Historic House of Early America by Elise Lathrop, published in 1924.
Don’t let the yawn-worthy title of this book fool you; Historic Houses of Early America offers 464 pages – including illustrations – of fascinating reading. History seen through the doorways and along the corridors of our oldest homes. The stories abound, with references to people with names like “Auntie Burr” and a sort of overzealous interest on the part of the writer in identifying which houses belonged to patriots and which houses belonged to loyalists. She disapproves of the latter.
But this partisan interest begins to make sense when you take a moment to reflect on the fact that houses are designed to be inhabited by actual people who engage in all the things actual people do – making love, war, and everything in between. Of course the homes of these same people become central to history. And of course it makes sense that a writer, not much more than a century removed from the events of early America, would find it interesting that John Hancock couldn’t get married in his fiancee’s living room as planned (even though hand-painted French wallpaper had been imported and installed in anticipation of the wedding) because, as a patriot, he couldn’t risk being so close to Boston at the time. I’d like to see the living room of this 18th century house, both because it would make the person of John Hancock more real to me (who thinks of any of these people as real?) and because I’d love to see that wallpaper.
Which brings me to the fact that, though I’ve long been interested in historic homes, it has been more in the capacity of the decorative arts, or -to put it less grandiosely – to see how people used to arrange the furniture. I sometimes forget that houses can have a significance that transcends the color of the bedroom walls. People – and, by extension, their homes – are part of the events that conspire to form human history. I do think of public buildings in this sense, but have failed to realized that a place where everyday domestic activities occurred can be just as important to our shared past. Historic Houses of Early America will no doubt serve to broaden my limited view of this past.
As an added bonus, the book offers history just the way I like it: heavy on the anecdotes (including a few interiors-related ghost stories), short on the diagrams. Something just on this side of fiction, which is fine by me (though I have my standards; I draw the line at Oliver Stone movies).
More from Historic Houses in future posts. How could you resist a book that opens with the following inscription?
All houses wherein men have lived and died/Are haunted houses. /Through the open doors /The harmless phantoms on their errands glide /With feet that make no sound upon the floors.
The Builders – Longfellow