The House - Yesterday And Today
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
A DWELLING expresses its occupant. Something of artistry, of self-expression, of beauty, is absolutely essential in man's abode. Its structure is dictated by necessity. Its more important aspects must follow dictates more deep.
A full study of the development of the home has all the elements of a liberal education. For it involves the development of mankind from the earliest beginnings, all the problems that the human race had to face in its hectic growth—all the vicissitudes accompanying aeons of groping toward enlightenment.
A chronological outline of the home's development is next to impossible. Conditions encountered are too varied to permit of that. The character of the home is dictated not alone by climate, yet that is a most important factor. Eskimo requirements obviously are not those of the South Sea Islander. Snow huts might be welcomed on the equator; they are more available in the Arctic regions. The California bungalow is ideal for California but would not do in Nova Scotia.
The earliest human abode is said to be the shelter of a tree. At its trunk, shaded by overhanging foliage, the family is supposed to have had its first home. This conception does not ring true to me. I like to think of man doing something more than squatting under leafy branches. Even from the first he must have done some tying and twisting of limbs and twigs, shown some ingenuity in getting a little more comfort and protection out of his environment than the bare tree afforded. The fact is, we do meet a very early ancestor in a structure of bound and intertwined branches and saplings, with an opening for a door, with a floor and bed of earth.
A later development of this home was a conical affair of young trees, fairly, regular in shape and pointed at the top, in appearance not unlike the Indian tepee. At the same time there was the home in the tree-tops. Where animals more savage were to be found, or frequent floods, life above the ground was desirable both for comfort and security. Serving the ends of protection likewise were dwellings in rocky caves—often man's home after some other animal had been driven out.
In a previous chapter I tried to show you early homo's efforts at artistic expression. Please consider now his natural environment. Here an instinctive love of beauty must have found gratification aplenty. Picture your forefather up there among the branches of a great oak, surveying the tree-tops about him: the pines and the birches and the spruce and the hemlock; watching traveling clouds by day and dancing stars by night; waking from sleep with the birds of the forest, filling his lungs with air nectar sweet; sipping water from the frothing cataract that leaps over rocks, listening to woodland symphonies no orchestra could emulate. Visualize the vista on which your other ancestor looked out from the rocky entrance to his cave high up in the cliff. Checkered valleys and deep woods, and silver lakes smiling in the sun; lazy clouds rambling over the hills, purple mountains melting in the far horizon. Civilization does not have all the best of it.
The tree home consisted at first of a scaffold among the branches and a thatched roof of leaves to keep off rain and sun. With time structures more imposing grew up in the air. These tree houses were common in the tropics. They are still in use in the Philippines and Central Africa. Entire villages may be seen of houses on tall tree-tops, connected by bridge-paths and reached by rough ladders. Central African tree-huts resemble bee-hives. Sometimes as many as thirty families are scattered among the branches of a single tree. This elevated community life obviously has advantages in warfare, as well as in protection against wild beasts.
The cave possessed the virtue of being a home ready built. With but one opening for lighting, ventilation and entrance, it must have been smoky, drafty and damp. Yet it served its purpose. Not infrequently our primeval ancestry was faced with a housing shortage—there were not enough natural caves to go around. Hence artificial caves, excavated underground and reached by crude ladders. Some of these may still be seen in use in Armenia, in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and in northern Labrador. Developed from the rock caves are the cliff houses of North America, which often run to several stories. In recent years there was a new cave-dwelling movement in the Loire valley of France. Many people became occupants of caves excavated in quarrying for building-stone. These folks made themselves quite comfortable. Naturally flowers and foliage adorned the outside of their abodes.
Of quite early origin is the tent. Nomads in search of new pastures and water required a home easily carried from place to place. A few stout poles for support and some animal skins for covering, and the problem was solved. Yet fantastic carvings must have adorned even the earliest tent-poles, and burnt etchings the skin cover of this portable home. In fact, it is almost impossible to conceive of a human abode without the very human effort at self-expression.
