House History: Some Assembly Required

This article was written to expand upon the House History How To article at the request of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) as a Technical Leaflet. It was published by AASLH as Technical Leaflet #247 in the summer of 2009. To order a copy of this leaflet, go to:  http://www.aaslh.org/leaflets.htm

House History: Some Assembly Required

By Mary Warner

Shelter.  It is a critical part of the human survival triad, taking its place beside food and clothing.  The necessity of these items to the human experience makes them easy to overlook in terms of preservation, yet museums have managed to find ways to preserve representative examples of the food and clothing portions of the triad.  Recipe books, dishes, utensils, cast iron stoves, flour sacks, and even food in the form of canned goods have been collected.  Clothing, too, gets its due within museum holdings, being perhaps the easiest of the survival triad to save.

Shelter hasn’t fared so well.  The ubiquity of shelter, specifically the human domicile commonly known as the house, has been one factor in society’s long-term neglect of methodically collecting its history.  Another is size.  How does one go about cramming a house into a museum building without turning the house itself into a museum?  And while there might be arguments about the historical worthiness of one house over another, the fact is that all houses contain history, whether mundane or exciting.  If the thought of cramming one house into a museum brings on a fit of apoplexy, the idea of squeezing an entire community worth of houses under one roof is sure to induce a coma.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to bring or transform houses into museums in order to preserve their histories.  Representative documentation will suffice.  Unfortunately, systematic and consistent documentation has not been considered important until the last few decades, so some assembly is required in order to compile the history of most houses.  While the sources of house history may not be as obvious as examining recipe books in order to study the history of food, there are plenty of places to check.  Investigating these sources in a logical fashion will help prevent house history assembly from becoming overwhelming.

The following is written from the perspective of a house owner, who will have access to key resources, most notably, the house itself.  This process may also be adapted to research the histories of buildings other than houses.

Two Main Aspects & One Critical Piece of Information

When it comes to house history, there are two main aspects to analyze:

  1. The history of the structure
  2. The history of the owners and/or occupants

Remembering this is vital to keeping your research organized and manageable.  Naturally, there will be overlap between these aspects, as there should be, but each will involve examining different types of resources.  If you are clear about which aspect you are studying at a given time, you will be able to minimize potential distractions and your search will proceed more smoothly.

Before crawling into the crannies of house history research, you will need one critical piece of information – the address of the house or the property description.  If you are living in a city, your street address will suffice for most of your research, although there is a longer property description that is attached to your street address.  It looks something like this:  Lot 8, Block 12, Original Plat.  If you own a large piece of property within a city, one that encompasses more than one lot or block, use the description of the property on which the house sits.

If you live in a rural area, outside the geographic bounds of a city, your property description will follow the Township-Range-Section formula of the Rectangular Survey System and will look something like this:  Township 130 North, Range 31 West, Section 7.  This may be abbreviated to T130N, R31W, S7.  If you don’t own an entire Section in a particular Township and Range, the description will be narrowed further by the addition of a directional marker (N, S, E, W, NE, SE, NW, SW) and the portion of the section you own (¼,½).  There may also be a lot number associated with the property description.  For example, a more complicated rural property description might be T130N, R31W, S7 (Lot 11 & S½ of SW ¼).

The House as an Artifact

Just as museum professionals examine the artifacts in our collections for clues as to their past use, you can study your home for information on its history.  The house is, indeed, an artifact, a really big artifact.  Because of its size, a methodical investigation of this artifact is required.  There are three areas to consider:

  1. The interior
  2. The exterior
  3. The neighborhood

These may be examined in any order, but as you are making your observations, take notes about what you find, rather than leaving the details at the mercy of your memory.  You may also want to draw sketches of the floor plan, wall elevations and interesting details, or, if it is easier, take photographs.  While this may seem to be a lot of work, the photographs can do double-duty as documentation for insurance purposes in case you ever have to file a claim.  Be sure to make duplicates of your photos (print version or saved on a compact disc or flash drive) and put the copies in a safe place away from the house.

