The U.S. is a land of emigrants. Those who came first established a culture into which later groups fitted in, submerging their earlier identities back in Europe into the new amalgam Schlesinger labels “the American Creed” which he traces to its British inheritance. “For better or worse, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition was for two centuries—and in crucial respects still is—the dominant influence on American culture and society. This tradition provided the standard to which other immigrant nationalities were expected to conform, the matrix into which they would be assimilated.” [1]

The U.S. is a land of emigrants. Those who came first established a culture into which later groups fitted in, submerging their earlier identities back in Europe into the new amalgam Schlesinger labels “the American Creed” which he traces to its British inheritance. “For better or worse, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition was for two centuries—and in crucial respects still is—the dominant influence on American culture and society. This tradition provided the standard to which other immigrant nationalities were expected to conform, the matrix into which they would be assimilated.” [1]

This matrix or standard was established principally by the Puritans and Pilgrims. They considered their houses symbols of their religious world views and structured their houses accordingly. Understanding houses, therefore, requires understanding their Puritan heritage.

First, these two groups though separate were similar enough to not distinguish them here. Unlike later generations of immigrants who came as individuals, Puritans and Pilgrims came as organized bodies e.g., Pilgrims in 1620 and Puritans in 1630. Jamestown, the nation’s first settlement in 1607 failed because they recruited single men seeking riches they hoped to obtain by enslaving Indians. Their leader, John Smith realized that he had recruited the wrong type persons. Consequently, he wrote a pamphlet worded to attract religious families seeking to settle. He insured their commitment by accurately describing Massachusetts as a barren, rocky place having brutal winters in which only hard workers could succeed. [2]

They attracted ‘settlers’ who came not as individuals but as religious groups of “fit instruments who were self-controlled by their religion. They lived disciplined lives regulated by community members through surveillance and sanctions as in ‘The Crucible’ and The Scarlet Letter.’ That is why Massachusetts is called a “commonwealth’--not a state.

American Indians lived communally because hunting was a community activity. Similarly, the common threat and shared suffering the Pilgrims faced from Indians and the elements led them to emulate the Christian socialism first tried by early Christians. [Acts 2:44]. It failed those in Acts and in Massachusetts, and both places they turned to a market economy based on private property thereby insuring Christian [Western] Civilization would lead all others in economic health and wealth.

However, the Pilgrims did not go to the other extreme of unfettered individualism aka laissez-faire capitalism. Like Adam Smith [1775] they adopted moral capitalism which constrained private greed with structural protections for the common or greater good. [3]

Puritan Villages

“They carefully created an environment in which the houses and town reflected their concepts about a divinely ordained structure for family relations and social life. God saved individuals, but He did not want people to live too independently. An individual existed in a social context, in a network of relationships. No one was allowed to live alone.” [4]

The Puritan model was presented in , “The Ordering of Towns’ which specified a townscape of six concentric circles set within a square six miles to a side. [‘township’] The meeting [church] house was at the center and no one was allowed to live more than 1.5 miles away from it in order to assure regular attendance. It was also used for civic meetings and sometimes school. Home lots surrounded the meeting house and along with farm lands were assigned not chosen. Land speculation, ubiquitous elsewhere, was forbidden. People lived in community, walking out to their farms each morning and returning to homes each night..

Puritan Houses

To symbolize their religion houses were “plain” in their ‘naked simplicity’ i.e., unpainted exteriors devoid of ornamentation. The initial norm was one-room framed cottages 16 X 20 with stone or brick fireplaces. Kitchen lean-to’s were added to the back forming the familiar salt-box appearance. They had few to no windows due to their prohibitive cost and the Indian hazard. Roofs were wood shingled and sides unpainted clapboards. Though one story, they were often tall enough to include lofts for children and storage. Life centered on a seven-foot fireplace in the sitting room or parlor that provided light, heat, and was used for cooking. The parent’s bed was placed in the center of the parlor. .

The oldest existing wood frame building in New England is the Fairbanks House in Dedham, Massachusetts [1637-41]. Originally four rooms it was expanded several times as the family grew. The home of John and Priscilla Alden, passengers on the Mayflower, provides a more complete history. Historical archeologists have unearthed a 10.5 X 38 ft. cabin set on a granite foundation with a “deep cellar hole” built in 1627. In turn, it was built over an earlier

20 X 20 ft. cabin resting on wood posts driven in the ground.

The Protestant work ethic together with the resources of the area very quickly created an enduring citizenry reflected in their fine colonial mansions many of which remain today.

True to the ‘Protestant dilemma” their religious lifestyle created wealth which undermined their religious faith and secularized the Protestant work ethic into the ‘spirit of capitalism.’ “This dialectic is phrased, “The mother beget the daughter and the daughter devoured the mother.”

 

[1] Schlesinger, Arthur Jr., “The Disuniting of America,” NY: W.W. Norton, 1991, pg.28.

[2] Innes, Stephen, “Creating the Commonwealth,” NY: W.W. Norton, 1995,

[3] Bourgin, Frank, “The Great Challenge: The Myth of Laissez-Faire in the Early Republic,”

NY: Harper & Row, 1989.

[4] Wright, Gwendolyn, “Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America,”

Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981, Ch.1.