Posted By Brian Tomlin on March 4, 2013
This is the first of a ten part series on the “Victorian home,” a general term used to describe the types of houses and home life during the Civil War. Part one is an overview of a variety of topics relating to home life during the period. The remaining posts in the series will each take one room or area of a typical home and discuss the use, design and decoration from the mid-nineteenth century in America.
Types of Homes
American homes in the Civil War period varied tremendously. In the North, there were the pre-existing frame and brick houses, while a few Southern families lived in grand plantation houses. Out west, the prairies saw fewer log cabins and more sod houses. The development of balloon-frame housing, a technique to create pre-fabricated houses, made frame houses more affordable for working-class families. In the crowded areas of the cities, many lived in boardinghouses and makeshift shacks and shanties. Apartments were another option for the working poor in the cities of the Northeast. Apartments originated in France, and first appeared in New York and New Orleans a few years before the war.
Home ownership was less common in the nineteenth century than the twentieth century or today. Generally only upper-middle class and wealthy people owned their homes in cities. Even in rural areas like Gratz, many people rented their homes and businesses. Below is from a study done by the University of California examining rates of home ownership in seen New York counties during the 1860s. It is interesting to note that only one-third people owned thier own homes in the 1860s. In sharp contrast, in 2009 in the U.S. 69.4% of all homes were owner occupied.
The full home ownership study contains further data about the late nineteenth century.
Types of Rooms
From the grandest homes to the most modest, the same principles of organization of the house applied. The space was divided into public and private spaces. The most public spaces were used for entertaining, and in homes where the occupants could afford the dedicated space, were reserved solely for company and often took up a large percentage of the household decorating budget. Next was the room or rooms that the family actually did its daily living in; in modest homes this room would combine as a sitting room, family dining room and sometimes even the kitchen. Chambers were the bedrooms, sometimes with smaller rooms attached called dressing rooms for changing and storing clothes. This is the way houses were designed, at least. Some families were so large that rooms that were designed as living, eating or dressing rooms had to do duty as sleeping rooms. It was not uncommon for families to have up to 12 children.
People renting apartments generally had two rooms: a bedroom and a sitting room. In cases where the family ran a shop of some kind, the shop was in the front, with personal space behind and/or above the store.
Houses like the ones in town in Gratz, had a collection of outbuildings that were used to store supplies, house animals, wood, and do other chores such as cooking and laundry.
Virtually nobody had indoor plumbing (and Gratz did not get plumbing until the 1920s), so water had to be drawn from a well. The outhouse was used as a toilet and sometimes was quite a walk from the house.
Another problem was that even the wealthiest homes were not very warm in winter. No real workable central heating technology existed. Often coal or wood fireplaces or stoves were used for heating. Typically in modest homes there were not fireplaces upstairs; sometimes the stove pipe came up into room or through the wall to try to help heat the rooms; but bedrooms were cold. People had to wear heavy night clothes ans use layers of heavy blankets and quilts to stay warm.
Lighting was done by firelight, candles,, and kerosene or paraffin lamps. In rural areas there was virtually no outdoor lighting after dark. If someone was expecting a visitor or a family member to return home after dark, they would place a lighted candle in the window. People typically planned events that required night travel to coincide with the full moon.
Examples of period homes:
- The White House during the Civil War was very different from what it is like today
- Compare Lincoln’s White House with the White House of the Confederacy
- The Shields-Ethridge Farm in Georgia is a good example of a small period family farm
- The Rankin House in Ripley, Ohio was a stop on teh Underground Railroad and is a good example of a modest brick home
- Knox Cabin in Olanta, PA is a restored and authentic log cabin from the period
Interesting Articles and Resources:
- a Gettysburg area Realtor writes about the difference between the romanticism and reality of owning a Civil War era home today
- Discussion and photos of need for preservation of homes from era and what has already been lost
- Survey of nineteenth century building trades and methods