The Interior

Take a look at the inside of the house.  As you move from room to room, ask yourself these questions:

How many floors or levels are there? How many rooms are on each level and what are their uses?  What are the dimensions of each room?  (Include ceiling heights.)  What is the total square footage of each level and of the entire house?

What floor materials and wall treatments have been used in each room?  How many windows and doors are in each room?  Which walls are they on (north, south, east, west)?  For kitchens, bathrooms, and other rooms, what fixtures are included?

What utilities are in the house?  Is there a heating and/or cooling system?  If so, what kind?  What is the water source – private well or municipal system?   Is there a water heater?  How is sewage and waste water handled – through a municipal sewer system or an on-site septic system?

How is electricity supplied?  Does it come from an electric company or is it generated on-site?  If on-site, what is the source of power (solar, wind, etc.)?  Is there a fuse box or a circuit breaker panel?  How many outlets are in each room?

Is there a laundry area?  What sort of equipment is it set up to handle (i.e. gas or electric dryer, etc.)?  Are there other fixtures, such as a sink, in the laundry area?

List any special features in the house (i.e. pocket or swinging doors, hidden rooms, unusual trim or doorknobs, built-in furniture, fireplaces, a fancy staircase or a secondary staircase, stained glass windows, etc.).

Is there evidence that anything has been changed in the house?  If so, what?

The aim of these questions is to get you to pay close attention to what is going on in your house.  If you have hardwood floors and fancy trim throughout the house, it tells you something about the economic standing of the people who had the house built.  If you have hardwood floors and fancy trim on the main level of the house, but the floors upstairs are made of pine planks and the trim has no decoration, this may be a clue about the original owner’s financial means, but it also indicates that the main floor was the showplace reserved for entertaining and the upstairs was meant for the occupants only.

Similarly, wall treatments tell a story.  If your entire house, save one room, has plaster and lath walls, and that single room has 1970s-era dark paneling, you’ve got to ask why.  Wall treatments like paint color and wallpaper will help you to date interior design trends, especially if you have an opportunity to examine several layers of treatments.

In looking at utilities, each of these has a natural lifespan and has to be replaced eventually.  If you have a fuse box instead of a circuit breaker, you may be able to gauge the era of the fuse box with some research.  There might even be a label on it with the date of installation.  If your house was built before your community had electricity and the fuse box is original to the house, you’ll be able to tell when your house first had electricity.

Counting outlets per room may seem pointless, but if you have only two outlets in an entire upstairs area that contains several rooms, those two outlets are telling you that your wiring is old.  Current electrical code calls for there to be an outlet every so many feet, depending upon the type of room.  The National Electric Code was first published in 1897 and has been regularly updated since that time.1  Theoretically, you could date your electrical system quite precisely by looking at how it matches past code.

Your electrical system is not the only part of your house that was installed to code.  All of the utility systems, including the plumbing and heating, had to be constructed according to whatever the current code was, with building codes dictating how the house itself was built.  The purpose of these codes is to mitigate hazards, like fire or poor structural integrity.  Codes are updated at regular intervals by national associations, and may or may not be adopted by local municipalities.

Some of these observations about code and construction are easier to make if you’re in the middle of remodeling and have the walls stripped down to the studs.  You’ll be able to see whether the wiring is the old-fashioned knob-and-tube variety or the current Romex®-coated wiring.  It’ll become apparent whether a wall was altered in order to install pipes for plumbing.   The bones of the building, the framing, can be examined.  In an old house, any two-by-fours used for framing will actually measure a full two inches-by-four inches, whereas in new construction, a two-by-four measures 1 ¾ inch-by-3 ¾ inch.  You’ll be able to see whether balloon framing was used, wherein the framing runs from the ground floor up to the second floor without a plate between floors.

If you’re lucky enough to be living through a remodel while researching the history of your house, keep notes of the process and what you discover.  Is there anything hidden in the walls, like pennies, newspapers (check dates), or horseshoes?  Did you find a door or window that was covered over?  Is there evidence of previous remodeling endeavors?

