning has made us soft, so be it. To me there is nothing nostalgic about the idea of being crowded into an airless bedroom on a July night, when the choice is stifling air or mosquitoes, perhaps both.

Larkin speaks of log cabins where the inhabitants removed the clay chinking in summer to effect ventilation. A traveler at night might come across such a cabin, where the light from a candle or fire would flicker through the cracks. "With light spilling out of every crevice, the log hut glowed from within in the darkness of the forest," he writes.

As humble as most of the homes were, they convey a sense of proportion and handmade character lacking in today's tract housing. "They have a greater integrity of style and relationship to their environment than an awful lot of things I see today," Larkin said in an interview.

Of course, you can have the best of both worlds today if you are fortunate enough to live in a period house retrofitted with plumbing, climate control and electricity.

My favorites from the book include a 1 1/2 -story clapboard cottage in North Carolina, with a steeply pitched shingle roof and tall brick chimneys on each end; a simple Cape Cod in Truro, Mass., with a high central chimney; and the Peak House in Medfield, Mass., a tiny shingle-sided house named for its high roofline.

If Larkin could go back, it would be to Monticello, he joked. But what really enthralls him are the polychromatic brick houses of the mid-18th century built in the Quaker farming community of Lower Alloways Creek in southern New Jersey. "I think they're gorgeous." And if a shoemaker shows up, tell him to call Motel 6.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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