The types of shelters constructed in early America varied widely as humans adopted styles that reflected the environment and the function of the housing as well as their ethnic affiliation and their social and economic status. Housing among North American Natives also varied widely when the English first landed in Roanoke. From multistory and multiroom buildings in the Southwest to “longhouses” in the Northeast, Indians constructed a myriad of dwellings. Many of these were uncomplicated structures that satisfied basic requirements for shelter and community assembly. In the Ohio Valley, for example, houses ranged from small, domed, single-family buildings to some more than 100 feet in length. These Native dwellings were made of saplings lashed together into frames covered with grasses or woven mats.
Similarly, most houses of the earliest colonists in the late 16th and early 17th centuries were “earthfast” structures constructed of poles driven into the ground and covered in reeds, rough boards, or “wattle and daub” mud plaster. Some were primitive cellars with sod or thatched coverings or were “wigwams,” a term describing the Algonquin house. These rudimentary one-room buildings accommodated families and their laborers while lands were cleared for cultivation.
After the middle of the 17th century, more substantial dwellings paralleled the traditional house forms of the colonists’ ethnic origins. By the third decade of the 17th century, Dutch vernacular style houses appeared throughout New York and New Jersey. These timber frame buildings, many having brick masonry facades and distinctive stepped front gables, emulated the design and interior organization of houses found in the Netherlands. In New England and the Chesapeake area, where British settlers were most numerous, the English vernacular house type dominated. These open plan, square or rectangular buildings were timber framed and covered with clapboards and shingles.
Throughout the colonies the “typical” house was a single room of approximately 350 square feet. The finish of interior space depended not only on ethnic difference but on local construction techniques, labor and material availability, and social class. Some houses had masonry chimneys, window glass, and plaster walls, while others had dirt floors, open hearths, and wooden shutters.
House construction standards varied across regions. In general, in New England dwellings were substantial and constructed of heavy timbers or masonry. In the Chesapeake area houses of all sizes were often shoddily built and had to be replaced every few years. Climate, gender imbalance, and economic considerations, as well as a pervasive psychology of impermanency, accounted for inferior home construction in Virginia and Maryland.
Class differences became acutely apparent in this region after the middle of the 17th century, when the number of bonded workers increased dramatically. Slaves were removed from planter households to dwellings that mirrored the earliest colonial shelters—small, often windowless one-room buildings. The placement of slave houses on plantations, however, approximated village settings found in their African homelands.
While the one-room house was most common in North America throughout the colonial period, two - and three-room houses also emerged. These hall-and-parlor dwellings allowed for greater separation of domestic activities, such as cooking, washing, sleeping, and receiving visitors. Such segregation of private and more public activities often defined social class and economic status. Some two - and three-room house plans were expanded to include more elaborate hearths, second stories, and appurtenant wings. Urban two-room houses frequently accommodated both domestic and commercial requirements, with the street-side parlor functioning as a shop while the back hall served as cooking and sleeping quarters.
By the beginning of the 18th century, neoclassical, or Georgian, architecture influenced the houses of urban and rural elites in the North American colonies. Georgian house designs were one - or two-story box plans with window and door openings arranged in strict symmetry. The typical “closed plan” Georgian house had an unheated central passage, or hallway, from which separate rooms were entered. Restricted access into living and work areas allowed not only greater privacy and further division of domestic functions but encouraged the creation of social hierarchies within the house and community.
Further reading: Robert Blair St. George, ed., Material Life in America 1600-1860 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988); William H. Pierson, American Buildings and Their Architects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); Leland M. Roth, A Concise History of American Architecture (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).