The Exterior

Once you’ve made a thorough investigation of the interior of the house, you can do the same with the exterior.  Write down the materials used for siding, roofing, stairs, and foundation.  Note the number of windows and doors on each side of the house and their placement, shape, type, and other pertinent details. Pay particular attention to the special features of your home, such as porches, columns, towers, chimneys, decks, railings, shape of roof, porticoes, walkways or breeze-ways, decorative embellishments or brickwork, attached structures, signs of remodeling, distinctive local materials, and etc.  These may be the key to figuring out the architectural style of your house.

If you didn’t take photographs of the interior, you’ll certainly want to take exterior shots.  You can use them as a point of comparison in researching the architectural style of your house through architecture resources at your local library, history center, or on the Internet.  While photographing the house, don’t limit yourself to views of the front or “pretty” side of the house.  Take photos of every side, plus close-ups of special details and wide-angle views that show how the house is situated on the property.

The Neighborhood

Houses, no matter how remotely located, are part of a larger environment or “neighborhood,” even if the nearest neighbors are miles away.  Your house was built on this particular spot for a reason, giving significance to this place.  Take a good look around your property and its natural and built resources in order to deduce why your house is where it is.

How is the house situated on the property?  Is it near a main road?  Tucked back on the property, practically hidden?  Close to a natural feature, such as a stream?

Are there other structures on the property?  If so, where are they in relation to the house?  What are their uses?

Does it appear as though the property was used for something other than a residence, such as a farm or business?  If so, what was its alternate use?  (You may not be able to answer this by observation alone, but it may become apparent as your research stretches to other sources.)

Describe other features, either natural or built, on the property (i.e. gardens, driveways, garages, sheds, fences, swimming pools, streams, woods, fields, rock outcroppings, archaeological sites, etc.).  Is there any evidence that other structures formerly existed on the property, such as old foundations or concrete slabs?

How does your house fit within the neighborhood beyond your property?  Does it blend in or stick out?  If your house is in a city, these comparisons can reveal development patterns.  For example, if your house is constructed in a style similar to the other houses on your block, they may have all been built around the same time, or there is a strong local zoning ordinance that requires the houses in your neighborhood to follow a particular style.  The other alternative, especially if the houses are identical to each other, is that they were built as part of a planned development or as company houses for the workers of a local business.

If you have a relatively new house with vinyl siding and your neighbor to the north has a similar house, but your neighbor to the south has a brick Victorian, there’s a good chance that your property may have originally belonged to whoever used to own the Victorian; the land having been subdivided at some point.  Even the size of your lot, whether spacious or skimpy, will give you clues as to the history of your house in relation to the community.

Emotional Resonance

Now that you have examined your house as an artifact, it is time to turn your attention to the people who have been associated with your house.  Human beings are the source of a house’s emotional resonance, which is what causes us to care about the history of our homes.  Anyone with a significant connection to the house, whether the architect, contractor, plumber, owners, or occupants, will imprint his/her own history and emotional life on the house, giving it a deepening character over time.

Curiosity induced by emotional resonance will have you asking:  Who designed this house?  Who crafted it?  When was it built?  Who lived here?  What were the circumstances of their lives?  What happened in this house?

In order to answer these questions, your research needs to expand to other sources.

What You Know

When it comes to the history of the people of your house, start with what you know.  If you’ve lived in the house for any length of time, your own association with the structure has become part of its history and you can begin with that.  Don’t dismiss your family’s history with the house because you assume that history is something that happened before you took ownership.  Whatever happened yesterday is now history and, therefore, may be of importance to the task at hand.

In noting your history with the house, think about what future owners might want to know about you.  When did you and your family move in?  List everyone who lives in the household and their relationships to one another.  Who did you buy the house from?  Who owned it before you?  How much did you pay for the house?  What changes have you made to the house or property and when did you make them?

