Thursday, March 21, 2013

"The Physical Setting" of "A Little Commonwealth"

The next few blog Posts will be on the book 

A Little Commonwealth by John Demos.

This book was one of my chosen books for my class on American Historiography. I am so happy that I chose it because John Demos really packs quite a bit of information about the houses of Pilgrims within this work. He asked questions like "Is, then, a twentieth-century sieve equivalent to a seventeenth-century one?" He also asked “Did their possessions impart prestige? Did they serve as mementos of a more genteel past or as symbols of the hope for a more ample future?” Were they simply a good financial investment?[1]

“The history of domestic architecture in Plymouth is a history of steadily growing diversity, so that by the end of the century the distance between the most humble and the most capacious houses of the colony was quite substantial.”[2]

There were three major types of houses within the Pilgrim settlement. The first type was the types that were used in the beginning, and only the earliest parts of the settlement. This was “a small crude, one-story building, without a real frame and built chiefly of wattle and daub.”[3] This was called a cottage, but was really a basic hut structure. “Its chimney was made from logs covered with clay. It possessed few, if any, windows.”[4] Regarded as a temporary type of shelter, there are none today for visiting.
(obviously this is wrong, though per Demos)

In 1623, the settlement has twenty-three houses within the second type of housing, “four or five of which are very fair and pleasant… The houses are constructed of clapboards, with gardens also enclosed behind and at the sides with clapboards, so that their houses and court-yards are arranged in very good order.”[5] They were “solid frame-type structures.”[6]

The third type, the type that I think most of us are familiar with, were “a simple story-and-a-half, single bay specifications.”[7] This type was considered low-class in England. However, because it was simple to create, and it took the heavy snows well, this became a great type of house for the colonials. “Most of the settlers achieved as individuals a fairly respectable standard of living” so they were not the poor of England, nor were they the derelicts of the society. Interestingly these houses had their clapboards placed verticly. There were very little windows, and if they did have any, they were usually made from cloth or oiled paper early on, then later there were glass. The well-off had the leaded casement windows. Because there were not very many windows, candles had to be burned within all day. I would think that the chimney may have been lit too!

I would also like to make an interesting point that I noticed. These houses were tight and closed off, and the author states that “the low ceilings and dark walls would have only have intensified the feeling of oppressiveness…. Of sunlight they had plenty, during long days at work in their fields. Of ‘fresh air’ they had likewise more than enough. Their houses seem to imply, and were meant to imply, a radical disjunction between the natural and the man-made environments. To them, Nature was no long-lost love to be courted and admired at every opportunity. To them, indeed, she frequently presented herself in the guise of antagonist, and they saw no reason to try and make place for her in their homes.”[8] This would later be the complete opposite as the Romantics brought the nature of Nature into their living spaces.

[1] 22-23.
[2] 25.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] 26.
[6] 27.
[7] Ibid.
[8] 29.

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