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Homes of the First Settlers in America

Updated on July 20, 2017
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Ancient art and architecture isn't only for historians, but for people like us who’ve always been interested in anything olden and periodic.

On setting foot in America around the mid-1600s, the main concern of the first American settlers was to have a roof over their heads and a place to keep them warm. They didn’t require modish homes and gave no thought to planning their interiors.

The early American homes were basically one room structures consisting of an open space with four walls and ‘roof’ covers that kept them safe from the elements. The open interior served multi-purpose functions - living, dining, kitchen, and sleeping. A lone fireplace served two purposes, as a heater and stove.

These first generation homes were known as log cabins, small one-storey structures with crude outlets for smoke generated from heating and cooking.

Building supplies were materials gathered around where they chose to erect their homes and were basically stones, tree branches, and majorly felled timber. The logs were laid horizontally and interlocked at the ends with notches to form a square or rectangular box-shaped home. They possessed only one door opening.

These were the first Colonial homes in America.

Eventually, when the first settlers felt a degree of security with regards to surrounding dangers of wild animals, and the uncertainties of weather, they started to develop an interest in expanding their homes while devoting more determined efforts to providing some form of comfort in their new found country.

By 1675 or thereabouts, structure types advanced to two room homes and were constructed with central fireplaces that served the two rooms. They had two openings with each opening facing one room. Chimneys were also central but with better defined apertures.

Entrance doors were positioned centrally on the longer exterior wall of the structure while window openings were created on the narrower sides of the building. By this time, some homes added upper rooms, much like attics, that were accessible through very steep stairs that lead from a tiny hallway at the entrance of the cabin.

Three quarters of a century later, many more complex home designs were introduced.

Home Designs of the Pioneers Became More Complex by 1750

By the mid-eighteenth century, four room homes followed the two room buildings. They had a central corridor/hallway that ran the full depth of the building and a single wooden staircase that led upstairs from the hallway to the rooms above. An attempt was made to fashion out a central fireplace and chimney, but the idea later proved clumsy and impractical.

Eventually, they found that a two chimney feature worked out much better and was much more effective for the new style four room buildings with each chimney serving two rooms.

Though all the early family homes were built with wood and their internal spaces divided with roughly cut wood planks (internal dividing walls), it wasn’t until the 18th century that walls made of rectangular panels were introduced and became the popular choice for building construction.

A few decades later, trims and mouldings fashioned after classical architectural forms were introduced as interior enhancements.

The interest in beautiful surroundings by the early American settlers after the 'awakening', can be aptly described as an accidental happenstance.

The earliest productions showing some semblance of style were crafted with good proportions and gradually, charming details were introduced.

New movements in European art almost always had its origin in a conscious effort to make luxury handmade products for the rich patrons of decorative arts, and for royalty. Visual appeal was supreme and was just as important as functionality.

With the advent of industrialisation, however, these design forms were fiercely copied and eventually cheapened, so that they can be affordable for the middle class who in turn eventually influenced peasant production.

What History Records Tell Us

History records would tell us that the very first settlers from England that berthed on American shores built residential structures (more like huts or wigwams) out of mud, clay, wood bark and tree branches. Roofing materials were thatch.

Even though these first structures can hardly be categorized as decorative period arts, yet it is good to make mention of the fact that they may be considered as an art in itself, something fashioned to serve a very vital necessity, as 'art is life'.

Some sources claim that it is doubtful that these first wood structures were adopted by the English settlers.

They are of the opinion that early Swede settlers who came from a country of compact log homes and settled in Delaware in 1638 might be responsible for introducing the construction methods of placing cut down rough-hewn tree logs, placing them one on the other to form one exterior wall and interlocking the logs at the corners to create the four walls of a home.

Cracks and spaces were filled with mud or clay to make the simple structure weather tight.

Building Materials Used Apart from Wood

In the Early American Period of the 17th century, practically all buildings in both Virginia and New England were constructed using wood, but around 1680, other building materials were found and incorporated into their forms.

For example, oyster shells, though not available in abundance in many regions was used for making lime to use as a form of plaster. Stone was also used to build but without mortar. However, such stone structures proved to cause excessive dampness within the interior.

With the availability of plaster, later on, only the inside part of the 3 perimeter walls was rendered to seal all cracks and present smoother looking walls. The 4th wall which was left unplastered became a characteristic feature of the interior while the internal dividing walls remained as wood planking.

© 2011 artsofthetimes


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    • artsofthetimes profile image

      artsofthetimes 6 years ago

      Thank you so much SanneL. Sorry, i have been away for a while working on some projects.

      Thanks for visiting. I'm glad you found this period of American history interesting. I love to read about the past a lot and have always loved history of arts and cultures.

      I appreciate your positive ratings.


    • SanneL profile image

      SanneL 6 years ago from Sweden

      You have written another informative and very interesting hub!

      It was fun to know that my countrymen was the ones that might be responsible for bringing the log homes into the United States.

      Hmm. . .oyster shells as plastering!? interesting!

      Those early structures may not be considered very decorative, but as you wrote- art is life- which is so true.

      Thank you for sharing this!

      Voted up and interesting.