Recall special events that have taken place in the home, weddings, deaths, births, anniversaries, interesting visitors, large projects undertaken on-site (inventions created, books written, etc.).  Include dates of the events, plus pertinent details.  If you or another family member keeps a journal, you can use it to enhance your recollections.

If you have even a marginally good memory, the task of writing out your own relationship with your house could keep you busy for a long time.  Don’t feel you must write a full narrative of everything all at once.  Information can be added during the course of your research.  Even a sentence or two, as opposed to a complete essay, can be valuable to a future homeowner or researcher.

While you are reminiscing, now would be a good time to sift through your personal photo collection to see if there are any past pictures of your house.  You might not find any photos in which the house is the primary focal point.  This is not uncommon.  Typically, houses were the backdrop for snapshots of people or events.  If a significant portion of the house appears somewhere in a photo, study it closely to see if there have been any changes between then and now.  You may also find value in comparing past furnishings with what you have today.

Investigating the Abstract

In searching for the previous owners of your house, the best place to begin is with the abstract.  If you own the house you are researching, the abstract is the bound set of documents you received after you purchased the house.  The abstract should be kept in a safe place because it costs a tidy sum to replace if it is lost or destroyed.  The abstract shows all of the owners of your property, plus any legal proceedings that have taken place in regards to your property from the beginning of its recorded history.  Because it shows the history of the property, but not the structures on the property, you won’t necessarily be able to figure out when the house was built or remodeled from the document.

Rather than carry the abstract around while doing research, make notes from it, including the names you find, the types of legal transactions (i.e. mortgages, liens, etc.), and dates.  If, in perusing the abstract, details about the history of your house, like the construction date or the name of the family who originally built it, come to mind, write these down, too, because it’s time to head out into the wide world to find out more about your home, sweet home.  Remember to take your notes and photos with you.

Outside Research

There are several community resources available that include information on your house’s history.  You don’t have to explore them in any particular order, so start where you like and be prepared to revisit a resource if needed.

One resource is right underfoot and, while not “official,” could prove to be priceless – your neighbors.  Long-term residents of your neighborhood can be especially helpful in providing you with information about your house and its past occupants, but don’t discount short-term residents.  Being new to a neighborhood might make short-term residents more observant about details that long-term residents overlook.  Either way, what you uncover during conversations with the neighbors may make you thankful for their stereotypical nosiness.

There are several government resources you can use to tease out information about your house.  These include the county recorder’s office, the county assessor, the county planning and zoning office, and your city’s planning and zoning office.  A county recorder’s office, along with keeping vital records showing births, deaths, and marriages, also contains land records.  Like the abstract, these records track property ownership, not structures, but you may be able to deduce dates for construction based upon when mortgages were taken out.  The records will tell you who owned your property and how much they paid for it, but won’t give you information on renters.

The county assessor’s office is charged with evaluating property values in order to determine how much property tax has to be paid each year.  As this is the revenue upon which county and local municipalities operate, current data should be readily available.  What you’ll want to ask for is how to access archived tax assessments.  Over time, the manner of property assessments has changed, so you will likely find different information within the assessments from year to year.  Details such as construction date, remodeling dates, type of construction, materials used, square footage, and other buildings on the property may be recorded.  Construction dates won’t necessarily be correct, so you’ll want to confirm this with other sources.

County and city planning and zoning offices are in charge of issuing building and remodeling permits, which contain a description and/or drawings of what was involved with a construction project.  County offices deal with permitting for homes outside of city limits, whereas city offices issue permits for houses within city limits.  The county office may also issue septic system permits, so if you’re curious about your system’s installation, this is the place to ask.

Government planning and zoning offices have different schedules for archiving past permits, with some offices keeping them for decades and others purging them after so many years.  If there are no longer permits on file for your house, you might be able to find a discussion of building permits within the past minutes of the city council or county board.  This is tedious work, especially if you are unsure of the year of construction, so saving this as a last resort is a wise move.