Among the Aryans we find a civilization considerably advanced. Life is more complex. A fair grade of intelligence has been reached. Communities have sprung up. There is agriculture and a bit of barter. Houses are now made of rough hewn logs. There is a roof, usually of birch bark. Also an opening for a door, squat and irregular, with a high threshold and low lintel. This opening is so constructed that one must raise his foot high and bend down low to get into the house; should an enemy attempt it, the occupant may easily do away with him. An opening in the roof serves for a window. This has advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes a projectile may find its way through the window and kill one living within. A sheltering rock, against which this house is placed, saves the labor of one wall besides affording added protection against the elements. A hollow of the rock is used for fire. Smoke is carried off through an opening in the roof and a tall wooden flue. Besides the main house there may be sheds for domesticated animals and for storage.
In climates more or less severe wood was not proof against the elements. Presently buildings are of rough stone and clay. Baked mud ushers in new comforts. The home is still one room. But we have "modern improvements." On the beaten earth floor are a few rush mats. A large earthen pot hangs over the fire, emitting pungent odors of cooking food. Civilization is stepping forth. Yet this house of but one large room is not necessarily a one-family dwelling. Humanity is not quite ready for that. There is ever-present danger against attack from neighbors, or marauding bands from afar. There is no standing army for protection, nor is there anything like a police system. Safety is in numbers, also strength for attack and plunder. The house, therefore, is a miniature community, and a fortress.
From the viewpoint of protection the pueblo dwellings of New Mexico and Arizona show marked efficiency. They are built of stone, clay and mud, either circular or rectangular in shape, and run from two to six stories in height. As many as seventy or more rooms or cells are on each story. The structure may be entered only from the top. Ladders are drawn in after those who are admitted. All windows and doors open into an inside court, also reached by ladders. Each house is a complete fort.
One of the most interesting ancestors of your cozy bungalow, love-nest or mansion, is the old Hall or Skali, common among ancient Scandinavians and in old England. A feature of this house was the roof-tree, usually a great oak, which carried the beams of the roof. Side walls were so low that parts of the roof were within easy reach of the ground. It had a thick layer of sod on which grass and weeds grew. It was not uncommon to see sheep, goats or pigs climbing up and grazing on the roof.
The Hall at first was one immense room. A built-in "long seat," running north and south, and two narrow tables comprised its furniture. A portion of the long seat raised above the rest, called the High Seat, was reserved for the master and mistress of the Hall. Another High Seat opposite was for distinguished guests. In the center of the Hall were huge flat stones. On these fires were built for heating, lighting and cooking. Straw or rush covered the floor, which added to the comfort of dogs gnawing at bones, and on cold nights of poultry or an occasional calf or colt.
The Hall's inhabitants comprised a garrison, called bird in Norse and menie in old English, of kindred or hirelings of the house-owner. In Halls of noted chiefs, barons or kings, the garrison was greatly augmented by volunteers, who joined as a mark of personal loyalty.
Picture the life in the Skali and its effect on civilization. Think of the way knowledge was passed on in the Hall, from person to person, from generation to generation. Visualize its occupants on long winter evenings seated about the fire in the vast room, as great tales are told of gods and heroes, and distant lands, and strange peoples. Here sagas had their birth, and poetry and music. Here philosophy was nurtured side by side with industry and warfare and art. Walls and ceilings gave ample space for carving or painting. Furniture, meager though it was, must needs be ornamented. The craving for self-expression had to be gratified.
Being under no obligation to follow time or clime, we will next glance at a home in ancient China. Bamboo over a foundation of stone is its construction. Outside the house are shrubs and fruit trees in orderly arrangement. Nature is molded to aid art. A porch or portico leads to a great central room, lighted and ventilated by an opening in the roof. To right and to left are side rooms with separate balconies. Beyond the central hall is a passageway leading to two small chambers in the rear, a terrace overlooking the garden on one side of the house and on the other a long low building holding the kitchen, store-room and servants' quarters.
