Housewrights Were Right

YS-3 Preston-Foster House (1690)I’ve always been fascinated with a letter that Deputy Governor Samuel Symonds wrote to his housewright, John Winthrop, in 1637. In it, he described the house that he wanted Winthrop to build for him on Argilla Road in Ipswich:

“Concerning the frame of the house…I am indifferent whether it be 30 or 35 foote long, 16 or 18 foote broad. I would have wood chimneys at each end… You may let the chimneys be all the breadth of the house if you think goode. …

…It makes noe great matter though there be no particion on the first floore; if there be, make one bigger than the other…

…For windows let them not be overlarge in any roome, and as few as conveniently may be: let all have current shutting draw-windowes, having respect both to present and future use.

 “…however the side bearers for the second story being to be leaden with corne, etc., must not be pinned on, but rather either let into the studs, or borne up with false studs and so tenanted in at the ends: I leave it to you and the carpenters. In the story over the first, I would have a particion, whether in the middest or over the particion under it, I leave it”

One of the many things that intrigue me about the letter is that there is no sign or record that the house Symonds wanted was ever built, probably because it was derived from an English type of house that had a chimney at each end – totally inappropriate to New England. The housewright, John Winthrop, already had in his mind the structure of the house that he would build.

Artisanal Architecture

New England was built by artisans.

YS-1 Howard-Emerson House 1680

In the First Period (1633 to c.1725) there were no architects who designed houses: there were only housewrights who built them. Housewrights were artisans, working members of the community: architects, if there had been any, would have been artists with specialist skills that made them stand out from the community.

Artisans had their own, traditional ways of working that preceded the desires of a client: If you wanted a chest made by Thomas Dennis (working in Ipswich 1667 till 1706), for example, you told him the size and your budget, and left the details to him. New England was built by artisans.

Historian Jack Larkin put it well: “Artisans did not work with blueprints and technical specifications but with the memory of their hands and three-dimensional, visual thinking.”

During the Great Migration, 1620-1640, between 15,000 and 20,000 people are estimated to have arrived in Massachusetts – which produced a tremendous demand for new houses. About half the immigrants were from East Anglia but the rest came from every English county (except Westmoreland.)

It is likely that most settlers wanted a house that was similar to the one they had left. No way that was going to happen: no housewright was going to copy a house from Yorkshire, then one from Devon, then one from wherever. He built the houses that he built in his own town.

So housewrights became the determining influences in the communal architecture of each settlement. Each town therefore had a slightly different “look” to it, a slightly different architectural identity.

This was not the result of different policy decisions by different housewrights. It was simply a matter of artisanal efficiency – it was quicker and more economical to build basically the same house for everyone, rather than trying to tailor each house to individual needs.

Nature had something to do with it as well. When housewrights went into the woods to cut beams, they looked for oak trees that would provide straight beams of 16 to 18 feet long and posts (or “studs”) of seven or eight feet high – because those were the dimensions that worked for everyone. And if they found good 16-foot oak trunks, not 18-foot ones, the house they were building would be 16 feet wide and 32 feet long, not 18 and 36.

The historian Richard Bushman pointed out that “Adoption of a certain vernacular style represented a commitment to one’s neighbors and the norms that the local community valued.”


Houses for a Community


The settlers came here to build a community, so they would have been receptive to the idea that relatively standardized housing acted as a community-builder. Uniformity of houses met the cultural needs of settlers from different areas of England to experience their common membership of a new community in New England.

Samuel Symonds may well have thought that he wanted a house like the late medieval one he appears to have lived in in East Anglia. It had a chimney at each end, and doors opposite each other in the front and back connected by a screened passage. Servants, dairy and work spaces were on one side of the screen, and the communal hall and family space on the other.

But I bet that good old John Winthrop shook his head as he read the letter: “Chimneys at each end! Nope, not here you don’t.” So he went ahead and built a standard Ipswich First Period house with a huge central brick chimney that warmed the whole house through the harsh New England winter. The central chimney appears to be a New England innovation, a requirement of its winters.

But Symonds was smart enough to recognize the wisdom of deferring to the local housewright. He allowed Winthrop to determine the actual size of the house, its windows, and how to place its internal walls. He will have ended up with a house like other Ipswich houses, and not an East Anglian one that would have stood out like a sore thumb. I’ll bet he was happier in his “Ipswich” house than he would have been in a reproduction of an East Anglian one. Good for John Winthrop.

YS-emailThis “artisanal architecture,” as we might call it, meant that Ipswich First Period houses ended up looking much like each other: they were for people who wanted to fit in, not stand out. Samuel Symonds, and all the settlers like him, came here to fit in with one another, and John Winthrop gave them the houses in which they could do precisely that.

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