What’s Available at Local Historical Organizations  

Your junket would not be complete without a visit to your area historical society or research center.  County and city historical organizations tend to collect a wide range of materials.  Knowing what to ask for will make things easier for you and the organization’s staff.  Unless you are trying to retrieve a specific piece of information, this is not going to be a one-stop shop, so plan to return from the outset.

If the area historical society caters to genealogists, there should be family information available for you to peruse.  The names you gathered from the abstract and/or county recorder’s office serve as your master research list.  The historical organization may have oral histories, family history books, journals, scrapbooks, and other miscellaneous data that mentions something about your house in relation to those who lived there.  Pedigree charts, census records, city and county directories, and phone books may help you to piece together any of the home owners’ family members.  The census records may also reveal that someone unrelated to the owner was staying in the house during a particular census.  Could this have been a renter, a boarder, a mooching friend, or is there a direct familial connection between the guest and home owner?

Local historical organizations are likely to have a collection of the area’s plat maps, typically bound in book form.  Comparing plat maps over a range of years will show you not only the past owners of your property, but neighboring land owners, as well.  It is not unusual to find close relationships between neighbors, particularly those that might have led to matrimony.

In addition to plat maps, the historical organization may have Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps™ .  These maps, produced by the Sanborn Map Company for over 12,000 cities and towns in the United States between 1867 and 1970, focus on the structures within a city and give details as to the use of buildings, their measurements, exits, number of stories, construction materials (brick, stone, iron, etc.), out buildings, and other information related to fire risk.2,3  Sanborn Map Company employees were meticulous with their drawings, so these maps show highly accurate footprints of structures, streets, and town layout.  If Sanborn maps are available for more than one year, the comparisons between them will be instructive.

With a large dollop of luck, your historical society will have documentation that is specific to your house, items such as photos of the house and/or its past owners, general architectural surveys in which your home is listed, or blueprints.  If your house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a copy of the form and supporting documents that were used to achieve the designation may be on file.  Perhaps staff of the organization or a previous owner has already compiled information on your house and it’s patiently awaiting your arrival.

While you may be tempted to focus solely on research about your house, don’t discount general history books concerning the area.  These will help put your home into the context of the larger community.  Maybe there was a local building trend or architectural style your house followed, or a particular construction material that was endemic to the community.  Perhaps one of the owners was an active leader in town and local history books are littered with his/her name.  Staff of the historical organization may know some of this information off-hand and should be happy to share it when asked.

If you weren’t able to find past records when visiting the aforementioned government offices, it behooves you to inquire about whether they have been archived at your local historical center.  Sometimes past tax assessments, minutes of the county board or city council, and similar documents have made their way to such organizations for safekeeping.

When you’ve exhausted all of the obvious house history resources within the organization, there’s one more you can turn to – the local newspaper.  This one is a long shot in terms of gleaning information about the construction of your house, but it can pay off beautifully if you have the fortitude to wade through page after page of newsprint.  While it is not currently the fashion to report on new house construction, early newspapers sometimes devoted articles to specific home construction projects, particularly if the owner was well known. Having an accurate date of construction is critical to reducing the amount of time needed for this task.

Online Resources

By this time, you might think it strange that this article has barely touched on using the Internet for house history research.  There’s a good reason for that.  While the growth of general online content continues at exponential rates, content on the hyper-local level, say, the level of an individual house in a particular community, is spotty.

The best technique for determining whether there is anything online related to your house is to cozy up to your favorite search engine and start entering terms.  Try the names of past owners and the architect, if known.  If your house is commonly referred to by a particular name, look for that.

Do a search by location, but don’t just stick to the city.  Try the county, state, or region, as well.  Government websites may have online resources, such as aerial maps or tax statements, available.  The websites of historical organizations may provide basic local history, plus something related directly to your search.  A blogger may be tracking the history of houses in your area and have information to share.  If nothing useful is apparent within the surface pages of a website, drill down through the various links to see if the juicy stuff is below.  If you’re sure a website has more information, but you can’t navigate to it, contact the site owner and ask for help.