This home shows a high degree of artistry both in construction and ornamentation, although it goes back several thousand years before the Christian Era. It is painted in lively colors, yellow and green predominating. There is considerable trellis-work of cane. A roof of sections of bamboo at varying levels is ingeniously covered with reeds—affording the utmost of shelter and beauty. About this house is evident a high degree of order and adaptability to environment. There is balance, taste, individuality. For it belongs to a race who from time immemorial have loved and lived with beauty.
We pass over Asia, across Suez and into Egypt for a view of this middle-class home of an early dynasty. It is a modest estate enclosed by a wall of unburnt brick. Rectangular in shape, the enclosure takes in the house, which occupies about one-quarter of the area, and a well-kept and thoroughly cultivated garden. At the corners of the enclosure farthest from the house are a sanitary and the provision pantry. Elsewhere along the wall but separated from the main building are a fowl-house, dovecotes and a cooking oven.
The abode proper is of stone blocks. It consists of a portico, a hall with two chambers on either side opening into the garden, and a terrace overhead reached by a flight of wooden stairs. Four poles are fixed in the walls for an awning over the central terrace. The family, gathering here to enjoy cool evening breezes, require this protection against stronger winds from the desert. Although it is of some five thousand years before our time this home is nevertheless as practical, as sensible and as artistic as many a home of today. Bear in mind that the people along the valley of the Nile had a high degree of culture. They were great builders. And they knew the meaning of symmetry, both in the things they made and in the way they lived.
We cross to the European continent and a better-class home in Athens, of the period about 500 B.C. This menage is the property of one Chremylus, a newly-rich of the time. People laughed behind his back, but when he built himself a home he knew enough to open his fat purse to the best Athenian talent. Nor was he altogether lacking in taste.
This house is of stone blocks. A narrow entrance takes us past the porter's lodge on the right and slaves' quarters at the left into an open court surrounded by porticos. In the center of this court is a small fountain and a basin for gathering rain water. Here the master of the house receives his agents or factors and transacts business. None but intimate friends of Chremylus are allowed beyond this court. Yet even this far the house is most interesting; with these fine Ionic columns of marble, wooden carvings, stucco friezes and cornices on which are painted dancers in flowing drapes.
Next to the porter's lodge at the right is the servants' kitchen, then the sanitary, followed by two sleeping rooms for the slaves. Three guest rooms across the court open onto a portico and a small garden. This alcove at the rear right is the chapel. All we have seen so far comprises about one-third of the house. We enter a wider passageway, flanked on the right by the strong-room for valuables and on the left by a private reception room and the master's chamber.
We are now in the inner court. It is much larger than the first, and is also surrounded by elaborate porticos. This long room on the right is for wines and provisions. It is followed by the small family dining room with couch accommodation for six persons. Across the court opposite are three chambers for women and children. These open onto a portico, with a lounge and a separate enclosed garden for the women. Beyond this great court you see the family kitchen, latrines, and the large dining hall which accommodates about fifteen. A wide passageway between the kitchen and banquet hall leads to the terrace, which runs across the rear of the house and by a flight of a dozen steps reaches the main gardens below.
Now pause a moment and drink in the beauty of this home of Chremylus. See the effect of row upon row of Pentelican marble columns; of the purity of wall spaces accentuated by well-placed masses of color in painted friezes or frescoes. Here you sense bigness, openness, yet with a feeling of modulation and peace. For Chremylus, in spite of lowly birth, really possessed taste as well as means. And he was able unstintingly to make his home express the best in him. He made it do all that a home should—portray a personality and an ideal.
Of great interest are the early lake-dwellings of Switzerland, South-sea Island and many other primitive homes. But to do justice to the entire subject would require many volumes, and might prove a financial hazard. Besides, in summarizing the story of taste I must not invite confusion by attempting to show too much. You will bear with me, therefore, if I go back and trace our Scandinavian—or English—Skali down to your own home today.
The old Hall saw some important changes when Olaf the Quiet ruled over Norway. About then William the Conqueror set sail for England. Norway had found Christianity and Christian modesty. "Lock-beds" came into use. These were immense built-in pieces of furniture. They held husband, wife and younger children, and could be bolted from within for safety. Next came partitions in the corner of the Hall, separate store-rooms and something of an upper sleeping loft. Entire buildings were added. There were now separate guest-houses, seething - houses for cooking, bath - houses; cot-houses, for poor relations; barns, kilns, threshing-houses, byres, stables, sheep-folds and pig-sties. An earth-house served for escape from enemies, with an underground passage leading to a concealed exit some distance off.
For storing family treasures—fine clothes, embroidered hangings, gold and silver trinkets or delicate bowls, they built the Bower. This later became the sleeping-place of the master and mistress. The kitchen was a device of the wealthy, who preferred their homes without smell of cooking. This was also known as the "fire-house." In Iceland, where a system of community insurance seems to have been in vogue, a law provided that anyone owning both a Hall and a seething-house must elect for which of the two the community shall be responsible in the event of fire.
An open hearth-fire in due course gave way to the Kakel-ofn. This aided conservation of useful forest. It also made possible an additional story in the Hall, and more rooms. During the twelfth century came the invention of the chimney. Smoke now passed completely outside the building. A real upper loft could be built. Long, low side-walls were raised. Openings for windows—in the homes of the very rich with real glass—appeared; and an outside staircase to the upper story. Then came division of space by partition walls, and division of furniture into smaller pieces. Trundle-beds for children were introduced. When not in use they could be "trundled" under the larger bed of the parents. Chairs and chests appeared.
Does it not seem strange that anything should be a novelty in one part of the world which elsewhere had been in use for thousands of years? But that is how civilization grows. Not a steady upgrade, but in vacillating waves. Occasionally a picture anything but lovely presents itself. As for instance, in the northern European town-house of this period.
Manufacturing and centralization of markets brought the growth of towns. The town-house fulfilled new requirements. Built in much the same way as its sister in the country except that its roof was thatched and its entrance made easy, it had to serve the ends of commerce. The advent of the chimney was a boon to the town. It made possible additional stories. It helped to increase population. Also, it aided congestion and greatly augmented an ever present supply of filth. Upper stories were often carried almost to the middle of the street, thus hindering circulation of fresh air and accentuating odors and disease-breeding capabilities of nasty accumulations. You may get some idea of the sanitary conditions of the time from the many cholera and other epidemics. These mowed down entire populations.
Here due credit must be given the Dutch. In the Netherlands cleanliness was an ideal, a passion. And the example set by these people must have played no small part in finally ridding Europe of its principal agency of death.
As towns grew in wealth homes assumed beauty and costliness. During the Renaissance taste and skill combined in the construction of exquisite dwellings. The town home underwent important changes in the sixteenth century. Wood was still in use, but it was accompanied by stone or brick instead of clay. Roofs of shingles, tiles or slate became common. Glass windows came into general use.
Here is a plan of an average town-house of the time. The front door opens into a large ante-room, where guests lay aside over-clothing and all weapons except sword or dagger. A door at the right leads to the work-shop. Here master, journeyman and apprentice ply their trade. This in turn opens on a sales-stall on the street. A door at the left of the ante-room leads to the family living-room, which also serves for eating and sleeping.
Used only on state occasions is the "great room." All family treasures are kept and displayed in it. The second story is for sleeping quarters. In later examples this also has the "great room." On this story an open gallery extends along the entire front of the house, where the women do their mending or embroidering in air as near pure as the town offers.
The rear of the lower story holds the kitchen, with its raised hearth and chimney. Great kettles suspended on crooks are used for cooking, and spits constantly turned before the open fire for roasting. There is also a bath-room of a sort. This, bear in mind, is on the Continent. In England baths were a novelty as late as Queen Elizabeth's time.