Should building codes, construction techniques, or decorating trends interest you, enter terms such as “uniform building code history,” “wood framing,” “milk paint,” or whatever you’re curious about into a search engine and check the results.  Play around with search terms, substituting alternate, but similar words for your original term.  This may bring you different or more satisfactory results.

Along with what you discover via search engine, there are some specific house-related websites with which you should become familiar.  The National Park Service (NPS), through the U.S. Department of the Interior, has a number of valuable websites related to building preservation.  It operates the National Register of Historic Places program, which can be accessed at http://www.nps.gov/nr/.  The NPS maintains a list of links to a variety of historic preservation services at http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/preservation_links.htm, including a link to a list of each State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in the United States:  http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/shpoinventories.htm.  If you need to talk to someone about preserving your house or applying for the National Register of Historic Places, your state SHPO is the place to call.  Further, the NPS website contains a list of over forty articles from its Preservation Briefs series that discuss all manner of building preservation issues: http://www.nps.gov/history/hps/tps/briefs/presbhom.htm.

While the NPS is a unit of the federal government, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private nonprofit whose mission is also related to the preservation of historic places.  The organization can be found online at http://www.preservationnation.org/.  Its website includes a page of frequently asked questions for homeowners interested in preservation issues: http://www.preservationnation.org/resources/faq/historic-homes/.

If your house was built by a notable architect, one of the architectural archives found throughout the United States may be able to offer assistance.  The Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, part of the Columbia University Libraries, has compiled a list of architectural archives, http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/avery/da/archivesresearch.html, as has Carnegie Mellon University, http://www.library.cmu.edu/Research/ArchArch/netsites.html.

The Sanborn Map Company is still in business (http://sanborn.com/).  Rather than creating fire insurance maps by hand, the company has moved into the arena of digital mapping.  Digitized historic Sanborn maps can be found online through a subscription service called ProQuest, http://sanborn.umi.com/.  To order a subscription, contact Environmental Data Resources, Inc. (http://www.edrnet.com/sanborn.htm), which works with The Sanborn Library, LLC, to provide the maps.

Share What You’ve Assembled

Once you have finished assembling the history of your house, don’t keep it to yourself.  Share what you know.  You can do this in several ways.  Consider making two additional copies of what you’ve collected, including photographs.  Three-ring binders with sheet protectors make for inexpensive storage vehicles. Keep the original documents for your records; leave a copy in the house for future owners; and donate a copy to your local historical organization.

You can also share your house history knowledge online, thus expanding hyper-local content.  The applications available for this are virtually endless.  You can start a blog to present what you’ve learned, upload house photos to Flickr or Picasa, or make videos about remodeling projects for YouTube or Vimeo.  In addition to these venues, there is a website that was designed by the Minnesota Historical Society for sharing the history of houses and other buildings.  It’s called Placeography and is presented in a wiki format, which means that anyone can add to or edit the site.  Placeography is not limited to Minnesota.  In fact, the tagline says it is “A website about any place anywhere that anyone can edit,”4 so people the world over, including you, can contribute.  Placeography can be found at http://www.placeography.org/index.php/Main_Page.

Regardless of whether you want to dabble in house history or delve into its intricacies, there are plenty of resources to aid in your endeavor.  The history of your house merely awaits your assembly.

End Notes:

1National Fire Protection Association, “2008 National Electrical Code® Handbook dedicated to Jack Wells,” 5 February 2008, <http://www.nfpa.org/newsReleaseDetails.asp?categoryid=1734&itemId=37760> (3 March 2009)

contains history of when National Electrical Code first published

2Ristow, Walter W. and Library of Congress, “Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps,” 15 December 2003, <http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/EART/snb-intr.html> (3 March 2009).

3The Sanborn Map Company, Inc., 2002-2007, <http://sanborn.com/> (3 March 2009).

4Minnesota Historical Society, Placeography, < http://www.placeography.org/index.php/Main_Page> (6 March 2009).

 

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