But streets were still unchanged. Man claimed his inalienable right to have his pigs wallow in the middle of the street, to surround his house with dirt and ref-use, to contribute his full share towards the spread of death by pestilence. Western civilization was finding difficulty with the strait-jacket of the city. Yet time brings changes. Trades moved to factories. The home was relieved of this burden, and allowed to carry on its proper functions undisturbed. Pure water was introduced. In time it came to be used for drinking as well as cleansing purposes. Underground sewers did their bit for humanity.
Such was the state of the home in Europe when the American colonist began to express himself in four walls and a roof. Following the dictates of necessity, of purse and accessibility of materials, for a long time he built in logs. Extreme simplicity is an adjunct of pioneering. Timber was in abundance. Hence the log cabin. Crevices between logs were filled in with mud. Poles covered with reeds or straw made up the roof. Clay on sticks was used for fire-places, later stone or brick.
The early seventeenth century ushers in clap-boards on half timbers, a few decorative touches of portico or gable and something of individual expression. Dutch, English and Swedish colonists were building homes along lines of their native lands with modifications to suit the new environment. For the most part simplicity was still the keynote. This was due somewhat to taste, but more to financial limitations and a scarcity of trained builders. What skill there was showed itself in lumbered finish and ornamentation. Wood was plentiful. Ship's carpenters on shore-leave made the most of it. Colonial architecture is characterized by careful detail, tasty use of moldings in doors, windows and paneling, finely worked staircases, often with carved newel posts and balusters. "The Colonial is the one type of building in our architectural history which bears the mark of a definite style." (Desmond and Croly, Stately Homes in America.)
Among English Colonial structures in America, special mention must be made of the eighteenth century Virginia home. Here was a luxurious and commodious affair, unskimped by uncertainty of purse. For the southern planter had means and slaves and a passion for hospitality. He built himself a spready two-story affair with two wings. To prove to his own ego that he could do anything which his wealthy relative in England was able to do, he built in brick which was hard to get rather than in wood which was handy. There is no need of going into details probably as familiar to you as they are to me. Suffice it to say, artistically he did a good job.
We had a Revolution. Then a war of 1812. We became a power. We acquired wealth. We spread our frontiers. We had to build, build, build. Handicraft gave way to speed. Monstrosities came on. Taste was routed by a wave of commercialism. A misplaced and misguided revival of classic models about the year 1825 brought Parthenons of wood for public buildings and Ionic and Doric temples for dwellings. French and Italian models quickly followed on the heels of the classic. Italian villas that seemed strayed from home replaced Greek mansions. Every form of the Old World was indiscriminately copied—often a variety of forms being thrown together into an architectural hash. Read this bit from one home-owner:
"I had all these ideas I gathered knocking about the world and I gave them to Willis of Philadelphia to put together for me. But he's honest enough not to claim the house. Take, for instance, that minaret business on the west. I picked that up from a mosque in Algiers. The oriel just this side is whole cloth from Haddon Hall, and the galleried porch next it from a Florentine villa. The conical capped tower I got from a French chateau, and some of the features on the south from a Buddhist temple in Japan. Only a little blending and grouping necessary. . . . Did you ever see another house like it?"
The age of monstrosity ran its course to our own day. The Twentieth Century Renaissance again brings re-discovered simplicity. This time it is in a Colonial revival. But please note this important distinction. No longer is simplicity dictated by a thin purse. We are rich as never before—richer, in fact, than any people in history. Now the deciding factor is taste, and taste only.
We want both beauty and comfort. And we get them. I need not enter into the number of baths per family, the hitherto undreamed-of electrical appliances, the tendency to luxurious roominess of living and sleeping rooms, or the great advances in heating and ventilation. We are concerned here with art in its varying manifestations, with evidences of self-expression. And in the character of the American dwelling of today is a tale to inspire and to thrill.